Climbing the fire escape that leads to Ron Arad's London studio, I'm unsure whether I'm at the right place. The twisting iron gate, tucked underneath an ambling wisteria tree that’s somehow growing through the sidewalk, certainly fits the bill. Another set of metal doors lacking signage seems plausible enough, so I take the plunge into darkness. When my eyes adjust, I’m surrounded by glass panels, an undulating wooden floor, and an army of very uncommon chairs.
It’s disorienting to see iconic design objects like Rover (1981) outside their requisite museum and catalogue contexts. Casually scattered around the darkened workspace are the familiar welded and bolted metal works defining Arad’s practice, each as curving and supple as a human body. I’m so captivated by the metallic Swiss cheese-shaped duo, Even the Oddballs (1989), that I hardly notice a figure brush past the wall of silicon rods separating the lobby from the rest of Arad's studio.
office with irregular ceiling
Arad is a perpetually-stubbled man in his mid-60s with mischievous brown eyes and a knowing smirk; the day we meet, he's dressed in his signature button-up and hat. We forgo introductions as he asks me wryly if I like his glass drawings. Before I can answer, he’s scampered off again.
Suddenly, the blank panes transform into a collage of glowing etchings: rough, often figural compositions that bear the sketchy hand of David Shrigley and Antony Gormley, among other art stars. Arad invited them to spend a morning or afternoon in his studio, sketching on a tablet while a machinated metal cast of Arad’s fist (the middle finger blinged out with a diamond X ring) scratched their linework into a pane of glass in real time. "The idea was inspired when I missed the last train … or something like that. Honestly, it’s just bullshit," Arad says nonchalantly of the project. The Israeli designer has reached a sort of legendary status that eclipses his own reputation. He can actually make up origin stories for his idiosyncratic inventions as he sees fit, and nobody seems to mind.
We head deeper into the studio. Pushing aside the silicone strings (a relic from Curtain Call in 2016, in which Arad transformed nearby venue the Roundhouse into a 360˚-degree outdoor movie theatear and event space by wrapping it Christo-style), I almost trip on the bulbous wooden floor, which creates a foot-tall drop-off seemingly there for no other reason than to literally trip up its visitors. Spilling across two floors, the studio—an old piano factory that Arad has occupied since the late '80s—is a labyrinthine series of rooms filled with papers, prototypes, and iconic design pieces.
A sequence of curved metal and glass flanks the right side of the studio like gills, while the rib-cage-like ceiling is broken up with metal beams above a latticed lemon-yellow cladding. It's very steampunk, but more Burning Man than monocles and top hats (I suspect Arad has forbidden his 20-person team from wearing hats, so as to preserve his iconic look). On the left, a procession of iconic chair models follows the curve of a built-in balcony that takes its cues from Bookworm (1993).
Bookshelves and their contents are a continued area of interest for Arad. He has just completed a bespoke library for a client in West London that strongly resembles a cast metal redux of the Bat Cave. Before I have a chance to ask about the subterranean look, Arad brings over a bust of Albert Einstein. It turns out to be a prototype of the world’s first 3D-printed book, which Arad has designed in collaboration with the Einstein Legacy Project to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Theory of General Relativity.
"I am interested in designing the first of anything," Arad explains coolly as a video of the printed Einstein bust floats in a space capsule. Through the window, one can see Earth: a bluish blob in the midst of a swirling black backdrop. "We printed the book at the International Space Station," he adds without flinching. As with so many of Arad's fantastical stories, it’s impossible to tell where real ends and fiction starts.
We then dive into the lower level, where the studio's architects have been relegated. Four young architects cluster around twice as many computers, working on the ToHA Towers in Tel Aviv that are scheduled for completion in December 2018. We look at a concept sketch done by Arad for the security gates—complete with curves that would give Zaha Hadid a run for her money. I touch a nerve by asking after the origins of the digital tablet sketch. "It’s not digital, why would you call it a digital drawing?" Arad immediately demands. An awkward silence follows, before an architect steps in: "Do you mean digital as in drawn on a digital surface, instead of on pen and paper?" I nod to what sounds like a rhetorical question.
Arad’s relationship with technology is complicated. He takes this moment to emphasize, as he has with many others, that technology is "just another tool" in his arsenal. Though his work is realized predominantly through technology (he has come a long way since welding together junkyard scraps, fresh out of architecture school in the late '70s), Arad insists it isn’t dependent on it; that he holds no official stance on its good—political, moral, social, or otherwise. "In my field, there is nothing worth fighting against … except, say, child slavery," meditates Arad. "Nobody gets any brownie points for making something by hand."
As if enforcing that notion, he switches on the live cam of the Tower building site. We watch as workers mill around on the rooftop, slipping in and out of shadows to avoid the sweltering Israeli heat. Human scale is an immediate and near-obsessive interest for Arad, even as he moved into designing buildings. It comes as no surprise, as his claim to fame is perhaps the quintessential human-scale design design object: the chair.
We move into the final room of the studio, where a plethora of such celebrities await, including the Voido Rocking Chair (2006) and the teardrop-shaped Gomli (2009); as well as some newer faces, including the cedar and steel rocking bench, Useful, Beautiful, Love (2016). "Chairs must be comfortable for all backsides, from Twiggy to [Luciano] Pavarotti," he muses, asking me to take a seat on one impossibly smooth surface after another. A true talent of Arad is taking the most resistant, hard-edged materials and coaxing them into supple, almost anthropomorphic forms. His chairs walk the line of sculpture and defy conventions of art, architecture, and design in the process.
Too disorderly for architects, yet too officious for artists, Arad’s studio is a fittingly hybrid home base for a maker whose life work has continuously evaded categorization; nobody, not even Arad, knows how to define it. Hardly a fan of design competitions "unless I’m the judge," says Arad, his celebrity reputation often allows him to fly above the radar of regulation. Both recent architectural coups—including the Holocaust Memorial in the U.K., designed in collaboration with David Adjaye ("I charmed him, not the other way around," insists Arad)—as well as exhibitions, including the upcoming "Yes to the Uncommon!," opening at Vitra Design Museum later this month, seem to materialize under their own conditions. Perhaps it goes without saying that when you spend over 30 years breaking the rules, you get to set a few of your own—if only for the point of breaking them later on.