All photography by Amelia Gregory unless otherwise stated.
Once upon a time I assisted a well known stylist on a shoot with Ron Arad. We went to his vast warehouse studios in Camden to take the photo for a magazine, and my abiding memory is of the courtyard in front, which was littered with the carcasses of old chairs.
Ron does chairs. This is a man who seriously, seriously loves something to sit on, so it comes as no surprise to find that the entire upper gallery of this Barbican exhibition is devoted to his many chair designs.
Fun with a rusty old typewriter as seat pad.
The Rover Chair. Image courtesy of the Barbican.
The gleaming metal version in pride of place.
Here we can trace the journey of Ron’s love from the early days – when he casually tossed aside a career in architecture to pursue dreams of product design – up until the present. At first he took a higgeldy piggeldy approach to their construction: the chair that made him famous was one constructed from the leather car seat of a Rover. In one room we discover how he adapted and changed this original concept before culminating in the final denouement: a sleek recliner in gleaming steel proudly showcased in front of a digital LED screen. For why stop at just one product when you’re onto a winner? Herein lies the essence of Ron’s career – straddling the creation of one off works of art and mainstream manufacturing with gleeful abandon.
Image courtesy of the Barbican. This was popular in trendy restaurants.
Image courtesy of the Barbican.
So what defines a Ron Arad work? Aesthetically he has messed around with all sorts of materials, especially in the early years, but if I had to pin it down to a couple of things, I would say he is principally concerned with bulk and sheen. Rotund forms bulge ominously towards the ceilings and floors of the small upper galleries, suggesting the swallowing of any daring seatee. Delicate this ain’t. Comfortable? Maybe, but we aren’t allowed to try. I particularly love a smooth red and white plastic chair, glowing like a giant boiled sweet. But I think I want to lick it rather than sit on it. Is this the reaction one should have to a chair? Semi-phallic pieces appear more sculptural than useful. Shiny metal surfaces reflect the gallery-goers like distorted mirrors, and automated rockers set the chairs in perpetual motion as directional lighting throws dramatic shadows against the encroaching walls.
If we aren’t allowed to sit in the chairs upstairs there is much fun to be had stretching out on the various seating arrangements that populate the large open downstairs gallery. Particularly with my austostitch app in hand. On the walls there are bookshelves – his famous curved Bookworm, an impressive patchwork map of America and a giant bookshelf wheel that maintains an impressively upright angle as it regularly slips down a long slope. Some of the most interesting items are the models that Ron has sent out for mass production, complete with scribbled markings.
In side rooms we discover Ron’s other projects, including some experimental lighting that plays with the direction of beams so that GOD reads WAR, and a giant disco ball. But it is in his recent return to architecture that Ron really goes to town, even if not much seems to have actually been built other than in Israel, country of his birth. The rest represents little more than extreme flights of fancy, huge brutalist monstrosities designed to house his chairs but destined to forever remain toy models.
His architectural models leave me cold. I mean, I love a bit of brutalism, but there’s a time and a place. Architecture now needs to take into account the environment.
The exhibition left me pondering when the time is right to have a retrospective. When is the work of an artist deemed of high enough calibre? Until recently Ron Arad was head of product design at the RCA and he is still very much an active designer today. This in itself makes for an interesting angle, but does he deserve such a major retrospective? I’m not convinced. At times it felt to me very much like this was the work of a one (or two or three) trick pony. Who, despite the title, likes very much to sit down.
Ron Arad: Restless is on until the 16th of May at the Barbican Art Gallery.
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