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The Neither Man

Not one or the other, just Ron Arad
Industrial designer, artist and architect Ron Arad is a law unto himself. The Israeli-born, London-based practitioner of the aesthetic defies any kind of categorisation, and his projects – from buildings and bridges, sculptures and seats, to perfume bottles, eyewear, flip flops, timepieces and text-messaging light fixtures – are united in their ability to shock, awe, redraw and blur the boundaries of design sense. From the Rover Chair (1981) to the Big Easy armchair (1988) to his Bookworm bookshelf (1994) – still produced by Kartell - Arad gave the aesthetic culture a sense of the designer as author, or full-fledged artist, and his own works quickly became art-market commodities as design classics.

This innovative spirit saw him appointed to London’s Royal College of Art as professor of industrial design in 1997. RCA rector Christopher Frayling said of the appointment: “We have a superstar in our midst. Arad will be an inspirational, visionary leader.” True to his restless nature, no sooner was Arad’s foot in the faculty than he merged the schools of design and furniture into one known as the Design Products department. The course became legend with every wannabe design student applying and the RCA a harvesting ground for half the world’s curators, all looking for the next big design talent to plug and take ownership of. Arad, not unlike Ferran Adria in the world of cuisine, instilled in his students a belief and confidence to break or ignore rules, be true to their instinct, experiment with process, create new typologies and expand boundaries along the way. That radical mantra nurtured a core of budding design talent, Thomas Heatherwick among them, whose names have become household. Arad left the RCA in 2009, feeling a generation’s worth of design innovation was enough.

Although better known as a designer than architect, Arad’s built projects have been continuous and eclectic. For restaurant and retail spaces he has done Belgo Noord and Belgo Centraal restaurants in 1994 and 95 in London, the Selfridges Technology Hall in London, 2001, and a 2003 Y’s store for Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto in Tokyo, among others. His largest building is Tel Aviv’s Opera House (1994) and he returned to Israel for the Design Museum Holon in 2010. A bridge project for London’s 2012 Olympics he considers one of his best that never saw light of day and he’s currently working close to home on a boutique hotel in Shoreditch, London. ISBN spoke with Arad about his latest assignment - pqEyewear – a project just launching, for which he was asked to create name, logo, artwork and all spectacle designs. As a subject, it allowed Arad to come full circle. First arriving in London in 1973, Arad designed a pair of glasses with dentist’s mirrors attached so he could see behind him. Forty years later, the spectacle of trying something old and new with frames, was a welcome challenge, he tells Stephen Short.
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ISBN: How did the pqEyewear project happen?
Ron Arad: Some guy from the eyewear industry, called Assaf Raviv, approached us long before he had results. At first, we weren’t completely taken by the idea, or how good he was, but he insisted and we were sort of slow to react until we started. We had to be convinced that a). We could really be allowed to innovate, that it would not just be a styling exercise; b). When we were convinced the guy meant what he said, then our approach had to be for real. Once we did there was no stopping us. He’s also the most proactive person. There are no shortcuts, and he only wants the best. He was trusting and intelligent.

ISBN: Do you wear glasses?
RA: I don’t wear prescription glasses but sometimes it’s sunny, so I do resort to them.

ISBN: What about the design of glasses and sunglasses. Have you thought about that before?
RA: You know glasses are fantastic masks. And when I was a student, yes, I did a pair using dentists’ mirrors as sort of extensions, so I could see what was behind me. I still have them in a collection.

ISBN: Could you re-enact those now?
RA: No. Because today I don’t want to see what’s behind me. I did the glasses in 1973 when I first came to London. Do you know where we are in London?

ISBN: You’re in Camden.
RA: That’s right. Camden Lock. There’s a warehouse here called Arckiv [now General Eyewear] I think it’s the best place in the world I’ve seen for vintage glasses, vintage eyewear. I love this place. When you go, you think what contribution can we make. The guy that runs it, is so excited about what we’re doing.

ISBN: The pqEyewear glasses are distinctly different and your drawings larger than life.
RA: Well, it’s not like Elton John or Liberace or Dame Edna Everage. It’s not making a clown of yourself.

ISBN: What else convinced you about the pqEyewear project?
RA: Being convinced that we were not being asked to do another version of Ray-Bans, or a styling exercise, or name-dropping. There are very few names in the industry that actually do exciting work in glasses. So, we wanted a different approach. We all have different size noses so why did no one question the hinge on a pair of glasses. That’s what we tried to do with something called the A-range. We still have lots of stuff that hasn’t come out yet. There’s a lot to do. It’s not an ending job. We finished this collection and the next one we’re making soon.

ISBN: How soon is soon?
RA: Soon. Also bear in mind with this project - it’s not just designing the frames. It’s also about designing the brand, and inventing the name of the brand: the logo, the look. The whole thing is like a language of design.

: The name sounds intellectual, PQ Eyewear. Like IQ.
RA: The ‘p’ and ‘q’ letters have been next to each other in the alphabet for years and years and years. When you write the letters ‘p’ and ‘q’ together, you draw glasses. And you can turn it over once you’ve written it and it looks the same. So it’s visually palindromic, but in a 360 degree sort of way.

ISBN: Was this the first time you’ve done a branding exercise from scratch?
RA: Well, we’re not a brand, but I wanted to call it something that wasn’t a name. I wanted to find a name that is free from my name.

