The experience of viewing “No Discipline,” the first major U.S. retrospective of the virtuosic, Israeli-born designer Ron Arad, is less like seeing an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and more like walking through a carnival funhouse.
That’s intended as a compliment.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1951, Arad studied at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, then at the Architectural Association in London, where he settled in the 1970s and set up his own studio. In 1981, he found in a scrap yard two discarded red leather seats from a British car, the Rover V8 2L. Back in his studio, he took them apart and anchored each one in tubular steel frames using cast iron “Kee Klamps,” a scaffolding system dating to the 1930s and used for cow-milking stalls.
The combining of incongruous, quotidian materials resulted in his now-iconic Rover Chair—both a crude art object and a functional piece of furniture. It launched his career, however inadvertently, when the fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier purchased them both.
Today, Arad is among the most influential and inventive designers in the world. He experiments relentlessly with proportions, forms, techniques, materials, and technology, creating interactive chandeliers, sofas made of steel, quirky bowls and vases, wall projections and time-lapse videos, chair fabrics that double as clothing, and hi-fi systems—including record player, amplifier, and speakers—embedded in concrete. He presides over his madcap design factory like some sort of Willa Wonka.
“No Discipline” is an apt title for the MoMA show: It reflects Arad’s absolute refusal to adhere to a single discipline (and he has insisted that the phrase describes him temperamentally as well). He doesn’t straddle the so-called line between art and design; he denies it exists. Sure, he is a designer, but he’s also an artist, a craftsman, a sculptor, an architect, and above all, a trickster of the highest order. (If that weren’t enough, he’s a professor at London’s Royal College of Art, too.)
Arad sees no need for vocational demarcations, nor any value in naming them. High art and low art are given equal devotion. He has designed the Maserati showroom headquarters in Italy; restaurants in London; an opera house lobby in Tel Aviv; the living and dining rooms of a Sheik’s residence in Qatar; a flagship store in Tokyo; a public sculpture in Jerusalem; a stadium in Paris; hotels in Austria and Madrid; oddball hats for Alessi and a perfume bottle for Kenzo.
But back to the MoMA funhouse: Even in the open area just outside the sixth-floor gallery, the show announces itself in dazzling fashion with multicolored carpet and two gorgeous Arad-designed sofas that invite visitors to lounge a while before venturing inside.
Step into the dimly lit gallery, and directly in front of you is “Cage sans Frontières (Cage without Borders),” a monumental, translucent structure made of grey gauze fabric, Cor-Ten and stainless steel—about sixteen feet high and 126 feet long—stretching the gallery’s entire length. (Its twisted figure-eight shape calls to mind an Anish Kapoor sculpture.) Works are on sleek display, mostly resting on square cut-out “shelves” of varying sizes that line both the cage’s interior and exterior walls.
The exhibition works are grouped in “families” according to concept, forms, and so on. Discovering and understanding the patterns of these groupings is one of the show’s many pleasures. See, for instance, how the “Big Easy” chair is reinterpreted six times, its iterations shown in different colors, and in molded polyethylene, foam, steel, wool, fiberglass and polyester.
It isn’t entirely surprising that the trophy-like way these strange and beautiful objects are shown resembles high-end design stores such as Kartell or Vitra; Arad has designed extensively for both. The 1986 prototype of “Well Tempered Chair,” constructed of sprung stainless steel and wing nuts, was a collaborative project with Vitra and his first major commission. It’s a clever version of a plush armchair, minus the fabric.
Everything in the show is aggressive and flamboyant in its own way—aggressive because it seems to be fighting against whatever it is “supposed” to be; and flamboyant because, well, Arad has no patience for subtlety. A critic once lyrically proclaimed Arad’s work to be “restless furniture,” and that’s probably the best way to describe it. In an essay in the show’s well-produced catalog, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer calls Arad an escape artist. That sounds about right, too.
Some pieces provoke awe, while others simply make you laugh. “Bucking Bronco” resembles an abstract version of its name, as does “Thumbprint.” The “Narrow Pappardelle” chair looks like pasta unfurled, a noodle of flexible woven steel. And “Looming Lloyd” is a tilted wicker chair with weighted steel clogs on the front two legs, meaning that to sit on Lloyd would be to tumble forward. This is strictly a “do not touch” show, however, despite the strong impulse to do otherwise.
When you stand inside the massive cage, with its swooping sides, you might feel a bit like Jonah in the belly of the whale—if the whale had also swallowed weird inanimate objects and video monitors playing on a loop. The most spectacular work in the cage’s interior, if not the entire show, is “Lolita,” a chandelier designed for Swarovski Crystal. (The piece takes its name from the opening line of Nabokov’s novel: “Lolita, light of my life….”).
In 2004, Arad was invited by the company to reinvent the traditional chandelier, and he did it with a vengeance. Made with 2,100 crystals and 1,050 white LEDs, the corkscrew-shaped lamp hangs above two mirrored stainless steel chairs. The “ribbon” of the chandelier has been fitted with thirty-one processors that enable visitors to send SMS text messages to the actual fixture. Those messages instantly scroll down the curves of the ribbon for all to see. (The slow scrolling makes the chandelier appear to be spinning, but it isn’t.) You can send a text message to “Lolita” at 917-774-6264, stand back, and admire your own wit.
A number of impressive works are shown outside the cage, too: In the cells/shelves along the exterior wall are architectural models of current and past projects, more mind-blowing chairs and video monitors, and witty small pieces such as “Squashed Vipps”—two polished stainless steel Vipps trash cans, crushed and accordion-like. Then there’s “Notify Bag,” made of leather and polycarbonate, with a battery-powered window on the front. From moment to moment, the window changes from clear to opaque, hiding and revealing a pair of bright red high-heels inside.
Other highlights along the gallery’s perimeter include “Lo-Rez-Dolores-Tabula-Rasa,” whose lens-shaped Corian tabletop emits sound while lighting up with animated, low-resolution images. The haunting “Shadow of Time,” which resembles a misshapen tripod, projects a working clock face onto a nearby wall. And tucked into a corner are some of Arad’s “Paved with Good Intentions” tables, with bent surfaces that rise from the floor and appear to be climbing the walls.
It’s obvious that Arad’s work ignores the tiresome form-versus-function debate and does whatever it pleases. “I want to design for the things themselves,” he once told an interviewer, and that desire is abundantly clear throughout the retrospective.
Despite the boldness and complexity evident in “No Discipline” (and the unfathomable rigorousness of Arad’s process), you never sense that there’s an obnoxious Julian Schnabel-sized ego fueling the work. Arad conveys generosity, sweetness, humor, and a boundless, childlike sense of wonder. The things themselves are the stars of this show, and the only reasonable response is pure delight.
Ron Arad: No Discipline, August 2–October 19, 2009, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Carmela Ciuraru has published several poetry anthologies and is writing a nonfiction book for HarperCollins. She has written for the LOS ANGELES TIMES, ARTNEWS, SPIN, INTERVIEW, NEWSDAY, the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.