Ron Arad’s iPhone screen displays the image of an elongated male figure painted in earth-toned colors reminiscent of a Modigliani. It is the portrait of his father at 23 by his mother when she was 21, younger than Arad’s youngest daughter. Growing up in Israel, Arad says he had nothing to complain about. “My mother was a painter, my father was a sculptor, and I thought everyone is an artist.” He started his education at the Jerusalem Academy of Arts and later applied to the Architectural Association in London where he was accepted even though he did not present a portfolio for admission as all potential students do. Instead, he said to the admissions committee, “I don’t have a portfolio. I have a 6B pencil. What do you want me to do?”
“You are welcome to try anything you want,” he tells me on this hot summer afternoon gesturing to all the chairs/sculptures in his studio in London’s Chalk Farm. They come in rusty and shiny complexions and populate the floorlike heavy geological formations. The most acrobatic one is a fiberglass teardrop-shaped chair called Gomli (2008), loosely named after his artist friend Anthony Gormley. “Are you sure?” I ask hesitant and slightly puzzled. “Absolutely. No one died here,” he says with a candid smile. The chair works counter-intuitively and defies gravity as the head goes to the bottom part of the teardrop and the legs to the top. As I sit comfortably, he explains the physics of the chair. Bend your knees and the chair leans back, stretch and the chair returns to an upright position. “Just tell me when you want to come out,” he shouts from the other end of the room.
The Gomli’s polished design contrasts with the raw looking Afterthought. As chunky as a meteorite, it is made from some kind of unrefined metal that could be of celestial origin. “When I started, I had a workshop here and many art school refugees around me learning to weld and to cut steel. Steel is very a forgiving material; you can bend it, you can weld it, you can drill it, you can cut it, you can change your mind, you can squash it and get amazing stuff. The first pieces were very amateurish and primitive, and then the Big Easy became like a piece of jewelry, and that’s when I said uh oh! I don’t want to become an artisan, so I closed the workshop.”
The Big Easy (1988) is inviting in a dusky corner of the studio. In between its shiny ballooning arms I sit to admire a series of engravings etched on glass signed by Ai Wei Wei, David Shrigley, Cornelia Parker, Ron Arad himself and many more. All the sketches belong to the installation Last Train, commissioned by Steinmetz Diamonds and presented at the 2013 Venice Art Biennale. The invited artists created a work on an iPad with a stylus. Then a striking and mysterious device, a clenched fist that is actually a cast of Arad’s own hand, wearing a diamond ring scratched the illustration onto glass. “Everyone came to the studio to do the piece, except Ai Wei Wei. He could not come. He did this thing from his iPad, and we sat here and watched his work being done. Tim Noble and Sue Webster did a portrait of each other, blind folded. Robert Wilson did this while his taxi was waiting outside. And this is the visitors book from the show.”
Past the gallery of translucent drawings, on the floor that intentionally tilts like a skate ramp, we find one of the very first pieces that launched Arad into the world of design, the comfy Rover Chair. The success of the leather car seat of a Rover V8 2L anchored on a tubular steel frame was immediate, and the first two Rover Chairs were sold, without Arad’s knowledge, to French designer Jean Paul Gaultier. “The Rover Chair came to my home before my daughters were born, and they grew up with it, never taking too much care.” It also became the centerpiece of three major shows dedicated to Arad’s work at MOMA, the Pompidou, and the Barbican where ironically he wasn’t allowed to touch it.
The roundness of the Rover Chair contrasts with the spiky bottle rack on the wall, which is like a Marcel Duchamp readymade, only squashed like a pressed flower. “I design very functional and useful things and very un-functional and useless things.” Still there are people who like to put things in compartments. “Designers will tell you that Ron Arad is an artist and not a designer. Artists will tell you the Ron Arad is a designer not an artist. I personally subscribe to what Oscar Wilde said. ‘There are two kinds of people, charming and tedious.’ And I think there are two kinds of things, things that are exciting and interesting and things that are not. Is it art? Is it design? I don’t care.” Apparently, a bicycle with perfectly round wheels is neither exciting nor interesting, so Arad designed a fully functional one, Two Nuns, with wheels made of curved sprung steel. The title Two Nuns? “All the titles are just another layer, another element in the piece. It’s almost like people’s names. There is always something to amuse, mainly myself. Two Nuns comes from a dirty joke. Do you want to hear it?”
