His offbeat designs have featured on TV and in music videos. The man himself is full of intriguing contradictions

To get into the designer Ron Arad’s studio in North London you brush past something that looks like a warped ping pong table. Perhaps it has been chucked out and left to clutter the little yard. It has a low barrier running across the centre and you might call this a net if it weren’t made of stainless steel. As is the entire table, or rather “piece” as it should be called since it is one of an edition of 20 that sell internationally for tens of thousands of pounds. This man’s world is all over the place, and is about to become the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at the Barbican.

It is worth lingering a moment longer at the table, as the work turns out to be a useful index of its maker. It may look as anti-rational as a piece of Dada, but it is nothing of the sort. The upward gradients of the surface slow the ball down and prolong the rallies. It is a sting-removing device for smashes. He is a table-tennis nut and this suits his game. Meanwhile the shiny curves offer the running distraction of reflected surroundings and a weirdly distorted opponent. One keen player who took him on says it was among the most frustrating experiences of his life.

Inside, Arad remembers the time when the distinguished British sculptor Sir Anthony Caro saw the exhibit at the Royal Academy and, after studying it for a while, said: “Hmm. You could play table tennis on it.” And this was said without irony? “Oh yes,” Arad says, convulsed with delight. “He didn’t know I had already played on it.”

It is easy to see why the episode pleases him. His whole life seems to have been a happy collision of work and play. The things that surround him confirm the impression: coils of industrial materials transfigured into lamps and bookshelves; metal sheeting wing-nutted into the shape of a drawing-room sofa, christened the Well-Tempered Chair and marketed by the contemporary furniture company Vitra; extravagant armchairs that have adorned the Big Brother house. If he has a hallmark, it is the marriage of the preposterous and the practical.

Arad, who is now 58, has been famous for nearly 30 years. Determined categorisers have had him down at different times as an artist, a designer and an architect, but have now given up trying to put him into pigeon holes. He doesn’t fit, and he never did. One year he is developing his Misfits modular seating system for Moroso, the next he is designing a concrete opera house for his native city, Tel Aviv. His massive sofas adorned the first Big Brother house, and Michael Jackson sat in his Big Easy model for the Scream video. Then he produces The Big Blue, his big circular sculpture for Canada Square Park at Canary Wharf, East London. “He is somewhere between all of them,” says Lydia Yee, curator of the Barbican exhibition. “An unstoppable force in world design” is how Kate Bush, its head of art galleries, describes him.

He grew up in a liberal, artistic family in Tel Aviv and studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. His parents met in art school. His mother died five years ago and his father, now 93, still collaborates with her by incorporating her images into his work. “He will Photoshop them and send me the results,” Arad says. “He gets very upset if I don’t respond.” The old man’s good opinion remains important to him. He frequently uses the word “spoilt” when talking of the family’s relationships. He himself was “a spoilt brat” who now, with his brother, spoils the father back with the help of their own children. Meanwhile, he remains spoilt by the affection of his Israeli-born wife Alma, a psychologist, and their two daughters in their Victorian home not far from the studio. The younger of these is a 17-year-old schoolgirl called Dara — the surname in reverse. The other, Lail, is a gifted singer and songwriter of 26.

Arad gained attention as a young man when he started up a gallery in Covent Garden called One Off. This referred to the individuality of the work, but could as well have described its owner. He was eccentric but hard-working, bracketed misleadingly with the punks of the day because of the rawness of his materials. All these years later he maintains that he would never have got anywhere with architecture if he had not quit the profession early on.

When he says he walked away from it, he means it literally, one day after lunch. He had finished his studies at the Architectural Association and was working for a firm in Hampstead. “I said f*** it and left.” The reason was that he couldn’t stand working for other people. There was also the sense that unless you struck out alone you were never going to get the chance to translate your grand ideals into bricks and mortar, let alone more progressive materials.

