Ron Arad: Hat Maker, Design World Daredevil

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Ron Arad, whose show Ron Arad: No Discipline opened at the MoMA in August, recently gave a talk at the 92nd Street Y as a part of their “Dialogues with Design Legends” series. While the dialogue in question was meant to be between moderator Daniella Ohad-Smith and Arad, the talk quickly became an open forum between Arad and his audience. From the moment he walked on stage in a hat that looked like a stiff milkmaid’s bonnet and opened his lecture with “Any questions?,” it was a free-for-all.

“Who made your hat?” someone yelled from the back to get things going. The Tel Aviv-born designer, whose use of non-traditional materials in the interior design and furniture realms is well known, also seems to have a sartorial streak. “It’s a Borsalino hat,” he answered, “that I boiled and folded. That wasn’t easy, but we must suffer for beauty a little bit.”

Like most artists, Arad has suffered to come to his art, though not in the clichéd Dylan Thomas way. “I was getting bored in some architect’s office [in London],” Arad says of his start in design, “and it was always even more difficult after lunch, so one day after lunch, I didn’t go back.” Here’s where the bar stool could have come into play, but contrary to the leanings of most newly unemployed men, Arad ended up at the scrap yard. He found a couple of old leather seats from a scrapped Range Rover and decided to re-make them into chairs using cast iron Kee Klamp joints for the base.

Rover Chair, Ron Arad

Soon, he rented a studio and hired a full time scrapper to source Rover seats from all over England. “I had no idea what was going to happen in the studio,” Arad said. “One day, I was inside and a French man knocked on the windows. ‘We’re closed.’ I told him, but he said he wanted to buy the Rover chairs that were shown in the window. ‘Okay, we’re open,’ I said and let him in. He bought six chairs for his own apartment and that was my first big sale. I found out later that the man was Jean-Paul Gaultier. That was 1981 and he was in London getting inspiration from the punk scene at the beginning of his career.” After that, the Rover Chair took off, becoming one of Arad’s most iconic designs. “Now I can only touch them with white gloves” he joked.

Known for his original ideas and unconventional use of materials, Arad was committed to hand-produced pieces in the beginning of his career. “I visited a factory with 2,000 people making furniture, and I thought, ‘How will I use it?’ I failed because I would only design things I could do myself.”

He went home and began by simply stapling a piece of paper into the shape of a chair. “There’s a chair, there’s an object.” From that tiny model, the Well Tempered Chair was made. Arad fabricated it from stainless steel and wing nuts; the steel is tempered so the chair bounces and molds when sat in. It looks rough and cold — almost sinister — but it’s exactly the opposite; it’s springy and flexible. “It behaves more like a waterbed than a piece of steel,” he said, “Your expectation is broken, but positively.” The piece marked the beginning of a long relationship with manufacturer Vitra, which produced many of the pieces on show at the MoMA and in the homes and hotels of design aficionados from Miami to Milan.

Installation view of Ron Arad: No Discipline at The Museum of Modern Art. Photo credit: Jason Mandella

Dialogues with Design Legends continues at the 92nd St. Y on November 3 at 8:15 p.m. with Karim Rashid and Gaetano Pesce. Ron Arad: No Discipline runs through October 19.