Everyone needs non-essentials

Last update – 04:06 07/11/2005
Republished from http://www.haaretz.com (2005-11-09)

Everyone needs non-essentials
By Esther Zandberg

The world is chock full of design. There is design in a chair, a table, or a lamp or, pardon the expression, a lighting fixture. Yet one of the world’s best-known and most successful designers, Ron Arad, feels an irresistible urge to reinvent the wheel. But, according to him, “They already invented the wheel. I am concerned with inventing something that did not exist previously.”

The international career and reputation of Ron Arad, an Israeli-born, British designer who lives in London, bears witness to the fact that there will always be those who succumb to the temptation to acquire immodestly priced creations, even if they are not vital and often not even useful. His most successful product, the Bookworm bookshelf, is a flexible strip of plastic that barely holds books. Despite that, the Bookworm sells at the staggering rate of 1,000 kilometers per year.

Who needs a non-essential bookshelf?

Arad: “First, I need it, because that is what I do. But you can also present it this way: Who needs another song? There are already plenty of songs. Who needs more people? Most people are superfluous. The world is superfluous in general. Culture begins where needs end. And that’s what makes the bookshelf beautiful. That’s what makes Philippe Starck’s lemon squeezer beautiful, though it barely squeezes. Someone who only needs to extract juice from a lemon can get by with a NIS 10 plastic juicer.”

Is a juicer that does not juice culture? Isn’t it merely decadence?

“There is always someone who asks these questions. There are designers who develop residences for survivors in disaster zones, and there are even designers who design the F-16 and the Kalashnikov rifle. Not all of us join the Physicians Without Borders non-profit organization. I feel quite guilty that I am not saving Africa or a refugee camp in Gaza. But what sort of a world would it be without art and music, without poetry and literature, and without new chairs?”

From Holon to Bilbao

Arad is visiting Israel this week to uncover his plans to establish a museum of design in Holon. The project, which has gone through a number of permutations, was masterminded by the Municipality of Holon, a city which also reinvents itself on a regular basis. Arad disagrees with the concept of a separate museum of design and prefers the Parisian Pompidou Center model in which, “one does not need a passport to move from the realm of film to the realm of design, to art, and to architecture.” Despite that, he says, “There are museums solely devoted to chess, and that is also fine.”

The Holon Municipality and residents of the area surrounding the planned museum express hope that the museum “will put the city on the international design map” and simultaneously “redefine the concept of a city.”

Will this make Holon the design capital of Israel?

“Holon is certainly a legitimate site for a museum of design. The municipality wants to do right by its citizens, and they will definitely benefit when visitors arrive from the big city. Until now, people lived in Holon and used Tel Aviv, so nothing bad will happen if people now live in Tel Aviv and use Holon.”

Is Holon, the City of Children, central enough to house a museum of design?

“Many famous museums are now located in the periphery, if it is possible to define the periphery as a city which is only a 20-minute drive from Tel Aviv. Italy has design centers outside of Milan. And it would be a mistake to forget Bilbao, which was virtually unknown until the [Guggenheim] museum designed by Frank Gehry was established.”

The Holon Municipality is also anxious to make others aware of their city, and they chose Ron Arad, a star in his own right, to play the role of their own Frank Gehry. “Holon has a lot of good intentions – too many good intentions,” he says. “But they are accompanied by a great deal of ambition. They contacted me despite the fact that there are other ways to choose an architect, such as a design competition. Until now, things have proceeded well and we hope that the reality does not blow up in our faces.”

What was the design brief?

“First and foremost, the city wanted an iconic structure. But there’s a problem. It is no coincidence that I mentioned the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. It benefited the city but artists and curators are reluctant to display there because the architecture draws attention from the work. The more the architecture in a museum flexes its own muscles, the more the artists suffer.”

Classic car seat

Arad was born in Tel Aviv in 1951. He studied design at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and architecture at the AA (Architecture Association) School in London, where he has lived since 1973. In 1981, he and Caroline Thorman founded One Off, a design studio in London, which specializes in limited edition production of furniture that created some of the post-industrial icons of the late `80s. The Rover Chair, a rocking car seat pulled from the classic British car of the same name, represented Arad’s ticket into the upper echelons of design.

He and Thorman founded their current design firm in the `80s, where they now employ 20 workers. He has served as the head of the design department in the Royal College of Art London for the last three years. Arad sees himself as an artist-designer-architect, and, in addition to designing objects, he creates artistic installations and is involved in interior design and architecture projects. His work has a characteristic identity. The first associations which spring to mind are endless loops and a lot of tin.

Does design have a national identity?

“There is no Portuguese or Croatian or Israeli design despite the fact that there is some sort of `growers’ council’ of Israeli design. I was born in Tel Aviv. All my memories are from here, but I developed in London. Some of that was because I was foreign. It has come to the point where I feel that I cannot participate in an exhibit of Israeli design. That would be fraudulent as far as I am concerned.”

A prophet without honor

Like many successful Israelis abroad, Arad has a score to settle with Israel. He does not wish to complain but no one in Israel collects his products. (“There are even collectors in Turkey.”) He still repeats Tumarkin’s slip of tongue at the dedication of the Tel Aviv opera complex, “They kidnapped the wrong Ron Arad.” And he is still disappointed with the unflattering Israeli response to an exhibit of his designs at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1990. It is not that the exhibit failed – quite the opposite, but, “no interesting dialogue pertaining to design ensued.”

The media was only interested in how he made it abroad and who are his famous clients. Critics maintained that he is a designer with pretensions of being an artist, “and they did not understand that I move between both fields. But this will become clear someday, just as it did abroad.”

Boutique surprise

Arad’s largest current project is the 50-room boutique hotel Upperworld. The hotel will be erected on the roof of the abandoned Battersea Power Station in London. The designated landmark by architect Sir Gilbert Scott, who designed London’s red mail boxes, will be transformed into a shopping and recreation complex within the limits of preservation.

“At the outset, we were told that every room would cost 3,000 pounds sterling per night,” Arad says. “Then you ask yourself what you give people for that sort of price.”

The problem was solved as well as anyone imagined. In exchange for that sum, Arad will grant guests the privilege of sleeping in rooms made of Corian, a smooth, hard synthetic, in flowing futuristic lines. They will be transported in horizontal elevators in transparent tubes, and swim in pools that adjoin each room or paddle about in lens-like bathtubs under a ceiling which may be opened to reveal the sky. And that’s before room service.

Didn’t this money cause you ethical problems?

“Again, that question. My problem is how to do the work as well as possible. The budget supports something that you could not do otherwise. One of my favorite places in London is the Kenwood House. I have no fondness for the lifestyle of the people that lived there, but I thank them for the fact that I can now see their Rembrandt.”

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