Then came his break, and the work with which his name is still most frequently connected. It consisted of an old Rover 200 car seat that he had found in a scrapyard in Chalk Farm, round the corner from his present studio. He attached this to a curved metal frame taken from a 1930s milking parlour and with his customary forthrightness christened the result Rover Chair. He made two of them and had them on view at One Off. A couple came in and, a little like Caro and the ping pong table, said that it reminded them of a car seat.

Then a man turned up, said he wanted six, and was prepared to pay £99 for each, about three times what they had cost to make. It was not until Arad looked at the name on the cheque that he realised that his customer was Jean Paul Gaultier, the fashion designer. The publicity made him a star in the still-sober world of design. Seventeen years later Jeremy Clarkson was sitting on a Rover Chair to present Top Gear.

Last year, when they were on display in a retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Arad found himself being asked by a curator to wear white gloves when handling them. His role model Marcel Duchamp, the father of the “ready-made” exhibit who had become famous for presenting a urinal as art 1917, would have been amused.

“Early on, I had a difficult time trying to tell people what I did,” Arad says with a mischievous look in his eyes. “I think I said something like, ‘I studied architecture but I don’t know what I am doing now’. For some reason I never liked conventions. I was never good with them. Maybe the whole thing for me is about not being good at the things I am supposed to do. I was supposed to do homework as a child, but with me it was always a matter of inventing other ways, getting away with not doing it. Finding my own strategies, yes.

“I think I probably upset Sir Christopher Grayling [the former rector of the Royal College of Art, where Arad has taught furniture and industrial design] when I told him my aim was to take perfectly employable people and render them unemployable within two years. For me the whole thing is about being bugged by an idea and then working on it. Whether that idea is the Rover Chair, the Bookworm or the . . .” He looks around him and along the PVC-roofed studio that he designed here a quarter of a century ago on the premises of an old factory.

On the table is a new range of curved cutlery with heads and handles that always stand clear of the surface so that they are easier to pick up; beyond that the model of of his controversial plan for Amiga House in Hampstead with its structure of interlocking shells. The built environment would benefit from the abolition of planning regulations, he says, still smarting from the rejection of that application. Farther along is Reinventing the Wheel, the plastic-and-aluminium storage unit that rides along in its circular casing. He calls the place a progressive kindergarten and says that the idea for many of these things came to him in an instant. The playful culture that he tries to impart in the studio has a purpose which is as practical as his products — that is, to keep the possibility of such instants alive.

Strange that such a sceptic of authority’s structures should wind up with 20 employees, production units in Italy and the Netherlands and applicants from the colleges banging at his door. What has gone wrong? He laughs and points across the studio to the crucial figure of Caroline Thorman, who has been his business partner from the start. Even she cannot put a figure on the annual turnover of the company, but says that the profits are put straight into the development of the next projects. “That chair you are sitting on,” he says (it is a butterfly-winged bowl of bright plastic), “is made by Vitra. There are now 17 factories in China that make copies of it. And there are no royalties from copies. To a great extent we live on successful industrial products, but of course, if they start copying you, then you have to start worrying.” He smiles at the paradox, and even removes his trademark hat to scratch his head and reveal a shining dome He’s a sort of rock star of the visual media, one of the privately confident ones rather than a braggart. There are elements of Sixties rebel, Seventies progressive, Eighties punk; disaffected Blairite; millennial veteran. He even cites Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen among his major influences, but he’s also crazy about that very English subculture of acoustic musicians such as Bert Jansch and John Renbourn.

As he says himself, he has lived in England for nearly two thirds of his life. “Of course, one never becomes English,” he says. “If someone goes to America at the tender age of 21, then they speak American after a while. They subscribe. But when you come here, what do you become? A Cockney? You have to choose. I may have become British [he has dual nationality], but not English. That’s not technically possible. What accent do I choose? Who am I? I can’t even say Hol-borne properly.”

Such a life is a masterclass in how to be here, very present and very public, and yet remain proudly unassimilated. Perhaps that was the whole idea.

