Ron Arad: No Discipline

November 25, 2008By Heidi EllisonArchive

A Laughing Matter: Escapist Art

“Well Tempered Chair” (1986), made from four sheets of stainless steel. © Vitra Design Museum

An explosion of sheer exuberance greets visitors to the Centre Pompidou’s new show of designer Ron Arad’s work: exuberant swooping lines and exuberant colors in an exuberant presentation designed by Arad himself. If this show doesn’t bring a smile to your face, nothing will.

The great thing about this exhibition is that it is more than just a collection of furniture and objects displayed like individual jewels. This is a rare instance in which the design of the show itself is almost as interesting as the objects on display, with the space broken up by the sweeping curves of architectural elements.

Even Arad’s architectural projects – a handsome design museum set to open in 2009 in Holon, Israel, for example – are entertainingly presented through models, films and images on plasma screens. Reconstructed elements of his built projects, including the foyer and staircase for the Tel Aviv Opera House (1994), are also included.

But it is in his furniture that Arad lets his wit and talent shine through: the loopy, bouncy spiral hanging lamps; the crazy clock that looks like a giant mutant black insect projecting the time on the wall; the famous snail-shaped “This Mortal Coil” bookcase; the bulbous “Big Easy” armchairs in a variety of (hard) materials; the sculptural rocking chaises longues that are nothing more than two loops; and so on and so on. Many of his chairs, including the chaises longues and straight-backed chairs on springs that lean forward at acute angles, look impossible to sit on, but the exhibition proves that impression wrong by allowing visitors to actually sit in some of them (another rarity in a museum show).

Arad, who was born in Israel in 1951 and now lives and works in London, is endlessly inventive, and while he obviously has a penchant for rounded, amorphous forms, he does not limit himself slavishly to them. He is also interested in sound: the exhibition is filled with sound effects, and one of his more amusing inventions is a stereo system and speakers set inside crumbling concrete cases with rusty metal supports, a nice comment on our obsession with high-tech materials (Arad himself constantly experiments with them and with the latest technologies) and our need for handsome exteriors to hide the inner workings of things – especially pertinent in the context of the Centre Pompidou’s building, designed “inside-out” by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, with its innards exposed.

Alice Rawsthorn, the design critic for the International Herald Tribune, has taken the Centre Pompidou to task for its choice of Arad as the subject of an exhibition, because his work is concerned with aesthetics “at a time when design is dominated by complex political challenges, like defusing the environmental crisis and empowering the poorest 90 percent of the global population whom designers have traditionally ignored.”

Yes, Mom, we will eat our spinach because children are starving in China, but we will also go to the Centre Pompidou (which, by the way, has previously held exhibitions on politically and environmentally conscious design) and get a lot of pleasure out of Arad’s joie de vivre, creativity and talent.

In an essay in the exhibition catalogue, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer calls Arad an “escape artist” because he is “constantly finding ways to squeeze through the definitions” – the title of the show, dreamed up by Arad himself, refers to the way he jumps effortlessly from design to art to architecture. When Foer asked Arad what he kind of work he did the first time they met, Arad’s response was to laugh. “He wasn’t avoiding my question,” writes Foer.

Note: This show will travel to the Museum of Modern Art in New York (July 28-October 19, 2009) and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (spring 2010).

Heidi Ellison

Centre Pompidou: Place Georges Pompidou, 75004 Paris. Tel.: 01 44 78 12 33. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Tuesday and May 1. Métro: Rambuteau. Admission: €10-€12. Through March 16.


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