Interiors: Well-tempered rooms

Ron Arad's furniture is known for its cut metal, guillotine edges and tense sheets of steel, yet his Victorian home exudes warmth and domesticity. Lesley Gillilan reports

Lesley Gillilan
Saturday 22 May 1999 23:02
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THERE IS something scary about Ron Arad's work (all that macho concrete and cut metal; tense sheets of tempered steel and guillotine edges). In fact, I have to admit to being a little scared of Ron Arad (big, gruff, bovver-booted sort of bloke; cropped hair roughly the same length as the mannered facial stubble). But, as it turns out, I find his north London home a warm, friendly place.

Maybe it's the deep red and mustard walls (coloured with waxed pigment, not paint), the vast Victorian windows, the airy double-room living space, the twittering of birds drifting in from a leafy garden, or the signs of resident children (Ron has two of them), but the place exudes an easy domesticity that I would not have expected from a home filled with Arad. And there is so much Arad here that the place reads like an edited version of the "chronology of major works", as seen in the back of Deyan Sudjic's new, monographic design book, Ron Arad.

There are two original Rover chairs (the inventive exercise in scrapyard salvage that made Arad's name in 1981), each consisting of a leathered, Rover 2000 car seat supported on Kee Klamp scaffolding. There is the original Bookworm shelving unit (1994), and a series of its smaller offspring. There is a Barbie-sized model of his springy steel Well Tempered Chair (made by Vitra in 1986), which is displayed on a shelf of an RTW (Reinventing The Wheel), a spinning circular storage unit in aluminium and trans-lucent plastic, launched by Kartell 10 years later.

I see no sign of Arad's early work, the Concrete Stereo, nor any pieces from his recent Blown Out Of Proportion (BOOP) collection, a series of sculptural objects made from shiny, blow-formed aluminium. But this is a home, not a showroom and, for Arad, the space - the lower two floors of a large, early-Victorian townhouse - lacks something more fundamental.

"This house is a good, happy place," he says. "And it suits us fine. The problem with it is that it doesn't need any architecture at all. It doesn't satisfy my personal eagerness to design new houses."

"When we were looking for a place to live, the ideal solution was to find a building site," he explains. "As a compromise, we looked at all the modern houses that were available at the time, but they weren't right."

In the end, he opted for their present house because he liked the curved bay windows, and the balcony over the garden. There was plenty of light and space, and it was conveniently close to the converted piano factory in Camden where he works.

This eagerness to design houses is the latest gear shift in a richly versatile career which, as Sudjic puts it, "has explored the difficult territory between art, architecture and design... challenged the definitions of what design could be".

Arad, who was born in Israel, studied art in Jerusalem before moving to London in 1973 to study architecture. His working life started in his One Off studio in Covent Garden with pieces of quirky furniture, tailor- made, on a small scale. Gradually, with little compromise, he moved into industrial-scale production. Now anything seems possible, and on any scale. Recent collaborative projects include interiors for the Belgo Noord and Belgo Centraal restaurants in London; the foyer architecture for the opera house in his native Tel Aviv; the Soundtrack, a minimalist, self-adhesive CD rack now produced by Alessi; and the Domus Totum, an illuminated street sculpture constructed for 1997's Milan Furniture Fair, from 100 stacking chairs.

"He was once an idiosyncratic and isolated presence on the edge of the design landscape," writes Sudjic. "Now his work is shaping the mainstream." And despite his foreign roots (which are still evident in his heavily accented voice), his work, and his success, are generally regarded as British products. After all, as Arad says, he's been here half his life.

In the home he shares with his wife, Alma (a psychologist), his 15-year- old daughter, Lail, and six-year-old son, Dara (Arad backwards), there is more of the idiosyncratic than the mainstream. And while the mix of old and new is not entirely to Arad's taste, it does work. The Victorian architraving, for example, has been treated to modernising coats of gun- metal grey paint. And the Arad collection seems much more accessible in the company of fireplaces, vases of flowers and other non-Arad pieces of furniture.

Among the most striking of these is a chandelier - a dynamic explosion of broken white crockery and flying cutlery made by Ingo Maurer ("the world's greatest lighting designer", according to Arad). I also like the painted-cardboard picture of a steamboat, by the Japanese artist, Hibino. He picks out other favourites: "This is a Seventies table that I think I could have designed myself. On top of it is a fruit bowl, made from a magazine and lots of glue. This is an old piano - no, I don't play it myself." He demonstrates a whole family of Ingo Maurer lamps which you touch any part of to turn on and off (they are only 12 volts each).

"I try not to accumulate too much," says Arad. "But it's impossible, especially when you have children. With children, you become a sub-tenant. Their life, their bicycles, their toys, their things take over, they claim priority. When they are home, this thing [he points at a stainless steel Arad table] is full, full, full of their drawings and their papers."

The steel table, incidentally, was part of a 40-table installation, made by Arad for an art exhibition at the Cartier Foundation in Paris in 1994. "The whole thing was about bringing the outside into the gallery," he says. The amoeboid surface is not quite as shiny as it was then, but this domesticated artwork continues to serve its original function by mirroring fragments of Arad's garden. It has also proved to be extremely child-friendly. "It's indestructible," says Arad. "You can paint on it, pour PVA glue all over it ... nothing sticks."

Is this, I wonder, the nub of Arad's creative process? Is it art first, then functional product? "That's misleading," he says. "The idea might, in essence, be sculptural but to execute it convincingly you have to be a bloody good industrial designer. You have to know about plastics, about mechanics, about furniture. I enjoy inventing new ways of making things."