Arad’s cabinet of curiosities includes all kinds of objects from vases to sunglasses. He asks me to lift the tip of a hollow vase made out of an elastic material that, like a Russian nesting doll, hides within it smaller and smaller scale reproductions of the bigger object. Next to it, a magnetic fragmented pole is being designed for the courtyard of the 2016 Summer Show at the Royal Academy of Arts.” The pole will have a camera on top that, like a one-eyed Cyclops, will be a kinetic sculpture. The recordings will be shown to the public and will be broadcast live. For this year’s summer show Arad has three chair sculptures, one in Gallery IV called BTT2 made of Cor-Ten Steel resting on a piece of green turf like a giant snail, and two stainless steel chairs in the Lecture Room called Even the Odd Balls? These are partial negatives of one another. “They are identical except for the outer skin.”
I am not very good with doing what I am supposed to do. That’s why I invent different rules that I am good at.Ron Arad
In the architecture department, the atmosphere is leisurely tranquil and fans are swiveling in the hot and humid air. “Scientifically, a straight line is also a curve. It’s the shortest curve between two points,” Arad explains while showing a picture of the Design Museum Holon in Israel and indicating its sinuous Cor-Ten steel ribbon façade. In the original presentation Arad had shown the clients a gradation of colors in the patina of the Cor-Ten and then found out that he couldn’t get it. The clients, however, said, “You showed us gradation and now we want gradation.” So he went to the Milan Polytechnic, and they came up with the solution. On the worktable there are brass tubes in shades of amber, gold and auburn matching the shades of the distilled beverages in the bottles next to them. Arad was commissioned to renovate the lobby, emblematic whiskey bar, restaurant, and outdoor space of the iconic Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C. The tubes will follow the curvature of the lobby walls while the whiskey bottles will be arranged in circular columns that will reflect and refract light. Farther away a model of a sculpture for Zion Square in Jerusalem lies on a shelf. Its honeycomb canopy was inspired by a Jerusalem stone pattern. “We embedded the pattern into the sculpture.”
Despite his many architectural commissions, Arad complains about the profession. “In architecture they always tell me what the rules are. You have a client and the client has a husband or a wife and the client has neighbors and then there is a budget. So there is a lot of negotiation. In art, there is no negotiation and there shouldn’t be any. Negotiation begins after you finished the piece, not before you started it and that is the big freedom. That is why I enjoy doing both. You do what you want without asking anyone. If I want to squash cars, I will squash cars. I don’t need anyone’s approval,” he says referring to the show In reverse where he squashed Fiat 500s and turned them into magnificent industrial tableaux.
When he was a student of architecture in the first year at the AA (Architectural Association), he refused to use rulers and drawing tools despite the considerable pressure on him to do so. “So I took all my plastic tools and boiled them and used tools like that.” He remained faithful to this rule-adverse approach as a professor as well. “I managed to run my course at the Royal College of Art without ever using the word should. The word should is a suspect. Anyone that tells what should and what should not be, don’t believe them!”
The architects in the studio overlook a courtyard, where there is a shiny ping-pong table with a curved surface that reflects the overcast sky. One of the interns tells me that Arad plays every day. Today his opponent is Roberto who back in the studio was working on eyewear. Arad has designed an innovative collection of eyeglasses under the brand name pq (the spectacle shape the letters form). “I am not very good with doing what I am supposed to do. That’s why I invent different rules that I am good at. You know I am the oldest person here and I am winning ping pong, because the table is like that. Maybe on a straight table I wouldn’t be.”
London, 2015. All photos © Alexia Antsakli Vardinoyanni www.artflyer.net