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RON ARAD ON FORM, STRUCTURE, TECHNOLOGY, AND MATERIALS
Interview by Manuela Lietti

Ron Arad is among the most influential designers of our time. Born in 1951 in Israel, after being trained at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem, he joined London's Architectural Association in the early 1970s. In 1981, together with long-time business partner Caroline Thorman, he opened One Off, a gallery-studio for experimental design that showed not only his work but also that of fellow freethinkers. In 1989, he founded Ron Arad Associates in London, and in 1997 began tenure of teaching product design at the Royal College of Art, London. Arad’s work stands out for its curiosity about technology and materials and for its versatile nature that allowed Arad to blur the borders between art, architecture and design by creating pieces that challenge the viewer’s perception of contemporary aesthetics.


No Discipline, installation view at Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2008. Courtesy Ron Arad Associates and Centre Pompidou, Pariso.

ML: You started within the field of architecture and then ‘shifted’ to design. What determined such a change, and with what expectations did you approach the world of design?
RA: I actually did not want to become a designer. Those days when I graduated from an architectural course in London no one was building anything, so the architecture school looked more like an art school, envisioning ideas rather than buildings. After graduating, I started to work for other architects, something that you are expected to do when you are young. I tried to work for others, but I found it extremely difficult, still nowadays I keep saying that it is more difficult to work for someone else especially after lunch. One day after lunch I didn’t go back to the office. I went to a scrap car yard, and instead of taking any car seat at random, I did a ‘car seat audition’ to select one, a Rover car seat. It was chosen because it was made of leather and because I liked the movement of the reclining mechanism, easy to fix. I built a frame out of scaffolding, and this is how the Rover Chair, the very first piece I have ever made, was created. Before this piece done in 1981, I had no idea that I wanted to become a designer. A few years ago when I exhibited this work at the Centre Pompidou, I was told that I could not touch my own chair without gloves! I realized that I made ‘something’ when I heard a couple coming out of my studio (the couple happened to be the owners of Vitra). One asked to the other, “What do you like about this chair?” “It reminds me a bit of a car seat” the other replied. At that time, I had a studio in Covent Garden, but had no idea of what I wanted to do with it. I just played with things. And so, I came up with the idea of a stereo made of concrete, the Concrete Hi-Fi. I used concrete because it was a very easy material to handle. I had no idea that years after, museums would fight to have one, and I only made ten. Without nearly knowing anything about what I was doing, I found myself to be a designer. I never thought of crossing the borders between art and design, because I never knew there were any.


No Discipline, installation view at Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2008. Courtesy Ron Arad Associates and Centre Pompidou, Paris.

ML: Your project One Off founded in 1981 in London was a platform for you and other experimental designers. Calling the lab One Off was a statement itself. As an outsider operating within the design field, how were your creations received at the beginning?
RA: I called my company One Off stressing the unique nature of each piece. Those days, I did not know yet about mass production. Some years later I made a stainless steel version of the very first Rover Chair. It is a very ambiguous piece because it prompts people to reflect on its very nature: What is it exactly? Is it a piece of design or a piece of art? Anyway, when at that time, the magazine Blueprint wrote “Ron Arad is one of the most interesting designers from London” I read it and laughed. I was thinking: “Me? A designer?” At that time the main problem was answering the question “What do you do for a living?” at parties. I graduated from the department of architecture, so when people asked me: “What do you do?” I would tell that I was trained as an architect but I was not building anything. And then, they wanted to know why I was not building buildings. The main issue was explaining not to me but to other people what I was doing. Vitra was the first company that commissioned me a piece. With Vitra, a real serious factory with a team of 2000 people, innovative machinery I did something that I had never done before: I worked on the Vitra editions, those pieces that Vitra commissions to designers like Ettore Sottsass, with no commercial constraints. When I went back to my studio in London from my Swiss trip to visit the factory, instead of using the most innovative techniques that I saw there, I did something that I could have done even without going there: The Well Tempered Chair, still one of my favorite pieces. It is fabricated out of sheets of stainless steel and the massive volumes of the classic armchair are reduced; only the pure surface of its rounded forms is left. At first glance, the cool gleam and the sharp-edged cut of the metal raise doubts whether the object can be used. But according to the people who tried it “Actually it is very comfortable.”
ML: Your work is characterized by the very challenging coexistence of the primitive aspect with the hyper-technological one. I think about the first experiments with metal, the Big Easy pieces that seem crude and elegant at the same time. How did you combine craftsmanship and technology?
RA: When I started making pieces in my studio, I did not actually know what I wanted to become and do. I experimented, and did pieces of furniture out of sheets of steel; I would find steel and bend it myself. I was creating my own mini manifesto: I modeled the pieces myself, but since I am not an artisan, my hammering technique was not perfect. So someone would sit on the piece and according to the feeling I would hammer it till my team and I were all happy with the result. The first pieces of this body of work are very rough, but then, let’s say that I got better at welding, and they became more polished. Some people say that creating a piece of furniture is like creating a piece of jewelry.