But still, some of his pieces appear to be a triumph of form over function. Take, for example, the Well Tempered Chair (the first Arad product designed for volume manufacture). Made of four sheets of tempered steel, held into easy-chair shape with rows of wing nuts, it looks as if it could do you a nasty injury - whiplash, for instance. I was unable to test it out (he only had the model at home), but I am told it has something in common with a water bed. "Comfort has a lot of faces," he says.

The Arads' dark, synthetic slate island kitchen unit (one of the last one-off pieces made in Arad's London workshop) demonstrates another child- friendly device. "When Dara was little we didn't want him to open the drawers," says Arad. "So we were cruel to him, by fitting magnetic handles that can be moved out of reach."

Less friendly to anyone is the prototype Bookworm, which, again, is made of tempered steel. "The material is very demanding," says Arad. " It's very difficult to install and it could kill." (If it were to spring free from its wall fixings, he means.) Tempered steel is also very expensive. So when Arad sold the idea to Kartell, they mass-produced the Bookworm in cheaper, safer plastic. "I did this one for myself," he says. "Little did I know that it would become a big product that sells over 1,000 kilometres a year."

He shows me the garden (where the grass is as unmown as Arad's chin is unshaven), and invites me to peep round the door of a back-room to show me a charred cupboard salvaged from a fire in a monastery ("Amazing effect on it, don't you think?"). But he seems slightly affronted when I suggest we look at rooms on the lower-ground floor. "This is the public part of the house," he says. "You don't really want to see my bathroom, do you?"

Still, he reluctantly took me downstairs, slapped open doors to reveal a fairly traditional Arad-free bathroom (roll-top period bath plumbed into the centre of a windowless turquoise room), Dara's bedroom (standard juvenile male environment), Lail's bedroom ("This is her castle - and, look, she has her own Bookworm"), a "home cinema". But he is much more comfortable sitting at a table showing me around his Mac Powerbook - where more Arad tables and chairs float in the less intimate environment of computer-graphic space.

Here, he shows me the Transformer (1981), a seating range made of airtight PVC envelopes, filled with polystyrene granules - a bit like a beanbag, except that when you've moulded it into shape, you can suck out the air with a standard household vacuum cleaner to keep it that way. "Fifteen years ago, I thought it was going to make us rich," says Arad. "But the world wasn't ready, we weren't ready." This year, the product has been redesigned in collaboration with fellow London designers Inflate, and renamed the Memo.

The range consists of a series of pliable, inflatable balls, peanuts and lozenges in textured plastic. "You can make them as hard, or as soft, as you want," says Arad, who has his own, large grey Memo. "The kids use it like a giant piece of Play-Doh."

Just as playful is Arad's two-year-old Fantastic Plastic Elastic (the FPE), a simple, ingenious, no-glue-no-fixings chair, made by Kartell from a bent aluminium frame, fitted with an extruded membrane of cheap, coloured polypropylene. Is it a cheap chair? "Yes, except that nothing is cheap," says Arad. "The product goes through several hands - the manufacturer, the agent, the retailer, the Vat man... To a designer, it's a cheap chair, but unfortunately it's not as cheap as I wanted it to be." The FPE retails at about pounds 125. Prices for the Memo start at about pounds 100.

Soon, he adds, the not-so-cheap Arne Jacobsen chairs around the Cartier Foundation table will be replaced by a set of FPEs. The garden is about to get a "playhouse"; in reality, a white fibre-glass ball, late of the McLennan Galleries, where it formed part of "Winning", a sport exhibition designed by Arad for Glasgow 99. His Memo sofa has just been returned from the Milan Furniture Fair.

"This place is a bit like a depot, sometimes," says Arad. "Things move in and out of here all the time." His wife, he adds, is tolerant. "Sometimes she admits relief that something has finally gone. I do, too, because when you get a space instead of a piece of furniture, it can be a relief."

Some things will never leave. The Rover chairs, for example. "There are pieces that I don't have that I will never see again," says Arad. "But I'm beginning to get a little better at keeping things." He toys briefly with one of them, an early, now iconographic, Arad improvisation, the Aerial Lamp. This is a remote-controlled halogen desk lamp constructed from a standard electronic car aerial, a transformer, a clutch motor, and a coil of visible cable. "They used to cost pounds 99, now they sell for, I don't know, pounds 9,000? It's amazing."

He admits that he's exaggerating (realistically, original Arad Aerials fetch about pounds 2,000 to pounds 3,000). But it must indeed be amazing to see your work being sold at auction as a young, collectable "antique" within just a few years of the first prototype. Rover chairs, too, consistently fetch big money at Sotheby's and Christie's. But Arad burns to make his mark in more significant ways.

The Amiga House, designed for a private client with a site in Hampstead and the first British example of pure Arad architecture, would have satisfied that longing. But the radically modern Arad house - consisting of two interlocking "shells", smooth, curvaceous, and semi-transparent - was not to be. "Why not? Because London doesn't allow it," says the thwarted architect. Despite support from English Heritage, the house failed to meet the approval of what Arad refers to as "the Philistines" at Haringey Council's planning office.

"I could easily live in an Amiga house myself," he says, though he has resisted suggestions that it might be built elsewhere. "It would have to be here, in north-west London. We don't come from London, of course, but we emigrated once - you don't do it twice."

`Ron Arad' by Deyan Sudjic is published by Laurence King, price pounds 35

Captions: Above: the RIW (Reinventing The Wheel), a spinning storage unit, and the Memo. Right: Arad's amoeboid table, beneath his Ingo Maurer chandelier, with a Fantastic Plastic Elastic chair (right) and a Tom Vac chair (left)

Above: the Bookworm shelving which sells over 1000km a year. Below: the waxed pigment covered walls and Rover 2000 chairs

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