Combining playful forms and experiments with advanced technologies, RON ARAD (1951-) has emerged as one of the most influential designers of our time. Born in Tel Aviv, he moved to London in 1973 to study architecture and made his name in the early 1980s as a self-taught designer-maker of sculptural furniture. He now works across both design and architecture.
Consistently inventive and challenging, Ron Arad has studiously avoided categorisation by curators and critics throughout his career. He never wanted a profession as such – whether as architect, product or furniture designer – but his reputation in each of these fields is formidable; as the outsider continually questioning established practices and institutions.
Arad was born in Tel Aviv, Israel in 1951, to artist parents. After studying at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem he moved to London in 1973 to study under Peter Cook and Bernard Tschumi at the Architectural Association, and graduated in 1979. A brief spell in an architect’s office convinced him to set up his own company, One Off, in 1981 with Caroline Thorman, who has been his business partner ever since; followed by the One Off showroom in Covent Garden in 1983. In 1989, they started Ron Arad Associates in Chalk Farm, north London in the building they occupy today. From 1994 to 1999 he established the Ron Arad Studio, design and production unit in Como, Italy.
The first piece of furniture he produced was a fusion of two ready-mades – a scrap yard seat from a Rover 200 car mounted on a frame of Kee-Klamp scaffolding originally designed in the 1930s. The Rover Chair and the products that followed – including the 1983 stereo cast in concrete and 1988 beaten steel Tinker chair – captured London’s early 1980s spirit of rugged individualism and post-punk nihilism set against a backdrop of urban blight. Arad represented a generation of self-taught designer-makers who began the decade making their own work out of economic necessity and ended it as the darlings of the newly-wealthy, commanding art-market prices for one-off pieces.
A stereotype of Ron-the-strong, manfully teaching himself to weld, beat steel and forge brutal new forms from the roughest materials, prevailed until the late 1990s. The “volume” chairs like the 1988 Big Easy, made from sheets of bent and welded steel, demonstrated above all his fascination with the techniques and the visual effects of welding and polishing metal.
This evolving series of volumetric chairs began with the 1986 Well-Tempered chair. At the invitation of the Swiss furniture manufacturer, Vitra, Arad conceived a chair whose outline suggested a stuffed armchair but whose softness – or “give” – came from the naturally sprung properties of tempered steel held in tension by bolts. An experimental, upholstered version of the Big Easy was seen at the Milan Furniture Fair by the Italian upholstery specialist Moroso, which in turn commissioned upholstered versions of Arad’s steel volumes – the Soft Big Easy and Soft Little Heavy. Almost ten years later Arad returned to the cartoonish armchair form when he painted layers of pigmented polyester into a mould from a steel Big Easy to create the 1999 New Orleans.
The technical expertise of Arad’s studio is in constant state of evolution as he and his team vigorously exploit one material and process after another: from ready-mades and welded heavy metal; to extruded plastic and rapid-prototyping. Having established a team of expert metal workers in the studio, Arad went into partnership with an Italian metal fabricator in Como in 1994 to continue production of the limited edition pieces. Meanwhile his staff pursued their interest in the new frontier of rapid-prototyping and the processes of selective laser-sintering and stereolithography.
Developed by the Belgian company Materialise, these processes involve making physical models of computer drawings in order to aid the mass manufacture of industrial products. In themselves time-consuming and expensive, these techniques become cost effective in perfecting the design of components made in thousands or millions in an industry where the design, manufacture and selling of products might take place at opposite ends of the globe.
Ron Arad characteristically asks whether is it possible to exploit these hyper-computerised-manufacturing processes to create objects which are saleable in their own right. One answer is Not Made By Hand, Not Made In China, the 2000 collection of jewellery, vessels and sculpted objects whose forms are derived from handwriting rendered in three dimensions. The 2000 series of Bouncing Vases financed and sold by Galerie Mourmans in Belgium was made by fusing grains of polyamide powder through laser sintering. Clients select any single frame from a computer-generated animation of a springy vase for production by Materialise. The frame is deleted forever thereby ensuring that the piece is unique.
Alongside these exercises in uniqueness, Arad has continued to work with mainstream manufacturers to develop products for volume production. The 1993 Bookworm bookshelf for Kartell and 1997 Tom Vac chair for Vitra are just two of a decade’s worth of collaborations with these and other companies including Driade, Cassina, Alessi and Magis. Tom Vac (named for a friend, the US photographer Tom Vack) began its life as the Domus Totem, a stack of one hundred chairs commissioned by Domus magazine as an installation at the 1997 Milan Furniture Fair. Arad used the proceeds to finance the tooling required to produce a vacuum-formed aluminium stacking chair. Meanwhile glass-fibre mock-ups for Tom Vac, coloured with polyester pigment, became Pic chairs; and Vitra made injection-moulded plastic variants of the design.
Although Arad has been better known as a designer than an architect in the years since he graduated the Architectural Association, architectural projects have been continuous. Commissions for retail and restaurant interiors followed the opening of his Covent Garden and Chalk Farm studios, notably the Belgo restaurants in London 1994 and 1995, the 2001 technology floor of the Selfridges department store in London and the 2003 Y’s Store for the Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto in Tokyo. Arad’s largest built project is the 1994 Tel Aviv Opera House, for which he and his then architectural partner Alison Brooks designed a series of autonomous curvilinear structures within the foyer of a building which was the work of another architect.
Other large-scale sculptural projects, including 1999’s Wind Wand and Big Blue at Canary Wharf in London and 2003’s Evergreen! for the Roppongi Hills development in Tokyo, introduce the same spirit of technical inventiveness and intellectual confrontation as Arad’s furniture and products. Windwand, a 56-metre high mast topped with LEDs, sways and glows elegantly in response to the wind and in gentle riposte to the surrounding corporate slabs at Canary Wharf. Evergreen! challenges the supposed permanence of public art – over time, the bronze figure-of-eight trellis will be engulfed by the ivy planted within it.
Personal interaction and play remain central to Arad’s work, notably in his 2003 Upperworld plan for a luxury hotel on the roof of Battersea Power Station in London. Arad has positioned it entirely off-centre so that guests can enjoy the view of and between the iconic chimneys.
The work of Ron Arad Associates is now predominantly architectural. Two major projects are scheduled for completion in mid-2007, a new design museum for Holon, Israel and the headquarters for the domestic products manufacturer Magis in Treviso, Italy. Both employ Arad’s familiar curvilinear walls: at Holon, two rectangular blocks are linked and encircled by a ribbon-like red wall; and the Magis buildings derive from segments of a spiral curve.
Since 1997, Ron Arad has led the Design Products masters’ degree course at the Royal College of Art in London. Initially appointed Professor of Furniture and of Industrial Design, he restructured the two departments into one with eight platforms led by pairs of visiting tutors – a programme that aimed to make the two year course more interdisciplinary and pluralistic. His influence is undeniable: without turning out Arad clones, the RCA course has produced a generation of graduates whose willingness to question typologies of design, to experiment with processes and to expand boundaries owes more than a little to Professor Ron Arad.
Ron Arad has exhibited at many major museums and galleries throughout the world and his work is in many public collections including, among others, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y; Victoria & Albert Museum, London and The Vitra Design Museum, Germany.
A major retrospective of the artist's work entitled "No Discipline" was organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée national d'art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.