Read the article on Times Online

Ron Arad: a rock star and his thrones

His offbeat designs have featured on TV and in music videos. The man himself is full of intriguing contradictions

To get into the designer Ron Arad’s studio in North London you brush past something that looks like a warped ping pong table. Perhaps it has been chucked out and left to clutter the little yard. It has a low barrier running across the centre and you might call this a net if it weren’t made of stainless steel. As is the entire table, or rather “piece” as it should be called since it is one of an edition of 20 that sell internationally for tens of thousands of pounds. This man’s world is all over the place, and is about to become the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at the Barbican.

It is worth lingering a moment longer at the table, as the work turns out to be a useful index of its maker. It may look as anti-rational as a piece of Dada, but it is nothing of the sort. The upward gradients of the surface slow the ball down and prolong the rallies. It is a sting-removing device for smashes. He is a table-tennis nut and this suits his game. Meanwhile the shiny curves offer the running distraction of reflected surroundings and a weirdly distorted opponent. One keen player who took him on says it was among the most frustrating experiences of his life.

Inside, Arad remembers the time when the distinguished British sculptor Sir Anthony Caro saw the exhibit at the Royal Academy and, after studying it for a while, said: “Hmm. You could play table tennis on it.” And this was said without irony? “Oh yes,” Arad says, convulsed with delight. “He didn’t know I had already played on it.”

It is easy to see why the episode pleases him. His whole life seems to have been a happy collision of work and play. The things that surround him confirm the impression: coils of industrial materials transfigured into lamps and bookshelves; metal sheeting wing-nutted into the shape of a drawing-room sofa, christened the Well-Tempered Chair and marketed by the contemporary furniture company Vitra; extravagant armchairs that have adorned the Big Brother house. If he has a hallmark, it is the marriage of the preposterous and the practical.

Arad, who is now 58, has been famous for nearly 30 years. Determined categorisers have had him down at different times as an artist, a designer and an architect, but have now given up trying to put him into pigeon holes. He doesn’t fit, and he never did. One year he is developing his Misfits modular seating system for Moroso, the next he is designing a concrete opera house for his native city, Tel Aviv. His massive sofas adorned the first Big Brother house, and Michael Jackson sat in his Big Easy model for the Scream video. Then he produces The Big Blue, his big circular sculpture for Canada Square Park at Canary Wharf, East London. “He is somewhere between all of them,” says Lydia Yee, curator of the Barbican exhibition. “An unstoppable force in world design” is how Kate Bush, its head of art galleries, describes him.

He grew up in a liberal, artistic family in Tel Aviv and studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. His parents met in art school. His mother died five years ago and his father, now 93, still collaborates with her by incorporating her images into his work. “He will Photoshop them and send me the results,” Arad says. “He gets very upset if I don’t respond.” The old man’s good opinion remains important to him. He frequently uses the word “spoilt” when talking of the family’s relationships. He himself was “a spoilt brat” who now, with his brother, spoils the father back with the help of their own children. Meanwhile, he remains spoilt by the affection of his Israeli-born wife Alma, a psychologist, and their two daughters in their Victorian home not far from the studio. The younger of these is a 17-year-old schoolgirl called Dara — the surname in reverse. The other, Lail, is a gifted singer and songwriter of 26.

Arad gained attention as a young man when he started up a gallery in Covent Garden called One Off. This referred to the individuality of the work, but could as well have described its owner. He was eccentric but hard-working, bracketed misleadingly with the punks of the day because of the rawness of his materials. All these years later he maintains that he would never have got anywhere with architecture if he had not quit the profession early on.

When he says he walked away from it, he means it literally, one day after lunch. He had finished his studies at the Architectural Association and was working for a firm in Hampstead. “I said f*** it and left.” The reason was that he couldn’t stand working for other people. There was also the sense that unless you struck out alone you were never going to get the chance to translate your grand ideals into bricks and mortar, let alone more progressive materials.

