Architecture: `What do my creations actually do? Who cares?'

Ron Arad's approach to design has made him famous all over the world. So why is he still unknown in Britain? By Nonie Niesewand
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The Independent Culture
TRIFFID-SIZED metallic sculptures looming over the chairs and tables at the Arad show, staged at Aram Design, are Ron Arad's latest enthusiasm. "Call them vases to save time," he says. "I'm more interested in making things than in what they do." Which deals a blow to that modernist chestnut that "form follows function".

In an aircraft factory in Worcester he discovered vacuum forming, by blowing up with air until it bubbles an inch-thick piece of steel, cut and shaped with a piece of aluminium beneath it. Out bulged these gravity- defying curvaceous forms on a scale that would have taken Brancusi many months and a great deal of money to mould and cast. Now he is using the technique to make two curvy steel fireplaces for a house in Notting Hill.

The most original talent working in Britain today, Ron Arad trained as an architect, launched himself as a furniture designer and is professor of furniture at the Royal College of Art. A s a hybrid, he crosses disciplines easily.

Ron Arad once said that he liked working in Britain because nobody gave a toss about modern design. That was before New Labour made design cool - or hot, depending on your jargon. Totally ignored in the Eighties, when English country house style wrapped Britain up in chintz, Ron Arad got on with designing the "Big Easy Chair" in metal, set hi-fi systems in pebbledash cement, and wired a staircase to a Moog synthesiser so that every footfall created music, in his workshop in Covent Garden.

Meanwhile, in Milan, from 1984 when he first exhibited at the Salone del Mobile furniture fair, his furniture practically walked off the stand. His fans rocked in the metal "Mickey" chair, hanging their legs over its voluminous ears to the sound of sand slithering in its base. Now, bouncers control crowds outside the show he shares every year at the furniture fair with the lighting designer Ingo Maurer. In Paris, at the Pompidou Centre, where groupies paid mega-francs for the catalogue to Ron Arad's exhibition in 1988, only to feed them into the paper-shredder that was its main attraction, Ron Arad is as famous as Philippe Starck. The lowest boredom threshold in the design business is now a big name world-wide.

Zev Aram, who is the fame broker in Britain for international stars from the Bauhaus to Alvar Aalto and Eileen Gray, planned this exhibition on Ron Arad because: "He is a major talent now in Europe, commissioned all over the world but not here where he studied. It's time to give him a major platform."

Wooed by manufacturers such as Kartell, who put into mass production in plastic his "BookWorm" circular shelving system, Ron Arad still likes to make one-offs to explore new materials. Often they become the prototypes for a range. The "Tom Vack" chair, vacuum-formed in aluminium at the Supaform aircraft factory, is now produced in alabaster-smooth plastic by Vitra. His latest chair, called "A Box in Four Moments" is a steel cube that comes with a battery-operated screwdriver. Four hollow steel pillows, each 43cm, stack on to three torsion hinges. Crank up the springs with the screwdriver and the cube unfolds into a zig-zag, stable enough to sit on. It doesn't look comfortable but, surprisingly, it is, because the boxes are hollow and the flexible torsion springs give it bounce.

Vintage Arad fetches the kind of auction-house prices you expect from a Louis-the-something chair. At Phillips sales, his "Big Easy", the ultimate club chair in steel, has sold for $60,000 (pounds 37,000). Rarity puts up the prices as much as the restlessness of the designer, who finds repetition boring, one of the reasons why this graduate from the Architectural Association put architecture on the back burner. Not for long. His Amega pod house failed to get planning permission for the Hampstead site because it involved taking down an undistinguished Twenties house. But Camden Council will give it planning permission if the owners can find a suitable site.

Just as Oscar Wilde described his acquaintances as either charming or tedious, Ron Arad divides designs into boring and interesting. "Something can be interesting for all sorts of reasons. Because it's light, cheap, heavy, expensive, inexpensive." He is scornful of the rounded edges that scallop furniture now. In defiance of that sort of curvy design, his latest spiky design, which is not yet off the drawing-board, uses a toothed comb as both bedhead and board on the "FPE Bed" (Fantastic Plastic Elastic). Typical Arad: the teeth act as the struts to support, in plastic, a wide span for the mattress.

How does he square working in plastic with a concern for the environment? "Some things have to be made in plastic. Blood transfusion bags, for example. But the new plastics are recyclable. My Rover chair, which recycled old Rover car seats, was environmentally friendly, but if I made it today, it wouldn't be."

The first task he set his postgrad students at the RCA (he joined last year) was to design and make a book on contemporary furniture. Disappointingly, mostly Wallpaper* and Elle Decoration clones resulted, but I'll warrant that after two years of Ron Arad's hands-on tuition, they will think differently. He always does. Whatever advances are made in mechanising furniture production, his impact upon the 21st century is already being felt.

The Ron Arad exhibition is at Aram, 3 Kean Street, Aldwych, London WC2, Mon-Fri, until 12 October