RON ARAD – CO-FOUNDER, RON ARAD ASSOCIATES

Born in Tel Aviv in 1951, educated at the Jerusalem Academy of Art and later at the Architectural Association in London, Ron Arad co-founded with Caroline Thorman the design and production studio, One Off, in 1981. In 1989, the duo went on to form Ron Arad Associates architecture and design practice. In 2008, Ron Arad Architects was established alongside.

Ever the maverick, Ron happily glides between art, architecture and design ‘without needing a passport’, in spite of the purist views of some in the art establishment. His exhibitions, such as ‘Restless’, clearly and defiantly demonstrate that an object with a function can also be art.

Gently mischievous, always challenging the accepted, impossible to pigeonhole, read on to hear how Ron used to put shivers down the spines of the bosses at the Royal College of Art, where he taught for some years. And, of course, he tells us about his trademark hats (something to do with a hole in his head, apparently).

Now, not many chairs enjoy cult status, but Ron’s first creation in 1981, the Rover Chair, does. Since then, he has gone on to design countless other showstoppers, such as the Well Transparent Chair and the Tom Vac Chair. So what’s next? We asked him about the new products he’ll be launching for top Milan-based furniture maker, Moroso, this September…

Can you give us a brief description of each of the new products (which were previewed at Milan’s Salone de Mobile last April) starting with the one inspired by a certain discarded object on a New York street?

Yes, I saw a mattress on the street, folded in a way that made me very jealous. I’ve never done anything so nice as this folded mattress, so I took a picture of it and then I went home and I manipulated it and tweaked it gradually. At first you could recognise the photograph in it and then I started fresh. The whole idea was there on the street, I just found it and turned it into a sofa.

And is that how things often happen for you – you just see something?

Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it is drawing something and seeing something – there’s no prescription, there’s no one way of…you know, sometimes you can see a traffic light changing and that can give you an idea, and then it’s very difficult to trace what the connection is between the two.

Ideas are easy, ideas are never a problem – there are many ideas. The problem is which ideas convince you to invest in them time-wise and other-wise.

Going back to the new Moroso launch, can you tell us about the other lovely sofa, The Glider?

First of all, it’s a very comfortable piece of foam that’s not quite the norm…I can’t be bothered with another sofa with a seat-back and two arms. I just wanted to manipulate the foam so it invites you and it’s a comfortable thing. And on top of that, once you sit on it you discover that it glides and sort of hovers over the floor with an invisible mechanism inside it.

It’s a heavy looking object, and the surprise is that it also rocks very gently – it hovers, it glides. Breaking expectations is a very good thing to do, but it’s even better if the expectations are broken positively. The worst thing is if something looks comfortable and it isn’t. It’s much better if something doesn’t look comfortable and then you’re surprised. This one looks comfortable and then you have to break yet another expectation and make it more comfortable, more delightful.

And the third new item – the One Skin Chair?

OK, we did the Three Skin Chair for Moroso a while ago, which was a good-looking piece. It employed veneer technologies – you can form thin plywood to be structural – but the problem with it was it had too much material.

I mean the cost of it was higher than a dining chair wanted to be, because you don’t buy one dining chair and put it on a pedestal, you buy six dining chairs around a table. And if one is slightly more expensive, six are six-times slightly more expensive. So, I thought OK, the moulds were there but let’s just take the top skin, one skin, and eliminate the others.

How did you first meet Moroso’s creative director, Patrizia Moroso? It was a long time ago, wasn’t it?

It was nearly 30 years ago. How did I meet her? I met everyone in Milan in the early 80s. I did shows outside the Fair before it became an institution. I used to come with stuff I had made in a workshop in London, but it wasn’t part of the furniture industry - it was like studio pieces I showed there. Patrizia came to one of the shows and asked me to design for her.

She was born into the family business and they did upholstery and furniture and fitted out yachts and things like that, and then her parents made a big ‘mistake’ and sent her to Bologna University and she came home more educated and cultured than them! She really started changing the company, and that’s when I met her.

I remember on my first visit to Moroso, I got funny looks from her parents – ‘what’s this guy going here?’ – and she was a young girl, changing a company, and changing it into one of the leading companies in contemporary design. She is really amazing. When I have an idea for something, especially when I’ve thought I’ve lost interest in the industry, I can call Patrizia and sure enough she’ll say, “Yes! Fantastic, let’s do it.”.

Can you give an example of that?

