One of the great moments when the distinguished history of British snobbery met the limited world of British design was when Alan Clarke declared of Michael Heseltine that he was the sort of person who had bought his own furniture. Clarke, we presume, had inherited his stuff. For us mere mortals, however, there would be something creepy about living with furniture from our parents’ houses. Where did it all go – their old beds with head-boards, their chunky sideboards and patterned settees? It belongs with dandruff and guilt about sex and three television channels and EPs. It is called the past and it has been replaced.
One of the high-priests of how it came to be replaced is Ron Arad who was born in Israel in 1951 but has lived and worked in London since 1973. In his book of interviews with Matthew Collings, Arad describes the pleasure he takes when he walks from his studio near Chalk Farm to his house and can spot through five different front windows his Bookworm, the crazy book shelves in tempered steel he designed in 1992, wriggling proudly up people’s walls. (‘People just go the shop and buy it. And I wasn’t even all that serious when I did it.’) And his sofas were used on Big Brother. (‘Friends of my daughter come here and say: “Oh wow, cool, you got the Big Brother sofa.”’)
Arad’s first big hit was his Rover chair from 1981. He used old leather chairs from dead Rover cars and added tubes and clamps from scaffolding to create something cool and strange, retro and oddly modern at the same time. On Boxing Day that year, famously, like a genie out of a bottle, Jean Paul Gaultier arrived around and bought six of them for cash.
In the quarter century since then some of Arad’s work has been stunningly beautiful; some of his tables especially have a purity in their contour and tone that is not merely playful and easy on the eye, but also aesthetically satisfying, the result of a brilliant visual imagination.
There has also been something superbly restless about Arad’s spirit. He could easily have become known for one of his pieces and mass-produced it to death, or he could have become a version of Terence Conran and designed furniture which we would all be proud to own until our parents started buying it too and it began to appear in upmarket retirement homes.
Arad has remained edgy and interesting and easily bored. In his book of interviews Matthew Collings labours over the distinction between design and art. In Arad’s case, it is hardly worth making the argument. Arad is a designer. Some of what he does is brilliant and inventive and will change our lives; it will also, I hope, last for ever. What more does he want?
His work, because it is so daring and because it risks so much and changes so often, is uneven. His amp and turntable and stereo speakers cut into concrete is a pure classic – Duchamp would have been proud of it. Some of his chairs have enough energy, both dizzy and cool, to fill an empty room or a white gallery. Some of his other chairs, on the other hand, are sort of dreadful and raucous and belong with big, bad, dated Andy Warhol paintings and old Rolling Stones CD’s - anyone who owns one deserves to be dropped by their dwindling number of friends.