Designer, architect, craftsman, artist - Ron Arad can be them all. But, as Deyan Sudjic finds, his latest move into the mainstream has does nothing to curb an infinite imagination
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The Independent Culture
With his macho way with a welding gun and eccentric taste in hats, the designer Ron Arad inspired what still stands out as easily the most baroque television commercial of the 1980s design boom. In less than two minutes, it managed to hit just about all the buttons of the decade. Set inevitably in a Docklands loft, complete with sandblasted brick walls, its unlikely hero was a furniture designer, portrayed by a moody Bruce Willis lookalike. We see him toss an over-designed chair out of the window in a disdainful fit of creative fury, and watch as he struggles to bend mute metal to his will. Finally, he pauses for a refreshing sip of a lager with an exotic name, brewed under license in the UK.

There are no recorded episodes of Arad ever having tossed a chair out of a window, but otherwise the ad is a not unfaithful portrait of the way Arad was. In many ways, he is much more suc-cessful now, but in his early days in the 1980s he enjoyed a high-profile in colour supplement land. In fashion terms he's gone through the same transition that took John Galliano from a London garret into Parisian couture.

Design may have plunged way down the visibility charts since then, but Arad was too quick on his feet to sink with the rest of that decade's wreckage of the 1980s. Instead he has kept up a continually inventive stream of ideas which has now begun to make the transition from the gallery to the living-room. He has hung up his welding gear, installed a battery of computers in the studio and is making his work much more widely accessible.

This month, Arad is even hosting a joint show in London, with the sculptural lighting designer Ingo Maurer, which offers an unusual chance to see one of his collections that have become a major fixture of the Milan Furniture Fair, the highlight of the design year. Those who remember Arad's most wilful past pieces, such as a massive 1988 armchair made of beaten metal and ironically named the Big Easy, might be surprised to find him working with mainstream manufacturers. But he has moved from making one-offs towards not just limited editions, but mass production. He is now working with the fibreglass factory in Italy that builds Ferrarri bodies to make moulded tables. The most recent of his chairs, an aluminium design, used the skills of the aircraft engineering industry to devise computer-generated tooling. The results are sculptural, certainly, but they are also designed to work and be produced in significant numbers. The table is capable of being arranged in a number of different configurations, depending on how big it needs to be. The aluminium chair is according to Arad "the cheapest thing we have ever done" in his own studio. A small run production, it retails at pounds 850. The rough seams, the crude joints have gone and the latest work is lighter, less threatening, and more playful.

He still has no fear of getting his hands dirty. One of the highlights of the show is an energetic series of painted fibreglass chairs. "You come face to face with kitsch when you are designing chairs. It's a tightrope," he says. But Arad has always thrived on taking risks, on starting pro-jects without knowing exactly how he will finish them, and the marriage of unfamiliar components.

He has also had a lasting impact on the way that design is perceived. When the Bond Street auction houses first got interested in contemporary design, it was Arad who convinced them that they were really on to something. There was enough of an edge to what he was doing to make it clear to even the most sceptical that his work was more than the stuff of upscale car boot sales. Arad's concrete stereo system for example, complete with exposed shards of jagged reinforcing steel, could play records with reasonable efficiency, but that was hardly the point. The tooth jangling mismatch between the fragility of vinyl, and the threat of real concrete was the work of a designer who had taken a close look at the artful surrealism of Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined teacup. Arad's armchairs, lashed together from bent scaffolding poles, slung with ancient leather-upholstered car seats, were more than mere secondhand furniture. This was design which came with enough cultural baggage to get Arad a show in a Cork Street gallery in Lon-don, and an exhibition at the Pompidou in Paris.

Even more gratifying, as far as the auctioneers were concerned, Arad's work sold. The Rover chair, for example, quickly began changing hands for high prices - especially in what the sale room catalogues insist on describing as the "very rare twin seater version upholstered in red leather". Recently one sold at auction for pounds 3,500.

It is 20 years now since Arad first set up his studio. In that period he has continually metamorphosed, from creative salvager to designer, and from designer to architect. He is one of those uncategorisable types who insists on blurring the distinctions between one visual art and another. He left Israel to train as an architect in the 1970s at London's Architectural Association, never a school to put a premium on conventional approaches to the subject, and turned into a furniture designer when he graduated. He went on to explore the possibilities of working with a range unusual materials, from aluminium honeycomb manufactured for the aerospace industry, to moulded foam to create objects whose starting point might have been utility, but which offered something else as well. In Arad's hands, the notional chair, lamp, and bed, drifted further and further away from their functional origins.

Given the blinkered self absorption of many designers, Arad had a range of interests that marked him out as something out of the ordinary. Teaching himself to weld, cut and polish sheet steel, the objects he made in his workshop had an emotional content, as well as a particular character. But it was an exhausting process. "Just maintaining the workshop, and the people in it, meant that I felt I also had to make the most use of it and it took up almost all my time. Often there wasn't the time to think," he says. "And then I eventually found a factory in Italy that could make some of our studio pieces better than I ever could."

His sculptural early work provides him with a rich experimental laboratory for projects that are now designed to function on an industrial rather than a craft scale. The Book Worm, a tempered steel shelf which can be installed in any swirling combination across a wall, is expensive to produce in Arad's studio, but has also been translated into injection moulded plastic and produced by the big Italian manufacturers Kartell. It is Arad's first big commercial hit, and Kartell's best seller, and has opened the door to a constant stream of new commissions from other mainstream sources looking for equally creative combinations of the practical with the visually dramatic.

At the same time, freeing himself from the reputation of being only a maker has allowed him to get much more involved in architecture. In Tel Aviv, he was responsible for the foyers of the city's new opera house, completed in 1994 where he has colonised the interior with a series of bold sculptural installations that promise much. He has designed the first of what is likely to be a series of sports cafes in France for Adidas. There is a plan for a dramatic new house in north London, and a major interiors project in Germany. Meanwhile the reserve price of a Rover chair just goes on rising.

! Milan-London, a show of Ron Arad and Ingo Maurer's work, is at 62 Chalk Farm Road, London NW1; 15 June to 4 July. Mon-Fri 11am-6am, Sat, Sun 12 -5pm