Then came his break, and the work with which his name is still most frequently connected. It consisted of an old Rover 200 car seat that he had found in a scrapyard in Chalk Farm, round the corner from his present studio. He attached this to a curved metal frame taken from a 1930s milking parlour and with his customary forthrightness christened the result Rover Chair. He made two of them and had them on view at One Off. A couple came in and, a little like Caro and the ping pong table, said that it reminded them of a car seat.

Then a man turned up, said he wanted six, and was prepared to pay £99 for each, about three times what they had cost to make. It was not until Arad looked at the name on the cheque that he realised that his customer was Jean Paul Gaultier, the fashion designer. The publicity made him a star in the still-sober world of design. Seventeen years later Jeremy Clarkson was sitting on a Rover Chair to present Top Gear.

Last year, when they were on display in a retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Arad found himself being asked by a curator to wear white gloves when handling them. His role model Marcel Duchamp, the father of the “ready-made” exhibit who had become famous for presenting a urinal as art 1917, would have been amused.

“Early on, I had a difficult time trying to tell people what I did,” Arad says with a mischievous look in his eyes. “I think I said something like, ‘I studied architecture but I don’t know what I am doing now’. For some reason I never liked conventions. I was never good with them. Maybe the whole thing for me is about not being good at the things I am supposed to do. I was supposed to do homework as a child, but with me it was always a matter of inventing other ways, getting away with not doing it. Finding my own strategies, yes.

“I think I probably upset Sir Christopher Grayling [the former rector of the Royal College of Art, where Arad has taught furniture and industrial design] when I told him my aim was to take perfectly employable people and render them unemployable within two years. For me the whole thing is about being bugged by an idea and then working on it. Whether that idea is the Rover Chair, the Bookworm or the . . .” He looks around him and along the PVC-roofed studio that he designed here a quarter of a century ago on the premises of an old factory.

On the table is a new range of curved cutlery with heads and handles that always stand clear of the surface so that they are easier to pick up; beyond that the model of of his controversial plan for Amiga House in Hampstead with its structure of interlocking shells. The built environment would benefit from the abolition of planning regulations, he says, still smarting from the rejection of that application. Farther along is Reinventing the Wheel, the plastic-and-aluminium storage unit that rides along in its circular casing. He calls the place a progressive kindergarten and says that the idea for many of these things came to him in an instant. The playful culture that he tries to impart in the studio has a purpose which is as practical as his products — that is, to keep the possibility of such instants alive.

Strange that such a sceptic of authority’s structures should wind up with 20 employees, production units in Italy and the Netherlands and applicants from the colleges banging at his door. What has gone wrong? He laughs and points across the studio to the crucial figure of Caroline Thorman, who has been his business partner from the start. Even she cannot put a figure on the annual turnover of the company, but says that the profits are put straight into the development of the next projects. “That chair you are sitting on,” he says (it is a butterfly-winged bowl of bright plastic), “is made by Vitra. There are now 17 factories in China that make copies of it. And there are no royalties from copies. To a great extent we live on successful industrial products, but of course, if they start copying you, then you have to start worrying.” He smiles at the paradox, and even removes his trademark hat to scratch his head and reveal a shining dome He’s a sort of rock star of the visual media, one of the privately confident ones rather than a braggart. There are elements of Sixties rebel, Seventies progressive, Eighties punk; disaffected Blairite; millennial veteran. He even cites Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen among his major influences, but he’s also crazy about that very English subculture of acoustic musicians such as Bert Jansch and John Renbourn.

As he says himself, he has lived in England for nearly two thirds of his life. “Of course, one never becomes English,” he says. “If someone goes to America at the tender age of 21, then they speak American after a while. They subscribe. But when you come here, what do you become? A Cockney? You have to choose. I may have become British [he has dual nationality], but not English. That’s not technically possible. What accent do I choose? Who am I? I can’t even say Hol-borne properly.”

Such a life is a masterclass in how to be here, very present and very public, and yet remain proudly unassimilated. Perhaps that was the whole idea.

Read the article on Times Online

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