Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Ron Arad's restlessness

Ron Arad, furniture and product designer, architect and design educator, has a major retrospective show now on at London's Barbican Art Gallery (18 Feb - 16 May 2010). Originally from Israel, Arad come to London to study architecture at the Architecture Association, then set up his own practice with Caroline Thorman in the early 1980s and has practiced in London ever since. His work across a range of media and manufacturing contexts demonstrates a consistent curiosity about forms, materials and possibilities - hence the exhibition title 'Restless'. He is also well-known for his playfulness and verbal wit evidenced in chairs that look like they might tip over, and the careful naming of many of the pieces. His architectural work includes private houses and the new Design Museum in Holon, Israel.

Visiting the exhibition raised questions for me about the seductions of this kind of design practice. More concerned with designing for sustainability and for service, I do not follow closely what goes in in furniture design and the world of "design art" and its limited editions. Usually resistant to what seems to be a kind of reckless environmental carelessness in these fields, I have to admit to a partiality to Arad's work. I have one his V&A sofas in blue felt (manufactured by Moroso) and some chairs. I know Arad to be a committed educator from his time as professor of design products at the Royal College of Art (where I used to teach).

But visiting the show I found myself captivated by the way it communicated Arad's ongoing enquiries into what to make and how to make it. On one of the many screens there was a quote saying that many of the manufactured pieces came from studio works, and not vice versa, illustrating nicely the notion that design is not (only) problem-solving but rather an ongoing set of enquiries. In a gallery that usually shows contemporary art, and sometimes architecture, it was a rare example of a design exhibition and a reminder of the value of these kinds of solo shows which give an opportunity to see how ideas have developed over decades. I wonder which service designer, if any, the Barbican might be showing in 20 years' time.

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