An interview with Ron Arad is always a mildly unnerving affair

Twenty years ago, Ron Arad foresaw the demise of Rover. His prediction took the form of a chair which cannibalised the leather seat from a two-litre Rover and mounted it, with deliberate brutality, on a hulking half-moon steel frame. The Rover chair was briefly known to millions because it featured in one of those terribly style-conscious 1980s advertisements

You remember the one: stubbly loft-liver jettisons suddenly unfashionable pastel-shaded cubic foam chair from window before installing post-industrial objet trouvé to admiring gaze of black silk lingerie-clad soul mate. Punchline (quite misleading in art-historical terms, but drearily predictable as an advertising slogan): “Less is more”. Product: I can’t recall, a beer, perhaps. But that's not what matters here.

The advertisement showed how we British were prepared to indulge the presence in our midst of a rebellious avant-garde in design. Intentionally or not, these designers quickly became a kind of official opposition to the norm of nice, if rather puritanical, modern housewares bought from Habitat and then Ikea. A surprising number of them, including the Israeli-born Arad, the American Danny Lane and others, were from overseas, and chose, to local puzzlement, to make London their home at a time when the city was far from the creative hothouse it is today.

It's all very different now. These two tribes have interbred. Another of these enfants terribles, Tom Dixon, is now the design director at Habitat. A few years ago, Lane created the new glass gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum; now Arad, best known now as the designer of the Belgo chain of restaurants, has a retrospective there.

An interview with Arad is always a mildly unnerving affair. My last was held with the two of us sitting side by side in a crumpled steel settle—what the Americans would call a love-seat—of his own design. This time we’re in his equally intimate Fiat Cinquecento nipping through the North London traffic between his studio in Chalk Farm and a plastics workshop in Holloway. Prepared questions go out the window. Then he starts to interview me, completely blowing his cool at one point by asking me what school I went to. There is something slightly wrong with his transmission. Several times, I ask him about his teaching role at the Royal College of Art, where as a recently appointed professor (another establishment foothold), he has caused a minor earthquake by merging the departments of furniture design—all semiotics and signature pieces—and industrial design—staid anonymity and mass-production. He says he wants to see all the departments—they range from textiles to vehicle design—so fused. Belatedly, he sees the opportunity to do his professorial duty and push the good works of his students. Arad has been accused of hungry self-promotion, of denying his collaborators their due, of pushing himself to the fore. It has been noticed, for example, that he was more in evidence on the recent television series about the college than he tends to be in its studios. But his air of disengagement suggests that these aberrations may be no more than the unintended consequence of life under the spotlight.

Arad only really gets going when we discuss his prospects of getting a design for a house built in this country. Arad’s major architectural project to date is the interior of the new Tel Aviv opera house. It is a sculptural intervention, rich in colour, material and textural contrasts, luxurious in the way that opera houses demand, but fluid in form to soften the formality of the environment, for example with a wall-cum-bench made of row upon row of bronze tubing bent along suitable contours. It makes you wish he had done the whole building, which is by another architect in the expected sub-Lincoln Center style.

But in Britain, his innovative design for a house to replace an existing vaguely Arts and Crafts building on one of the expensive residential streets that run off Hampstead Lane in London met with disaster. It would have been the perfect chance to honour a true original in his adopted land. But the project—comprising two overlapping curved shells like a broken egg—was scotched by the objections of the man across the street. His name? John Seifert. His profession? Architect.

So what is it that he has found congenial about London, a city where there is so little manufacturing and where his buildings are vetoed? His clients are Italian, his collectors German, the Centre Pompidou pipped the V&A in hosting the first big exhibition of his work. It is the creative milieu which works here. Arad is friendly with some of the BritArt pack, naming Cornelia Parker and Rachel Whiteread among those he admires. The V&A show was opened by Antony Gormley. His role is as their propmaster, one stage less subversive than they are. “Somebody has to design the cows before they can be cut in two. We design the cows,” he says. For cows, read tables, chairs, lamps. The piece that sits most comfortably in this no-man’s-land between art and design is a Beuysian concrete stereo set. The speakers are concrete for good acoustic reasons. But to finish the turntable and amplifier in the same rough, crumbled material was pure willfulness exerted over a product of a kind normally finely finished in metal and which would, in the normal course of things, duly become an the object of fetishism among hi-fi buffs. Perhaps he made a wider comment too, in 1983, the year of nuclear winter and Reagan’s “star wars” defence initiative.

It is clear from looking at it that Arad’s work connects with the world of art more than with his designer peers. More pertinent to an understanding of his output than Alessi, Starck or Sottsass are Boccioni, Dubuffet and Miró (there are explicit references to the surrealist’s paintings in the Tel Aviv building). It would be tedious to debate whether Arad is primarily an artist or a designer: some of his pieces are never manufactured, others are. Some things costs hundreds, others have five-figure price tags. Suffice it to say that he has collectors as much as consumers.

He is a technological innovator, too, for example with the Aerial Light of 1981, which extends under robotic control with the assistance of a telescopic car aerial, or the Transformer, a kind a beanbag from which you can suck the air with a vacuum cleaner to produce an infinite range of rigid shapes, freezing in the shape of your own body contours. He can develop a craftsman’s understanding of individual materials, yet produce effects no traditional craftsman ever dreamed of, for example using tempered steel and nothing else, folding the unsympathetic industrial raw material into huge baroque loops to make surprisingly workable chairs.

There is startling functional ingenuity. For an Italian manufacturer, Arad has designed an ingenious table with six folding chairs that pull out from the side of the smooth tabletop slab. “Bob Wilson [the artist noted for his reflecting pool of oil at the Saatchi Gallery] said: ‘this is like theatre. It’s better than anything I can do.’ But he was drunk.” A folding carbon-fibre chair for another manufacturer will be the thinnest possible design; they will stack “like Pringles”.

The flow of ideas is unabated. One project shows a vase made out of a single coiled strip of some clever plastic like a Slinky. The animated drawing bounces like Tigger; the idea is that the actual objects are made by feeding the data from one frozen frame of the animation to a computer-compatible laser-scanning process which forms the shape from raw resin or powder. No two pieces need be quite the same, even though Arad has used the latest technology of mass-production. Arad’s point is that it is not the manner of their making but of their consumption that determines the meaning of things. Another product, also designed on the computer, was made “artificially rare” simply by destroying the computer file on which its data was held. But that was not enough. “It was necessary to sell it to make it rare.”

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