Revered architect and industrial designer Ron Arad talks to Perspective about his unusual approach and latest collections – and how he's not trying to save the world
Ron Arad's constant experimentation with a wide range of materials – applied to buildings, jewellery, ornaments and works of art – have made him something of a star. His presentation at Business of Design Week in Hong Kong covered a career of more than 30 years; this window into his creativity proved to be one of the highlights of the event.
Perhaps his most widely known works are those made of metal, though he also works in many other materials including polyamide and glass. During his talk, Arad presented images of his chrome-steel Big Easy armchair for Moroso and the perennially popular Tom Vac chairs made of vacuum-formed aluminium. He also showed images that chronicled the challenges he encountered while producing the In Reverse exhibition of crushed cars (pictured below). It took Arad a long time to find a press big enough for the job: eventually he found one in Netherlands, and six vintage Fiats were squashed to his satisfaction. They went on display around the world, including a spell at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York City in 2015.
The exhibition was a hit, particularly with kids. "The crushed cars are like us: we start more or less the same, then look at us… we're very different after what life had done to us," he says.That philosophy is evident in his other works, including a vase collection with Italian glassmaker Venini, available in Hong Kong at the Andante lifestyle store. The highly unusual Where Are My Glasses? range has a pair of metal glasses fused into the hand-blown glass. "The nice thing is, it didn't use moulds, each one is different, you can't make the same one," says the designer. "It's similar in that you and I are similar, but we are different – I like sketching and I did a drawing for this laser-cut of metal [glasses]."
The name of this series is of course, a reference to the habit of people 'misplacing' their glasses when they are actually on their head. "Sometimes, the working title comes straight away," explains Arad. The vases are available in three-styles: The Under has the spectacles placed at the base of the head-shaped vessel, while Double Lens has two vases connected by the pair of glasses.
When Arad shared his idiosyncratic ideas with Venini at the beginning of their creative venture, the team was quick to embrace them. "It was the easiest project I've done in my career," he says.
That degree of accord is not necessarily the norm: sometimes his unusual, genre-pushing ideas elicit shock, surprise and even tears among his collaborators, as was the case with In Reverse, for which a childhood event was the inspiration: Arad saw his family's first car, a Fiat 500 'Topolino', crushed as the result of a car accident, though luckily his father survived. Later, in London, the designer acquired his own Fiat 500. For years, the vehicle was taken care of by Proietti, an Italian family business specialising in Fiat 500s. And when he told them of his The In Reverse exhibition of crushed cars car-crushing exhibition, they burst into tears. "I said to them, 'I'm not destroying them but immortalising them, like pressed flowers'." Eventually, the family warmed to the idea and readied the vehicles for their fate. "They didn't end up in some rich person's garage who drives it only on weekends to show off to friends, instead, they were in museums and galleries where more people enjoyed them," he says.
I don't think I can save the world but I can help. I think it's our duty to do something
Arad was born in Israel in 1951 and trained at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, and eventually established the One Off design and production studio in 1981 with Caroline Thorman. Later in 1989, the duo set up Ron Arad Associates. It was during the 1980s that Arad started to win popularity, particularly for his furniture pieces, such as his Rover chair (1981) that incorporated a battered Rover P6 car seat rescued from a scrapyard. Other career highlights include the award-winning Design Museum Holon in Israel. Arad has won many awards for his efforts, such as the Royal Designer for Industry in 2002 (for his work with furniture) and the London Design Medal in 2011.During Business of Design Week, Arad spoke of his habit of testing clients, such as during the ToHa (or Totzeret Haaretz compound) project in Tel Aviv, a 5ha office development in the works that is to include Israel's tallest skyscraper.
The angular building will be composed of two glass-clad towers. His early sketches for the client were unconventional – in kaleidoscopic colours, with handwritten annotations in coloured ink. "The first sketch was designed to test the client," he says, adding that his intention was to scare them slightly to see if they would go along with his approach.Arad's versatility may well have something to do with a desire for change. "Some people are very good at doing one thing again and again," he says, citing sculptor Alberto Giacometti's long and slim figurines that he produced throughout his career. "This is just the way I do it… there are different ways of being," he says.
Next up for Arad is the Holocaust Memorial in London, located near the Houses of Parliament. He and British architect David Adjaye won the 2017 competition to create the monument, having edged out some 100 proposals from top firms around the world. The project, with its striking 23 bronze fins and an underground learning centre, has been making headlines lately. Arad says that at a time when nationalistic views are becoming rampant, the project is an important reminder of the atrocities of the past, and a time to reflect upon the importance ofnot repeating history.
"I don't think I can save the world but I can help. I think it's our duty to do something," he concludes.