by Zohra KhanMay 14, 2021
“I hate manifestos,” declares Ron Arad during our Zoom call on the eve of his 70th birthday. “As far back as I can remember I have always disliked convention and rebelled against it…” Described as a creative maverick, design daredevil, madly innovative…the Israel-born industrial designer’s offerings straddle many genres - from monuments to cars, chairs to hats and multiple things in between. “Because creativity can’t be compartmentalised,” he offers by way of explanation. “For me there never was, and there never will be any division between design and art. All these are artificial separations….” This strong multidisciplinary approach makes Arad, “the unwitting father of what we now call Design Art,” says Paola Antonelli, chief curator of his MoMA show “NO DISCIPLINE” (2009), in New York.
A prolific creative, Arad has designed for major international brands including Vitra, Kartell, Alessi, Cappellini, Swarovski and his public art works can be seen in Tokyo, London and Singapore amongst other locations. Born in a family of artists, he studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem (1971-73) and subsequently at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London (1974-79). He co-founded a design studio, One Off, in 1981 with Caroline Thorman in London, which he later transformed into Ron Arad Associates along with Carol Thorman and Asa Bruno in 2008. It was in 1981 that he also designed the now legendary Rover Chair. The recipient of several honours, he was awarded the London Design Medal in 2011 and in 2013 elected as a Royal Academician by the Royal Academy of Arts. Till 2009, he was Professor of Design Products at the Royal College of Art in London and subsequently made Professor Emeritus. In 2008, Centre Pompidou devoted a monograph to Ron Arad, titled NO DISCIPLINE, while in 2009, in an exposition with the same title, MoMA displayed memorable works over 25 years. From September 2020 till March 2021, Newlandshouse Gallery hosted RON ARAD 69, their first exhibition devoted to design by showcasing 50 “stand out” pieces by Arad encompassing his four-decade long career and in celebration of his 69th birthday.
I am convinced my lack of discipline and laziness actually makes me more prolific. – Ron Arad
Over an hour-long video chat, Arad patiently answered my many queries with his characteristic candour and wit, peppering our conversation with pandemic and lockdown experiences.
Sonal Shah (SS): Were there any triggers that led to your most successful creations?
Ron Arad (RA): If I can think of any one thing that dragged me into the world of furniture design, it is the Rover Chair. After I graduated, I attempted to work for another architect. It didn’t take me long to realise I wasn’t cut out for this. It is especially difficult to work for other people after lunch. So one afternoon post lunch I just didn’t go back. Instead I went to a scrap yard. For a long time I had this idea to make a piece of furniture from a car seat. So I bought a leather seat from an old Rover lying there. Fabricating steel frames around it, I created a chair. I was amazed at its success. If someone had told me two weeks prior that I would become a furniture designer I would have laughed in disbelief!
SS: What is your typical workday?
RA: Everyday is different. I am not methodical, always moving from one thing to another and doing many things together. I try to organise my day in my head but there are always some items that jump the queue and grab attention. I am convinced my lack of discipline and laziness actually makes me more prolific.
SS: When do you get your best ideas?
RA: All the time! Ideas are not the problem. For me the dilemma is which idea should I develop further. Unfortunately many interesting concepts just don’t see light of day. I have evolved a distinct method of deciding…. I ask myself if I saw that particular piece in a gallery would it fill me with envy? If the answer is yes, I pursue that specific design.
SS: Some of the high points in your career…
RA: Winning the United Kingdom Holocaust Memorial Design Competition in 2017, to create the memorial near the Houses of Parliament, along with David Adjaye is an immense privilege. Unfortunately the location has become contentious, and with the pandemic many things are on hold, otherwise the galleries were to be opened in Fall this year. Another is the Design Museum Holon in 2010, the first museum in Israel dedicated to design. When I conceived it, I didn’t believe they would actually build it, so I created something I fantasised about and didn’t try to please the client. My brief had been to do something that we would be proud to put on a postage stamp. I am so-so lucky to have done it. It has been voted the most loved contemporary building in the country.
SS: What new technologies will impact/disrupt the design process?
RA: Technology is a tool and has to be used as such. It is incorrect to make it into an either or situation - I embrace artisans and technology equally. It is an aid for the artisan and as new technologies develop, they assist the designer in different ways. I make a sketch of my idea, then use technology to determine how it will look. Technology helps me bring my imagination to life…
SS: Any advice to new generation of designers?
RA: Be curious. Be adventurous. There is no “one” thing that is right or wrong. People are different and diverse things work for various people. Remove the word “constraint” from your vocabulary. Do what you enjoy doing. Do what you are good at. Plunge yourself wholeheartedly in the process. No doubt, luck is a factor in success, but I believe if you are very good you will get noticed.
As we wind up our exhilarating conversation, Arad discusses how time as we knew it collapsed during the lockdown, with the pandemic making environmental concerns most urgent. He ends with a plea - “The world is not in a good place just now. All of us must do our bit to save our beautiful earth.”
Did you know? Ron Arad…
- can’t do without his pencil.
- loves the colour red.
- is afraid of boredom.
- describes his studio as a progressive kindergarten.
- subscribes to the motto: “Nothing is as good as it seems, nothing is as bad.”
- is brother of violist and composer Atar Arad.
- turned 70 on April 24, 2021.