Looking through a scrap yard in 1981, Israeli designer Ron Arad found two discarded red-leather seats from a British car, the Rover V8 2L. Back in his studio, he took them apart and anchored each one in tubular steel frames using cast iron “Kee Klamps,” a scaffolding system dating to the 1930s used for cow-milking stalls.
The result — both a crude art object and a functional piece of furniture — launched his career.
Famous today as the iconic Rover Chair, the combining of incongruous, quotidian materials won Arad star recognition when fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier purchased both prototype chairs.
On August 2, New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened America’s first major retrospective of the virtuosic Israeli-born designer’s lifework. But the experience of viewing “No Discipline” is less like seeing a museum exhibition and more like walking through a carnival funhouse.
That’s intended as a compliment.
“No Discipline” is an apt title for the MoMA show: It reflects Arad’s absolute refusal to adhere to a single discipline (and he has insisted that the phrase describes his temperament, as well). He doesn’t straddle the so-called line between art and design; he denies it exists. Sure, he is a designer, but he’s also an artist, a craftsman, a sculptor, an architect and, above all, a trickster of the highest order. (If that weren’t enough, he’s a professor at London’s Royal College of Art, too.)
Born in Tel Aviv in 1951, Arad studied at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, then at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, wwhere he settled in the 1970s and set up his own studio.
Today, Arad is among the most influential and inventive designers in the world. He experiments relentlessly with proportions, forms, techniques, materials and technology, creating interactive chandeliers, sofas made of steel, quirky bowls and vases, wall projections and time-lapse videos, chair fabrics that double as clothing and high fidelity systems — including record player, amplifier and speakers — embedded in debrislike concrete. He presides over his madcap design factory like some sort of Willy Wonka.
Arad sees no need for vocational demarcations, nor any value in naming them. High art and low art are given equal devotion. He designed the Maserati showroom headquarters in Italy, as well as places and objects as diverse as restaurants in London, an opera house lobby in Tel Aviv, the living and dining rooms of a sheik’s residence in Qatar, a flagship clothing store in Tokyo, a public sculpture in Jerusalem, a stadium in Paris, hotels in Austria and Madrid, oddball hats for Alessi and a perfume bottle for Kenzo.
But back to the MoMA funhouse: Even in the open area just outside the sixth-floor gallery, the show announces itself in dazzling fashion with multicolored carpet and two gorgeous Arad-designed sofas that invite visitors to lounge before venturing inside.
Step into the dimly lit gallery, and directly in front of you is “ Cage Sans Frontières (Cage Without Borders),” a monumental, translucent structure made of gray gauze fabric, COR-TEN and stainless steel — about 16 feet high and 126 feet long — stretching the gallery’s entire length in the shape of a Möbius strip. (Its twisted figure-eight shape calls to mind an Anish Kapoor sculpture.) Works are on sleek display, mostly resting on square cutout “shelves” of varying sizes that line both the cage’s interior and exterior walls.
The exhibition works are grouped in “families” according to concepts, forms and so on. Discovering and understanding the patterns of these groupings is one of the show’s many pleasures. See, for instance, how the “Big Easy” chair is reinterpreted six times, its iterations shown in different colors and comprising various materials including molded polyethylene, foam, steel, fiberglass, wool and polyester.
It isn’t entirely surprising that the trophylike way these strange and beautiful objects are shown is reminiscent of the displays at such high-end design stores as Kartell or Vitra; Arad has designed extensively for both. The 1986 prototype of “Well Tempered Chair,” constructed of sprung stainless steel and wing nuts, was a collaborative project with Vitra, and Arad’s first major commission. It’s a clever version of a plush armchair, minus the fabric.
Everything in the show is aggressive and flamboyant in its own way: Aggressive because it seems to be fighting against whatever it is “supposed” to be, and flamboyant because, well, Arad has no patience for subtlety. A critic once lyrically proclaimed Arad’s work to be “restless furniture,” and that’s probably the best way to describe it. In an essay in the show’s well-produced catalog, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer calls Arad an escape artist, and that sounds about right, too.
Some pieces provoke awe, while others simply make you laugh. “Bucking Bronco” resembles an abstract version of its name, as does “Thumbprint.” The “Narrow Papardelle” chair looks like pasta unfurled, a noodle of flexible woven steel. And “Looming Lloyd” is a tilted wicker chair with weighted steel clogs on the front two legs, meaning that to sit on Lloyd would be to tumble forward. This is strictly a “Do not touch” show, however, despite the strong impulse to do otherwise.
When you stand inside the massive “Cage Without Borders,” with its swooping sides, you might feel like Jonah in the belly of the whale — if the whale also had swallowed weird inanimate objects and video monitors playing on a loop. The most spectacular work in the cage’s interior, if not the entire show, is “Lolita,” a chandelier designed for Swarovski Crystal. (The piece takes its name from the opening line of Nabokov’s novel: “Lolita, light of my life….”)
In 2004, Arad was invited by Swarovski to reinvent the traditional chandelier, and he did it with a vengeance. Made with 2,100 crystals and 1,050 white LEDs, the corkscrew-shaped lamp hangs above two mirrored stainless steel chairs. The “ribbon” of the chandelier has been fitted with 31 processors that enable visitors to send text messages to the actual fixture — a feature that has delighted uncensored visitors in both Paris (where a different version of Arad’s retrospective closed in the spring) and New York. Those messages scroll down the curves of the ribbon instantly, for all to see. (The slow scrolling makes the chandelier appear to be spinning, but it isn’t.) You can send a text message to “Lolita” at 917-774-6264, stand back and admire your own wit.
A number of impressive works are shown outside the cage, too. In the cells/shelves along the exterior wall are architectural models of current and past projects, more mind-blowing chairs and video monitors, and witty small pieces such as “Squashed Vipps ”— two polished stainless steel Vipps trash cans, crushed and accordionlike. Then there’s “Notify Bag,” made of leather and polycarbonate, with a battery-powered window on the front. From moment to moment, the clear window changes to opaque, hiding or revealing a pair of bright-red high heels inside. As always with Arad, what you see is never quite what you get, and that’s the (playful) point.
Other highlights along the gallery’s perimeter include “Lo-Rez-Dolores-Tabula-Rasa,” whose lens-shaped Corian tabletop emits sound while lighting up with animated, low-resolution images. The haunting “Shadow of Time,” which resembles a misshapen tripod, projects a working clock face onto a nearby wall. And tucked into a corner are some of Arad’s “Paved With Good Intentions” tables, with bent surfaces that rise from the floor and appear to be climbing the walls.
Viewing this show, it’s obvious that Arad’s work defiantly ignores the form vs. function debate and does whatever it pleases. He once told an interviewer, “I want to design for the things themselves,” and that desire is made abundantly clear throughout the retrospective. Despite the boldness and complexity evident in “No Discipline,” and the unfathomable rigorousness of Arad’s process — anyone able to transform a Swarovski chandelier into an interactive billboard device isn’t casually fooling around — you never sense that there’s an obnoxious Julian Schnabel-sized ego fueling the work. Arad conveys generosity, sweetness, humor and a boundless, childlike sense of wonder. The things themselves are the stars of this show, and the only reasonable response is pure delight.
Carmela Ciuraru has written for a number of publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and Interview.
“Ron Arad: No Discipline” runs through October 19 at MoMA.