The Matrizia, The Mattress…we had to give a public talk in Miami, and I said to her, “Patrizia, instead of showing the audience what we did in the past, why don’t we do something else. Why don’t I show you a new project and you’ll see it for the first time with the audience, and I will hear your response to it at the same time as them.” It was a bit like reality TV! And she said, “Fantastic, why not?” and that’s exactly what we did. And you know, four months later it was ready to be shown in the Salone – the speed of that is unheard of. She’s great.

And on the subject of abandoned everyday objects, please tell us all about the car seat that launched you along a lifetime’s path of designing some truly iconic pieces of furniture’?

I went to a scrap yard. I was a young architect. After I graduated from the Architectural Association I did the right thing and got a job in a firm of architects. But it didn’t take me very long to find out I was not the kind to work for other people. And it’s very difficult to work for other people after lunch. So, one lunchtime I just didn’t come back. I went to a scrap yard as I had the idea to look for a car seat that I could convert into a domestic piece of furniture.

What made you think of that out of the blue?

I suppose I thought that there was so much invested in car seats – like recline mechanisms and upholstery - and in those days there were lots of the old luxury cars and Rover was one. There was leather and British craftsmanship (that has sort of disappeared) and I thought, “Why throw them away like that?”.

I had no idea I was going to walk out with a Rover seat. But I saw a car and I loved the seats – I loved the way they were fixed to the car in four points, and I liked the recline mechanism that was based on a torsion bar with a handle that was sprung and you chose the angle of the seat with your back – you didn’t have to turn a knob to get the right angle.

I bought the first two, and they were red. I didn’t know that was not common – I thought all of them or most of them were red – but it was very rare and now in auctions when a red one appears it’s twice the price of a black or tan one. I still have them at home, the first two.

So that’s how I got sucked into the world of furniture. I didn’t plan to be a furniture designer. If you’d told me a week before that that I was going to end up doing furniture, I would have been worried about you.

But obviously no regrets since then!

Oh, some regrets – I could have been a doctor!
Or maybe a dancer!

Looking back over everything you’ve designed over the years, which of your creations pleases you most? (You can have more than one, and it doesn’t have to be furniture.)

Very difficult to answer this question because the normal answer is ‘what’s on my drawing board now is what I like the best’. But to be fair, it’s a no-brainer. It’s the Design Museum in Holon in Israel. It was voted by the country’s biggest selling newspaper as ‘Most Loved Contemporary Building in the Country’.

It was very lucky…we did something right there…I didn’t believe anyone was going to build it. There was no client to appease or compromise with, and if you look at the first renders and drawings and you look at what you have now, it’s the same. Normally with architecture it is a journey of compromises and shortcuts.

It’s fair to say that you often take an unconventional, sometimes playful, approach to design. How would you say your current studio in Old Dairy Mews in London differs from more typical practices?

I call it a progressive kindergarten. Very chaotic; I jump from one thing to another, I’m not methodical. Luckily, I’m [able to be] the least responsible person in the place, especially compared to the architects because architecture is a funny religion – I don’t know if you know that! I’m not just rebelling against the client and the world, sometimes also against my employees.

If you close your eyes and imagine an architect’s office, well it’s not like that. But it’s not out of choice or decision or manifesto. I mean, I can’t do it any other way – that’s all I can do.

Going back, you co-founded the design and production studio, One Off, with Caroline Thorman in 1981. Why the name?

Because when I started I naively thought ‘what’s the point of doing something more than once?’. I didn’t know yet about the pleasure of mass production. I grew to learn to love that as well.

Now we have a distinction between studio pieces and design products. There is a lot of overlap between them, but different things have different destinations. So anyway, ‘One Off’ described what we did at first: one offs.

How did Caroline and you come to meet and go into business together?

When I started out in Covent Garden in 1981, I didn’t know I had to keep receipts…I didn’t know anything about invoicing…I created a mess, in other words, and needed someone to sort it out. I advertised and interviewed for someone to do it, and that was Caroline.

And what led you to start up architecture and design practice, Ron Arad Associates, later in 1989?

The mechanics of producing buildings are slightly different than producing art, and it needed a different set up. When I left architecture - well I didn’t leave, I started doing one offs - architecture came looking for me rather than the other way round. Yes, and now skyscrapers, shopping malls, and hospitals.

We hear you once said that we overestimate what design can do for the world. If you still think that, can you expand on it a little?

