Ron Arad: Curve your enthusiasm

His designs are both edgy and sophisticated. Caroline Roux looks forward to the unveiling of Ron Arad's Design Museum in Israel and a major retrospective at the Barbican
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The Independent Culture

If Haringey Council had adopted a slightly more enlightened attitude to architecture in the 1990s, then London would have had a building by the ebullient designer Ron Arad for 10 years now, albeit a luxurious family house. As it is, the then planning officer, Nicky Gavron (yes, that Nicky Gavron) deemed the rather average arts and crafts-ish house already occupying the Hampstead site "good enough". Permission was not granted for it to be razed to make way for Arad's sleek white shell; that remains only as a model in his studio in London's Chalk Farm Road.

A decade on, Arad's first stand-alone building is reaching completion. But this time it's a design museum – a sleek looping sculpture of steel – and it's in Israel, the designer's country of birth. It was, perhaps, worth the wait.

Ron Arad came to London in 1972, after studying one year of environmental art in Jerusalem (the highlight of which, he says, was being arrested for staging a demonstration against a military parade and playing his harmonica in the cells for a few hours). Intending to enrol in a British art school, he took a particular liking to the Architectural Association instead and ended up studying architecture for five years. The unintentional and unplanned seems to have dominated his career ever since.

After college, he opened up a studio/gallery in Covent Garden, back then an edgy and recently revived part of London, and gained a certain celebrity for making radical one-off pieces from discarded objects, like Rover seats and wire shelving. Yet he's become one of Britain's most commercially successful furniture designers. Today, it's hard to travel anywhere on the beaten track without coming across at least one restaurant, gallery or office filled with his Tom Vac chairs, a piece he originally designed in 1997 as a component of a towering sculpture to be shown at the Milan Furniture Fair. (Though the real ones are made by smart Swiss manufacturer Vitra, the design has been so liberally faked in China that Arad travelled to a couple of the factories to see if he couldn't come up with a new design that they could really own).

The Design Museum at Holon might be Arad's first building, but it was actually commissioned as a piece of art. When initially approached by Hana Hertsman, the municipality's dynamic managing director, the designer told her: "It's a public building, you should do a competition to find an architect." So she programmed it as an art project and Arad was hired. He is happy for it to be in Israel, "because it gives me a chance to visit my father more often", but doesn't seem to overly concerned with homeland issues. "You know, if I could build an amazing theatre in Den Haag, I'd be equally pleased," he says.

The city of Holon is a 10-minute drive from Tel Aviv. Once a rather dismal industrial centre it has been transformed into a perfectly livable place for around 200,000 inhabitants through the sheer determination of its mayor, Moti Sasson, and the tough-talking Hertsman. They have doggedly created an identity for their town through the imposition of culture. First, it was designated a city for children with copious parks filled with narrative sculptural groups (Holon was a centre for storytelling in days gone by) and a children's theatre. Then it got the massive Mediatheque (that's library to me and you). Then a Museum of Cartoons, which has been impressively directed by Galit Gaon and put Holon on the comic-book map. And now it is to be a city of design. If this bestowing of identity sounds hollow to British ears (think of all the failed attempts to revive British towns with new museums), Israel is another matter – small, dynamic, young. There is every chance that the seductive coil that is Arad's building will pull in the punters and Holon will indeed become a design destination.

Arad's work is most often about curvilinear forms and experimentation with materials: he has had a lifelong love affair with steel in particular. As such, the Design Museum follows suit, a neat building constructed from ribbons of rusty-coloured Corten steel. Like much of his design, it makes one strong single statement. "They wanted a building that could feature on a postage stamp," says Arad. "Every city wants to be Bilbao, with its own Guggenheim."

It is certainly iconic, even if it has come to land in an inauspicious spot, next to the complicatedly postmodern Mediatheque by local architect B. Baruch, and opposite a big slab of late-20th-century shopping mall. On the other side, is an onward march of unremarkable residential towers. Arad says he created the design in spite of, and not because of, the context. "It's on a piazza, which isn't a piazza," he says. "One side is a road and the view isn't beautiful, so I turned the building's back on it." As a result, you enter through a sort of maw, which takes you to a courtyard and then to the entrance proper. The concrete "belly" beneath which you walk, is structural as well as aesthetic, holding up the massive 500 square metres gallery above. As are the curving steel walls of the exterior. "That steel envelope," says Arad, "is not just a pretty face. There are no columns inside the building. Everything you see is structure."

On the original design brief, drawn up back in 2004 by Daniel Charny, a London-based designer/curator/theorist, the words "Beware the Bilbao syndrome" were writ large. But where Bilbao's convoluted interior spaces have caused a few curatorial headaches, Arad's column-free interior shows that he (and, it must be said, his employee Asa Bruno whose architectural contribution Arad is keen to acknowledge) has taken Charney's advice. He has created two generous white-cube galleries by inserting rectilinear boxes within the curving outside walls. The vast upper gallery can accommodate large-scale work and its loading bays face the street, so the business of work being delivered might in itself become a public spectacle. This gallery is top lit – but bespoke filtering units break the natural light twice on entering, to soften the strong Mediterranean sun.

Israel's own design industry is mostly focused on high-technology and medical equipment. The Design Museum Holon will be looking further afield for its exhibitions. Now under the directorship of Galit Gaon, who has moved across from the Museum of Cartoons, its emphasis will be, according to Charny, that, "Design is a global story, told here by local storytellers". It will open in March with an exhibition of 100 objects brought together by a team of North American curators – a sort of this-is-where-design-is-now statement. Perhaps the local bit comes later, then.

Arad, meanwhile, is busy bringing his own retrospective to the Barbican covering three decades of his designs. The show, which started out last November at the Centre Pompidou in Paris with the title No Discipline, then moved to Moma in New York. It will open in London on 18 February considerably reworked and with the new title Restless. For each outing, Arad has created a bespoke installation. In Paris, it was a low-tech set of huge cardboard tubes, in New York a super-sophisticated steel grid that will eventually find its way to a Singaporean art foundation. In London, the most I can tell you is that he will be doing something exciting with pixellated screens.

The last time Arad had a retrospective in London, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2000, it so angered one critic (Richard Dorment, writing hysterically in The Daily Telegraph) to see such assertive contemporary work in the V&A's hallowed halls that he described it as "an abomination" and more besides. But that was nearly 10 years ago too. Perhaps even Haringey would look kindly on Arad's house design now.

Ron Arad: Restless, Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891; Barbican. 18 February to 16 May