Magazine article The Spectator

Blurring the Boundaries

Magazine article The Spectator

Blurring the Boundaries

Article excerpt

It is unusual for the V&A to honour a living designer with a major retrospective, and the museum has certainly never staged an exhibition which involves its historic collections quite so dramatically. Ron Arad's furniture is presented on a series of mirrored ramps which snake from the museum's Cromwell Road entrance through the Mediaeval Treasury and out into the Pirelli Garden. Old and new collide to some effect - Arad's `Infinity' bottle rack climbs like ivy over the case which houses the Elthenberg Reliquary. This may seem crass, and it has annoyed the kind of art critic who knows nothing about the applied arts but enjoys attacking the V&A. In fact the juxtaposition has the odd effect of refocusing attention on that extraordinary 12th-century work of art and craft, and on other objects of great beauty in the Treasury. Nonetheless, this is a tough exhibition to get to grips with. There is no catalogue and nothing is labelled, making interactivity with the new technology an imperative. Computer screens in each section provide important insights into the work and suggest some of the problems facing a creative designer in Britain today.

Famously, Arad started out making things himself, inhabiting a typically 1980s borderland emblematic of the collapse of British industrial production in the Thatcher years. Some of the early work was a species of ad hoc-ism. Take the Rover chair made from salvaged leather seats from the Rover 2000 mounted on scaffolding tubing. This captivatingly narrative object manages to suggest both insouciant chic and, for the target audience born like Arad in 1951, childhood moments in the family car. Other chairs like `Big Easy' and `Tinker' were literally hammered into shape by panel-beating and welding in Arad's workshop.

In the early 1980s Arad seemed to be part of a fashionable group - including furniture makers Tom Dixon, Andre Dubreuil and Danny Lane - creating neo-primitive objects, roughly factured using low-level industrial techniques. It was a reversion to low-tech which aptly reflected the unsteady, febrile mood of the time, in which the bubble of affluence always seemed about to burst. And Arad had a genius for creating an ambience for his work through his series of `One-Off' shops. The final one, in Shelton Street, Covent Garden, was a triumph of irrational design, being lined with pieces of sheet steel haphazardly collaged into a gleaming metal cave. It was filled with mocking critiques of good taste and good design - most memorably Arad's widely copied brutalist turntable and speakers embedded in concrete, a punk response to Bang & Olufsen.

Arad has come a long way since those early, inspired bricolage days. Today he bypasses British manufacturers' indifference and lack of flexibility by taking his designs to major firms all over Europe to Vitra, Kartell and Cassina - and by establishing a collaboration with Marzorati Ronchetti's family-run firm in Italy which now makes up his one-off pieces. (That Britain lacks the small, flexible family firms which made the European postwar design boom possible is one of the sad lessons of this exhibition.)

Arad is clear-headed about how his work divides up and about the myriad processes currently available to designers. These are neatly summarised by Arad as wasting (i.e., cutting away material), moulding, forming, assembling and, less familiarly, growing Arad's poetic way of describing processes like fusion deposition modelling or stereo lithography, in which a computer model on screen is translated into an actual object by a 3D printer. …

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