Well…I can defend that. Yes, I think that there are more important things than design in the world. I don’t think a good door handle guarantees a good life, nor the colours or the fabric of curtains.

But, yes, some things can improve or change your life. Recently, it’s technology - more than the design that’s serving the technology. So, the main thing about a smart phone is not what it looks like, it’s what it does – though whether it’s a good or a bad thing is a different discussion.

You were a professor of design products at the Royal College of Art from 1998 to 2009. During those years, did any students stand out to you? If so, why? And what of note have they gone on to achieve since?

Many, many, many of them – I think there’s quite a number of people from that time who are doing really well in the world. But if you want an easy example, do you know Roland Lamb? When we interviewed students for a place at the Royal College, I only looked at the rejects. The tutors selected whom they wanted to interview, and then there’s a pile of the rejects and I looked through those to see if anything had been overlooked.

I saw this portfolio of this American guy, and I understood why he wasn’t selected because he wasn’t a natural form-giver, but something in his work was amazing. Last year Roland was awarded the London Design Festival’s ‘Swarovski Emerging Talent Medal’ and employs over 50 people. He invented this wonderful keyboard called the Seaboard Grand, made of silicon – you know with a normal keyboard it’s all or nothing – but here you can hear vibrato because the keyboard is soft. Extraordinary character.

What were some of the most important concepts or philosophies you tried to impart as a teacher?

Not to try and be the new Philippe Starck, or the new whatever. It’s about ‘what are you about?’, ‘what gets you excited?’. I used to scare the director by saying, “I take perfectly employable people and in two years they become unemployable”. All these unemployable people later employ people. Like Roland Lamb. It wouldn’t have been better if he’d gone to work for Dyson. It would be the end of a creative career.

There have been many solo exhibitions of your work, including retrospectives at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Barbican in London. What’s it like having your life’s work on display?

I always try to get out of doing a retrospective that happens long after I’ve done something. So for example, ‘Restless’ was the show in Holon, and that was my way of avoiding the retrospective that I owed them.

I always try to the make the exhibition a thing in itself. If you look at pictures of the Pompidou Centre and the MOMA, although the exhibits are more or less the same, they are completely different shows in the way they appear and the way they work.

But what is it like when you walk in and realise that all this incredible work is yours?

Well sometimes you think ‘what am I doing?’ and then you see it and think ‘ah, I did something’! The most difficult thing was once when I made little films about every section where I was interviewed by the curator. Then to walk there and hear my voice afterwards? That was a bit disturbing for me. Other people enjoyed it, so they tell me.

Staying on a more personal note, what was it like moving from your native Israel to the UK? How old were you, and why the move?

I was in my early 20s and I didn’t take my things and move to England. I was sort of visiting and just stayed. And my studies at the Architectural Association were after I’d been here – I didn’t come here to study.

Being from somewhere else, being an outsider, has more influence on your work than where you’re from. The fact that you’re in a new place, new language, new world. You’ll find it’s extremely common, creative people working in a country that isn’t their native one.

Both your parents were artists. Is the fact that you are an artist/architect/designer down to nature or nurture (or both) do you think?

I don’t like talking about nature, because I think everyone should have a chance, even if the parents were not artistic or musical, to excel in whatever field they want.

I’d be silly to deny the fact that nurture is there – I grew up in a very arty house. It wasn’t even a decision to go into…I didn’t think that anything else was possible. Well, maybe when I was eight I said I want to be a vet, but that was not serious.

And looking to the future, what does it hold for you next professionally and/or personally?

A year from now, I’m looking forward to [staging] three major public installations in London. They’re all happening at the same time, and that is a lot of work but very exciting.

What might we find you up to on a free weekend?

There’s music, and games and exhibitions, and there’s food and company, and there’s some drawings and words that I didn’t find time to do in the studio. I like weekends, and I like Mondays!

And finally…it’s hard to picture you without a hat. What is it about hats and you? Do you have a favourite?

I have a big hole in my head. If you look inside, you can see all the way to my toes. Look, some people have fantastic hair, some people have some nice hats. I wish I belonged to the first group, but unfortunately I belong to the second. Do I have a favourite? Probably the one I designed for Alessi many years ago.

Gail Taylor

Images:

Img 1: Restless – Paco Gómez (Photographer) Courtesy of Ivorypress
Img 2: Matrizia Sofa
Img 3: Glider Sofa – Alessandro Paderni (Photographer)

Img 4: One Skin Chair
Img 5: Well Transparent Chair