Acclaimed furniture designer Ron Arad is rockin' 'n' rollin' in a new show at the Barbican with a fun display of his work that includes his sexy, shiny Lolita chandelier - which has its own telephone number - and a sofa that featured in the first Big Brother house.
© Portrait by DAniel Hambury/Stella Pictures
'Celebrity has stalked Arad all his career. Michael Jackson sat in an Arad chair for his Scream video'
Arad, 59, is London's most fêted furniture designer and the subject of Restless, a major three-month retrospective at the Barbican Art Gallery.
He is visibly charged with excitement. Last year he starred in Paris at an Arad spectacular called No Discipline, a first at the Pompidou Centre, which then went on to MOMA in New York. But London is the true showcase for his work.
"London will be completely different. Of course it will be about me and my work - didactic, if you like. But this show is primarily to give London pleasure. Let people simply come and enjoy it."
And you will. Animated furniture will make you laugh. These are Arad designs that already had an element of motion - chairs that rock and roll, a revolving bookcase with a centre that stays stable.
Then there are coiling, snake-like lights and vases that spiral upwards. Suddenly it's action stations, as these pieces periodically leap into life impelled by newly invented mechanisms.
Giant suspended LED screens, specially designed, present vivid moving pictures and words. And meet that Lolita chandelier; text a message to its phone number and see the words wind their way down its spiral form on a thousand tiny LED lights set into more than 2,000 crystals.
A fun programme of show events includes talks analysing three decades of design, from the likes of architects Sir Peter Cook and Bernard Tschumi, plus discussion groups, workshops and even a Lolita-inspired speed-dating party.
Oh, and ping-pong
You can actually play ping-pong on an Arad mirror-shiny stainless steel table, as seen at the Royal Academy Summer Show 2008 - if you can cope with the reflections and sloping surface. Even at his favourite sport, Arad has to be different.
This is indeed restless work, and its author is also continually on the move. From a low-tech start with salvaged materials, Arad has evolved into a super-sophisticated designer with a large team, eagerly exploiting, indeed inventing, advanced materials and technology. "He is always looking for new ways of doing things and challenging our ideas of what furniture should be," says the show's curator, Lydia Yee.
She has assembled more than 120 Arad pieces spanning three decades. It kicks off with the 1981 Rover chair, made in Arad's One Off Covent Garden workshop from a pair of salvaged red leather Rover 2000 seats and scaffolding. Jean Paul Gaultier bought six. Celebrity has stalked Arad all his career. Michael Jackson sat in an Arad chair for his Scream video.
Then there is the Well Tempered Chair, produced by Vitra in Germany in 1986 in an edition of 100. This bulging parody of an overstuffed club chair is made from four thin, looped sheets of tempered steel kept taut by wing nuts. Arad has re-invented its bulbous shape many times over the years. It evolved into Big Easy, made from stainless steel in 1988, and then into the Moroso mass-market Soft Big Easy in upholstered foam.
Other versions were customised with spray paints and slogans. At the show is its latest incarnation: an iridescent assembly of cut tubes and spheres clustered together airily like so many soap bubbles. Such eccentric one-off pieces, made in his Chalk Farm studio, have brought Arad his own celebrity. Many have fetched high prices at auction, but at least a quarter of the show has been mass-produced.
Like the Bookworm, for example, a flexible translucent plastic coil with spines to hold books. Shape the curves to suit your wall. "This is Ron Arad's most instantly recognisable, original and best-selling piece," says Ruth Aram, director of the family furniture store in Covent Garden (www.aram.co.uk). Her father, Zeev, was one of the first to stock Arad, initially in Hampstead and now in a spacious Covent Garden store.
"Customers who buy Arad are confident and non-conforming," adds Ruth. Ron Arad can glimpse at least seven Bookworms through front windows on his 15-minute evening walk home to Belsize Park, where he lives with psychologist wife Alma, and daughter Dara Arad. Her full name is a perfect palindrome - the same whichever way you read it. His other daughter is called Lail.
"It is not important for people to know about designers," Arad suddenly asserts, a trifle unexpectedly. "It is enough that they want my work." More production hits at Aram have included Little Albert for Moroso, the Voido rocking chair for Magis and the Pizza Kobra lamp for iGuzzini.
Born in Israel to artist parents, Arad came to England in 1973 to study at the celebrated AA school of architecture, graduating in 1978. He stayed. "I love London's art, history, culture, diversity."
Today his architectural practice is as substantial as his furniture team, and the Barbican will display drawings, and models. His new projet, the Holon Design Museum, has just opened near Tel Aviv and is startlingly sculptural and ringed with red metal circles that create an unusual entry ramp.
Designer and architect: these two are evident. But, more controversially, the show bills Arad equally as an artist, too. His work has fetched high prices at auction for so-called design art. Arad doesn't mind what you call him - let others waste their time on the art v design debate. "But why shouldn't even practical, responsible mass-market pieces have beauty, poetry and emotion?"
Ron Arad: Restless runs from tomorrow until 16 May at the Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, EC2 (020 7638 4141; www.barbican.org.uk). Tickets from £8 online; £10 on the door. Visit www.ronarad.com.
Buy Arad at the Barbican shop, where there are Arad objects by Alessi, such as a watch, cocktail set, wine cooler and curvy metal dishes.
Find more Arad at the new Italian Moroso showroom, 7-15 Rosebery Avenue, EC1 (www.moroso.co.uk) and at the Aram Store, 110 Kean Street, WC2 (020 7557 7557; www.aram.co.uk). Ron Arad limited editions can be found at the Timothy Taylor Gallery, 15 Carlos Place, W1 (020 7409 3344; www.timothytaylorgallery.com).
To read more about Barbara Chandler's interview with Ron Arad, and to view her latest design blog, visit H&P blogs.
Portrait by Daniel Hambury/ Stella Pictures