Design Museum Holon. Courtesy Ron Arad Associates and Design Museum Holon. Photo Yael Pincus

ML: In the series Voids started in the 1990s, emptiness is a strong component, not just conceptually and aesthetically but also functionally. In Eastern thought and philosophy, there is a long tradition centered on the void and its active meaning. Would you like to discuss these pieces and why you decided to focus on the void as their main guideline?
RA: Let me answer this from another perspective: “What if we balance pieces differently, what if we put the weight not where we are used to put it but somewhere else?” I am interested in applying this principle to architecture, industrial design, furniture, and sculpture. Take for example a piece of cutlery that I did for WM, or the piece Gomli, a ready-made chair in which I approached the weight experiment. When you are not sitting on it, it becomes a sculptural piece, not a functional object. But when you sit on it, it is very comfortable. AYOR (Meaning: At your own risk) is another similar piece. When not in use, the chair tips forward to become an abstract sculpture. Dipped backward, it offers its hidden seat. When the user stands up again the chair, balanced with a lead counterweight, quickly reassumes an upright position - the intent being to smack the sitter in the rear end.
ML: Another key piece that stands for design as a true form of communication, a carrier, receiver and creator of meaning is the chandelier Lolita (2004) designed for Swarovski. It overturns the aesthetics of the classical bourgeois chandelier by creating a new form of contemporary participation and interaction, even romanticism.
RA: I have always associated Swarovski with little crystal swans. Therefore, when I was approached by the company and was asked to create a chandelier I first declined the offer. Then after one year and another invitation, I accepted and came up with the idea of a chandelier made of LEDs to which people can send messages. Hidden within its 2000 or so Swarovski crystals are more than 1000 white LEDs, enabling it to double as a giant interactive pixel board. A curious story concerning this piece: When I was mounting my show at the MOMA in New York, this piece fell off the ceiling and smashed. Luckily the King of Morocco had collected one and lent it to the Museum. Exactly ten years after I created this piece, Swarovski organized the exhibition Digital Crystal at the Design Museum in London.
ML: At a certain point of your career, you went back to architecture or, since architecture and design have always been an organic unicum, you engaged more with the public dimension, in impressive projects like the Design Museum in Holon. How is your creative approach when you design a building and when you design a product, an artwork?
RA: With architecture there is no wish list, it is mainly clients that look for an architect. In art I don’t need to wait to be asked to do something. I can do what I want when I want it. Right now, for example, I am busy smashing cars for a new project. Especially in architecture there is a lot of negotiation, many presentations, you need to make a case, argue sometimes. And there are some lines that you cannot cross. You need to make sure that you don’t take on a project at any cost. Sometimes you need to realize that it is not worthy doing something if you cross certain lines. In art, you are free, but sometimes the budget is tight. Despite this fact, I always find my way.
Speaking of the Design Museum in Holon, it is located in the south of Tel Aviv and was completed about three years ago. I was asked to design a building that any city mayor would be proud of, a building to be put on a stamp. I used different layers of COR-TEN steel with varying degrees of weathering wrap around the main gallery buildings, uniting inside and outside. Holon is a city where nine months a year the climate is favorable, and so it is possible to walk freely from the inside to the outside. When EasyJet celebrated its 15th anniversary, the company chose an icon for every city EasyJet flies to and the Design Museum Holon was chosen for Tel Aviv.


Design Museum Holon. Courtesy Ron Arad Associates and Design Museum Holon. Photo Yael Pincus

ML: You seem to be quite fascinated by the impossible, by gigantic projects that challenge the viewer, and the way of approaching architecture, man and nature, by re-establishing the relationship inside-outside, man-made and natural. I am thinking about the Panoramic Restaurant at Les Diablerets on the Alps. Would you define it the most challenging project you have engaged in up to now?
RA: This project- that has not been realized- is about designing a rotating restaurant/bar at 3000 meters in the Swiss Alps. At first, I thought of building a big crystal structure, and then I shifted to something else, not the typical structure conceived for a 360-degree panorama, but the opposite, a structure that like a camera could bend the landscape. The restaurant and escalator I designed rotate as one element, with a minimal physical connection to the mountain top pivoting on a bearing sunk deep into the mountain itself. From the ski lift designed by Mario Botta, the rotating arm docks at the base station. An escalator transports the visitor to the restaurant, at which point, the breathtaking view reveals itself and the whole structure begins its rotating journey.
ML: Another challenging project is your first eyewear line pq.
RA: There are very few new ideas in the world of glasses. Now everything is retro, or sometimes even a retro of retro. I felt there was something missing. It took me two years to agree to the commission and when I did, it was with the goal of improving functionality, rather than fashion. I wanted to focus on how to free people from the tyranny of the hinge, how to free them from the tyranny of the components. Most trousers look like trousers, most sweaters look like sweaters, most glasses look like glasses. But there is room for something new as well.

This interview was realized on the occasion of Galleria illy, Beijing


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