"Ron Arad: A Retrospective Exhibition 1981-2004," May 5-June 24, 2005, at Barry Friedman Ltd., 32 East 67th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.
Over the past 25 years, the Israeli-born British designer Ron Arad (b. 1951) has become known for his highly styled furniture -- especially his chairs. Wittily referential and formally inventive, Arad's work blurs the lines between art and design, architecture and fashion. Both his experimental approach to materials and the signature sculptural quality of his output makes it a good fit with the contemporary art world, as is amply demonstrated by the mid-career survey currently on view at Barry Friedman Ltd. It is Arad's first New York show since 1987.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1951, Arad graduated from the Jerusalem Academy of Art before going to London and studying at the Architectural Association. In 1981, after working under architect Peter Cooke, Arad launched his own design studio, One Off Ltd., to produce and retail his own designs and those of others. He had little choice -- British designers in the 1980s, unlike their Italian and German counterparts, inspired scant interest among mass-market manufacturers.
Almost immediately, Arad had a major hit with his Rover Chair, a kind of furniture "readymade" that used a car seat pulled from a Rover car, a classic British auto that was first produced in 1906 but that in the early 80s could frequently be found in scrap yards. Arad framed his readymade seat in a welded tubular steel scaffolding, a structure that aligned the chair with an emerging industrial esthetic.
In the 1950s, the brothers Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni had already taken the step of incorporating a common commercial product into a new design with their Mezzadro stool, made of a tractor seat mounted on an abstract sculptural base. Still, Arad's Rover Chair was a triumph -- it seemed fresh, slightly irreverent and very much of its time.
Other designs from this period included a record player stripped from its original cabinet and embedded in rough concrete, and a lamp made from a car aerial and halogen bulb (which could also be read as homage to the Castiglioni brothers, whose Toio floor lamp from 1962 incorporated such found elements). Arad soon became known as the leader of a new Post-Industrial design school, and as a consequence his store on Neal Street in London's Covent Garden began to attract curious spectators as well as customers.
The second phase of Arad's career is represented by the Well Tempered Chair, a 1986 design for Vitra, the German manufacturer. Made from four sheets of tempered sheet steel, looped and bolted together into the approximate form of an armchair, the piece is simple in conception but nothing of the sort in reality -- it is a tense, loaded object occupying much more than its proper share of volumetric space. And despite a name that suggests a sensuous or pretty object, the Well Tempered Chair is an unsettling, even angry statement. With a little imagination (or perhaps just a few loose bolts), one might anticipate being physically torn apart by this symbol of domesticity.
Once Arad began to work with sheet metal, it seems, there was no stopping him, and he subsequently produced Big Easy in 1988, an object of welded and polished sheet metal that resembles a classic 1930s armchair whose armrests have swollen into oversized cylinder shapes. We are now in the heart of Arad territory, a place that (like Ridley Scott's movie Blade Runner or Terry Gillian's Brazil) looks back towards an earlier time even as it anticipates a more unsettling and less comfortable future.
Arad's experimental approach to furniture became even more pronounced in the 1990s, if that is possible. For instance, the Escheresque 2 R Not chair (represented in the show at Barry Friedman by a polished bronze example from 1992) is a six-sided cubic form that works as a chair when placed on four of its six sides (while the remaining "two are not" chairs). Around the same time, he devised the AYOR chair, a bulbous inverted comma of an object that has a lead counterweight in its base to balance the weight of the sitter -- AYOR stands for "At Your Own Risk". He also designed the group of "Papardelle" chairs, whose backs and seats are made from a length of semiflexible woven metal that somewhat resembles a broad noodle (and that extends out from the foot of the chair like a long "train").
In the last five years, Arad has been as busy as ever, developing a series of Ovoid chairs whose base and back are, as the name suggests, formed by a linked pair of ovoid forms (that arguably channel mid-century biomorphic sculpture through more recent "moderne" design). Like his cousins in the avant-garde art world, Arad makes the most of contemporary fabrication methods, designing Ovoid chairs in carbon fiber, Corian and, most recently, something called superplastic aluminum. In this last technique, the metal is heated to very high temperatures so that it can be "blown" into a biomorphic mold.
Typically, Arad issues his designs in limited editions of five or six. More recent works, such as the steel Ovoid chairs, are made in editions of 20. Prices for individual pieces begin at about $19,000.
The survey at Barry Friedman's Upper East Side townhouse gallery is complemented by an installation at Chelsea's Phillips, de Pury & Co. of what can only be called mixed-media architecture -- designs that integrate fiber optics into Corian walls and furnishings. These futuristic structures were shown last November at the Venice Architecture Biennial.
Like his colleague Philippe Starck, Arad is a master at designing challenging and engaging products that are less about function than they are about the use of psychologically loaded forms and materials. Their undeniable status as objets d'art -- and as objects increasingly resonant of specific innovations in contemporary design history -- would seem to guarantee that they will continue to be snapped up by savvy collectors.