Arts: The chair man: In the Eighties, he was the king of Creative Salvage, making chairs out of old cars, old tables, and old chairs. In the Nineties, he is going back to the drawing-board - as an architect Designer Ron Arad is still sitting pretty

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IF ANYONE epitomised the design success of the Eighties, it was Ron Arad. His furniture appeared in adverts for cool beverages like Holsten Pils and Pernod, and in pop videos for hot bands like the Fine Young Cannibals. His showrooms flourished in a chic area of London. It was a success far removed from that elevated calling created by the Modern Movement in which the designer put principle and social necessity before personal fulfilment or originality. But, as Norman Potter points out in a gloomy new introduction to his classic 1969 book What is a Designer?, the design of the Eighties reflected the politics of the decade with uncanny precision. Individual designers like Arad flourished, but the term 'designer' - with its links to corporate logos and identities - became a tag of contempt. Arad was enough of a creative artist to survive with his reputation intact, even enhanced. And this week sees the opening of an exhibition of his new work, including architecture as well as furniture, which suggests that he is on the brink of a new career.

In the Eighties, Arad, together with slightly younger figures like Tom Dixon, Andre Dubreuil and Danny Lane, became famous in a pop-starrish sort of way for a series of exercises in recycling - chairs, tables, theatrical fountains and screens created out of found objects and hammered sheet-steel and bits of glass. If this often crudely fashioned stuff, quickly dubbed Creative Salvage, appealed to the young in a direct uncomplicated way, it also excited older design and craft apparatchiks and curators. Few could resist the blackened workshops inhabited by these young Vulcans or their array of oxyacetylene torches, metal mangles and electric grinders. The mix of handwork and low-level industrial techniques sparked off all sorts of Old Country resonances. 'There are few dovetails and no compromises,' declared one bureaucrat. 'The overthrow of the organ grinders]' thrilled another.

Arad was the most gifted of these metal bashers. Born in 1951 in Israel to an artistic family - his mother was a painter - in his teens he came to London to train at the Architectural Association. He opened his first studio/showroom in Neal Street, Covent Garden in 1981. His tutors at the Architectural Association had included Peter Cook and Bernard Tschumi, arch theoreticians whose reservations about going beyond paper architecture affected Arad profoundly. When he found himself in a conventional architectural office in Hampstead after graduating he felt a deep disappointment and got out quickly.

Even the most unreconstructed modernist could not fail to be delighted by the work that followed Arad's flight from the architect's drawing board. If the famous showrooms, One Off in Neal Street and One Off Two in Shelton Street, seemed maddeningly indulgent, what about the Rover Chair created right at the start of Arad's career? It was fashioned out of old car seats and scaffolding tube, and for anyone born circa 1950 that cosy Rover upholstery unlocks memories. Just seeing that chair again last week, in the gloom of the huge drawing-room in Arad's rambling Victorian house in Belsize Park, was enough to lift the spirits. As with Arad's Big Easy - an overupholstered 1930s armchair incongruously created out of sheets of hammered welded steel - the roots of its appeal were subtly nostalgic. But then there was the Arad sound system embedded in knocked-about reinforced concrete whose unforced wittiness worked differently, making fun of black box design.

None the less when I met Arad at his new studio, One Off Three in Chalk Farm, it seemed timely to pose some uncelebratory questions about his lack of social responsibility (shirking the practical applications of that Hampstead office), his elitism (the high cost and careful limit to editions of his pieces). Arad, a burly, soft-spoken man of real charm and sensitivity, seemed untroubled by the hostile line of questioning. No, he was not sorry that his designs necessarily went to a limited number of extremely wealthy owners. He admitted they were 'made for people who already have all the armchairs in the world'. Design opportunities for mass production were limited in 1980s Britain: 'I invented my profession. If this had been Milan it would have been different - there is a lot of work for designers and an industry thirsty for designers. Here, who would you go to?' His designs for prestigious European manufacturers like Vitra, Moroso and Driafe came later, as a result of the fame of his One Off work. He does not assume that he is making the world a better place: 'I mostly work for myself because that is what I wanted to do. I'm lucky if someone is interested in it.' But he disclaims the elitist charge with fervour. 'I think I've reached a lot of people who didn't necessarily have to buy my work. They saw my things and talked about them. They consumed the idea without purchasing the object.'

That seems a reasonable defence. Apart from the crowds who hung about the Covent Garden showrooms, Arad's furniture has featured in countless fashion shoots, pop videos and adverts. Obliquely, it became as accessible as many mass market products. As for the limited editions, these are an artistic necessity according to Arad. He discontinued the Rover chair at the height of its fame because 'it cluttered up the workshop'. Another much loved piece, entirely shaped by panel beating, was dropped because 'I could not for the life of me produce another one. I lost it. The passion was not there any more. I'm not a glassblower that can do the same thing again and again'.

Arad's latest furniture, arranged in his home, suggests that he is gradually distancing himself from the making process. An exquisitely balanced polished steel rocking chaise that dominates the drawing-room reveals the high order of craftsmanship among his workshop assistants. It also looks like a piece of sculpture, as does Creature Comfort - a woven mesh and stainless steel object that turns out to function as a seat in four different orientations. The new work looks as remote as possible from any idea of salvage. Yet the old vigour and ad hoc quality is still there - witness Arad's new sprung steel bookshelf that squiggles a casual serpentine curve on his wall.

But a visit to One Off Three gives you the feeling that Ron Arad Associates Ltd Architects (a partnership with the Canadian architect Alison Brooks) is taking over from the furniture business: there is the building itself, which has attracted a lot of attention (and is the subject of a book coming out in May). But because, as Arad freely admits, it is youthful and hand-made in spirit, it seems to represent continuity rather than change. Although it has a complex tensile polyester and steel mesh roof, it nonetheless looks cleverly improvised in the spirit of the old One Off showrooms in Covent Garden. Its architectural interest lies in the way in which Arad has inserted a workshop/studio/showroom into such a degraded urban environment with the minimum of fuss. As a project, it is startlingly true to the ideals of the mid-1980s Narrative Architecture Today (NATO) group. The given chaos of the city is accepted and Arad has striven to refurbish rather than to rebuild. It is this sensitivity to site that makes One Off Three such a remarkable building.

The architecture that could make the name of Arad Associates in a more conventional sense is still at the building and planning stage: an ambitious free-form concrete structure for the interior of Yacov Rechter's Opera House in Tel Aviv will be completed next year. It houses bars, a restaurant, bookshop, the box office and includes a marvellous organic staircase that recalls Michelangelo's Laurentian Library stair in Florence. Characteristically Arad has arrived at some odd solutions - like the use of sliced metal cones to create poetic irregular openings in the structure's sprayed concrete wall. But the final effect is intended to be pristine, a flowing ribbon of white plastered concrete wrapping itself round an internal staircase to create a multiplicity of unexpected spaces and vistas. And, more recently, Arad Associates has embarked on a house and studio for a German publisher which sounds like an extraordinary opportunity to create a uniquely expressive building.

Ron Arad will go on creating interesting and increasingly sculptural furniture both in his workshop and for select manufacturers. But over the next few years it is the shift from designing to the practice of architecture, which carries a far greater socially responsible charge, that we should watch.

'Ron Arad: Breeding in Captivity' is at the Edward Totah Gallery, 13, Old Burlington St, London W1 (071-734 0343), from Fri to 25 Mar. 'Ron Arad Associates: One Off Three' by Volker Albus and Cedric Price will be published in May by Artemis at pounds 19.95.

(Photograph omitted)