Interview: Ron Arad
The Israeli-born, British-based maverick dominates the world of design through his mix of cutting-edge innovation and commercial success. Some of his furniture is so popular that you could be sitting on one of his chairs right now
Arad: a hater of conventions
There is something about Ron Arad which is weirdly reminiscent of Paddington Bear. Maybe it is the hat and scarf he always seems to wear along with his baggy clothes; more likely it is the sense of outsiderness. Paddington, after all, was an immigrant from Darkest Peru, and Arad settled in Britain after being brought up by bohemian parents in Israel.
That is where the comparisons end. Unlike Paddington, that most serious of bears, Arad brings an impish sense of humour and quirkiness to his work as one of the most influential designers in the world. And it is work which covers a huge range of disciplines, from architecture to furniture, from landmark buildings to mass-produced chairs and shelves found in millions of homes around the country.
He is the ultimate nonconformist and hates to be labelled. He certainly is not a punk, as he was described in the early ’80s when his first wave of edgy work began to bring him attention. “People talked about punk but I wasn’t angry at all and I wasn’t brought up on a council estate. I just dislike conventions. I have a tiny attention span and I like to do new things. I think boredom is the mother of creativity,” he says.
It is certainly true that the Ron Arad vision of the world is unique. Who else could look at a map of the USA and see a bookshelf? He did, and the completed piece will form part of a collection of new works at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in London.
“I was working on a project for a client in Rome,” he explains. “He wanted a major piece on one wall. I was working on some shelves and I thought they looked like America. So I made a map of the United States and it looked amazing, particularly Ohio and Wyoming. America is shelves — not many people know that, but they do now.”
Ideas come easily to Arad but he is dismissive when asked where the inspiration comes from. “Where do I get my ideas? That is a very Japanese question. For some reason Japanese people are fascinated about where ideas come from. In fact, ideas are the cheapest link in the chain. The question is, which idea do you give time to? Which ideas do you invest in and which ideas do you drop?”
These are questions he tackles alone, having learned at an early stage in his career that he could not work for anyone but himself — “particularly after lunch”, he quips. However, the grander the project, the more he needs to compromise, whatever his opinion of the people he is working with may be.
For example, there is the sculpture he designed for Zion Square in Jerusalem. “I wanted to do something in that square. It is a terrible place. It is where the now Prime Minister [Binyamin Netanyahu] gave a notorious speech, after which Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. It is a place where suicide bombers attempt to leave their bombs. I normally don’t like public art but I like the idea of a place into which people could enter. In Jerusalem, you are only allowed to build in Jerusalem stone. So I took a Jerusalem stone pattern and extruded it into the pattern of the sculpture.”
However, political considerations mean the project has yet to come to fruition. The Jerusalem foundation supported it and a potential donor in America came forward with almost £2 million. The design passed all the public art committees but the sculpture remains unbuilt. “The city’s mayor never said no but he never said yes. Now, there is a new mayor so we will have to wait,” he says.
Ron Arad’s United States bookshelves, on show at a London exhibition of his designs. “Perhaps it’s Obama, but America’s OK now,” he says
There is also compromise required in architecture — the discipline in which he trained in London in the early 1970s. Arad had early encouragement to follow the profession. When he was a child, his mother, an artist, would always praise her son’s natural artistic talent in a very, well, Jewish mother sort of way. “Every time I did a nice drawing she would compliment me, but she never said: ‘You’re going to be a great artist’. She would say: ‘You’re going to be a great architect.’”
Arad, however, had no plans to be an architect. In fact, he had no plans at all. Instead he found his way to London in 1973, a journey which has been erroneously put down to his desire to avoid military service. “That came from a stupid piece in The Observer,” he says. “The writer liked me a lot and wanted to protect me from his prejudice against Israelis. I said that I came here in 1973 — there was a war at the time. I don’t know why young people move from one place to another, but I found myself here. When he translated it, it came out as, ‘I left Israel to avoid a call from the army.’ It was not like that.”
The same impulsiveness which brought Arad to London also prompted him to attend an interview at the prestigious Architectural Association college, which he favoured over art schools because it seemed like more fun.
“There were very few buildings being built at this time in London so it was more about ideas. I didn’t have a portfolio and I didn’t really care if I got in or not. The first question I was asked was why I wanted to be an architect. I said: ‘I don’t — my mother wants me to be an architect.’ They asked for my portfolio and I told them: ‘I don’t have one, but I do have my pencil here.’ I was a cocky brat, but they liked my interview, maybe just to prove the point that it was a groovy place.”
Arad designed the foyer of the Tel Aviv Opera House in the 1990s. He has recently returned to architectural projects with a museum in Holon. He maintains that he never left architecture but that architecture left him. “Unlike with studio pieces you can’t just design an opera house. You have to be asked to do it. My first project was my own studio. I was lucky to have a very enlightened client — me. In architecture, there are lots of negotiations with the neighbours, the husband, the wife, the fire brigade. I’m doing a silly renovation of my balcony now — you have to deal with a lot of bureaucratic stupidity, but there’s no point getting neurotic about it.”
At the other end of what is the spectrum are Arad’s mass-produced pieces. He says that when he started designing furniture, he was “ignorant” about the joys of mass production. “When I go from my studio in Chalk Farm to my home in Belsize Park, I know about seven windows through which I can see my bookworm bookshelf. This is a piece which would get the thumbs down if it was put in front of marketing boards, for all sorts of reasons. But it was the best-selling piece for several years for an Italian company.”
This is not to say that he ignores functionality when designing furniture. He asks whether the chair I am sitting on (one of his own) is comfortable — it is. “Do you think about movement when you are when you are building a car? Do you think about light when you design a light bulb? Functionality should not be at the expense of appearance — one enhances the other.”
Arad is, it has to be said, fond of answering question with a question. His English, after 35 years in London is wonderfully eloquent, though his accent is still strong. After all this time does he still feel Israeli? “There is no chance of me ever becoming English,” he says. “You don’t become what you’re not.”
Tel Aviv, 1951.
Attended Bezazel Academy of Art, Jerusalem and, after arriving in Britain in 1973, the Architectural Association, London.
Left his job as an architect to open a studio in Covent Garden. Early notable works include the Rover chair made from a car seat, and the concrete stereo, a turntable cast in concrete. He is perhaps most famous for his flexible bookworm bookshelf. Also designed the foyer of the Tel Aviv Opera House and his first full architectural design, The Holon Museum of Design, opens in May.
Married to psychologist Alma, with whom he has two grown-up daughters, Lail and Dara. Home is Belsize Park, north London.
On his Jewish Identity:
“I don’t have much sympathy with religion. Generally, it does more harm than good: our little religion as well. At the same time there are some very enlightened things that are Jewish — everything from Bashevis Singer to Philip Roth.”
Ron Arad: New Works is at the Timothy Taylor Gallery, London W1 until May 9 (020 7409 3344)