ISBN: You’ve collaborated with the fashion retail world, Yohji Yamamoto, adidas, Issey Miyake. You’re radical, innovative, humorous – traits that make a great clothes designer and great fashion products. Did you ever consider that route?
RA: No. But we’re launching a new line in footwear; FitFlops. A new shoe, it’s coming in September. FitFlops are international. FitFlop has a big health claim and they are very successful. It’s run by a very adventurous woman Marcia Kilgore who wanted to act out her adventurous nature and has come to us. It’s slower than the glasses but it’s going well. They are going to launch them in stages. The first to launch will be the zip flop.

ISBN: How do you feel about your design retrospectively? Say, for example, the Rover Chair in 1981, your first piece of furniture? Good, bad, conflicting or what?
RA: The Rover Chair never left. I have a couple in my living room. When I lent them to the Pompidou Centre for a retrospective they did on me in Paris a few years ago, I wanted to move one of the chairs about 20 centimetres on the floor for the show, but I was shouted at and told off for touching it without wearing white gloves. So how do I feel about the Rover Chair now? It was worth it just for that Pompidou moment. Still, everyday we get e-mails from people with Rover chairs, some real, some fake, asking us to value them. They do well in auctions.

ISBN: How many genuine Rover Chairs were made, would you estimate?
RA: A rough guess would be somewhere between 500 and 1,000.

ISBN: How many fakes are there?
RA: I’m not sure but they even had fake ones on the BBC’s Top Gear programme. In the early years they had real ones, but then I don’t know what happened. A prop hire company must have got in touch with the BBC and obviously convinced them they could fake it.

ISBN: This is a very British year. It’s The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, James Bond’s 50th anniversary at the Barbican and the 2012 London Olympics. I recall at one point you had a very innovative bridge project under consideration for the Olympics. What happened to it?
RA: It didn’t go ahead and it didn’t happen at all. It was a competition we didn’t win because we weren’t the judges. That’s the bad thing about competitions. You are judged by others, and they’re not always the right people. It’s a brilliant project, and they thought it was too ambitious structurally, which is bullshit [pauses two or three seconds] … can you write ‘bullshit’ in your publication?

ISBN: Yes, as long as you don’t mind me quoting you saying ‘bullshit’ in our publication then we’re fine with it.
RA: Okay, I said ‘bullshit’.

ISBN: So shall we. What about the bridge?
RA: It was meant to be 50 metres wide during the games and then only two of the bridges would stay after. It was a very common-sensical project.

ISBN: In what way?
RA: The fact that, and the way in which, it was going to be dismantled, leaving the two end bridges, makes a lot of sense. The way it stitches to pieces of flat land, it’s almost like thread. What can I tell you? It was a shame. The bridge that’s there now, that they went for, I don’t think you’ll ever see it or hear about it.

ISBN: The marketing for pqEyewear’s Corbs line asks the consumer if they’re more ‘caped crusader’ or ‘enfant terrible’? Which are you?
RA: Neither. When in doubt it’s always neither. I like to be neither. I am a neither. That’s going to be my new description of myself.

ISBN: Don’t you get sick of being copied, or borrowed from, given how innovative your work and ideas?
RA: Look. When people stop copying me I should worry.

ISBN: You were professor of industrial design at London’s Royal College of Art for 12 years until 2009. Do you miss it?
RA: I was there for 12 years, and I think they deserve someone new, with new ambitions. You can’t live on inertia. It was more exciting when I took over. I can tell you that’s it’s so nice not to feel guilty that I don’t put enough time into it. We had some brilliant students, some now doing really, really well. They enjoyed the course, enjoyed the time there.

ISBN: Who was your standout student during that time?
RA: You want names. I can’t. If I do, I exclude all the others. I do get very upset with international exhibitions on the subject of new designers, or the new designs, when 50 percent or more come from the RCA course. It’s what I call lazy curators. It’s a too easy source to get. I’m happy for the designers though.

ISBN: What project has been the most fun for you?
RA: It keeps changing. It tends to be the one we’re working on now. I’m not a comedian, but it’s nice to watch and see you’re not the only person enjoying what you do.

ISBN: We have a photo of you wearing what looks like a stretched vinyl hat. Is that one of yours?
RA: That’s one of my students from the Royal College of Art. Paul Cocksedge. A project called Change the Record. He uses old vinyl records and transforms them into speakers, using heating and moulding. You put your iPhone inside them, with the music on, and they are like amazing speakers, but speakers without electricity. It’s very good. Paul is one of the names I didn’t name.

ISBN: Hong Kong’s a very wealthy city these days. Are any of its tycoons or style aficionados commissioning you?
RA: Not yet. But if they want to … if it’s architecture, direct it to us. If it’s pieces, direct them to Ben Brown, the art gallery. If it’s glasses, I’m not sure who sells pqEyewear in Hong Kong.

ISBN: What’s afoot with you and Asia at present?
RA: There’s a new sculpture called Dats Et; it’s like saying ‘that’s it’ in a French accent. It’s a huge sculpture, took five years to create, and it’s looking for a home. It’s amazing. I’m sure one of your readers will want it.
Portraits: Photography - © Mark Cocksedge.
Drawings: Ron Arad for pqEyewear.
All other images:
©2011, Ron Arad Associates.