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Ron Arad, the accidental (and ethical) architect

The Israeli architect and industrial designer Ron Arad on the value of boredom, intelligent design and myths around architecture

Ron Arad. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Ron Arad. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The biggest myth about architecture is that it is art," says Ron Arad, 66, as he leans back in his chair. “Sadly, the majority of architecture that we see is artless. But maybe it is true about every profession. “A majority of the work in every field is not as exciting as it should be. And the more your expertise in any field, the less the number of works you enjoy," Arad told Lounge in an interview.

The Israeli architect, who lives in London, is one of the speakers at the ID Symposium organized as part of the ongoing India Design ID event in New Delhi. He has landed in Delhi on his maiden India visit just hours ago. But he has managed to see bits of the Capital already, and has a complaint: He hates speed-breakers on roads. It is a rude way to be kept awake, he says.

“Driving from the airport this morning, when you are tired and want to relax in the car, you just hit a bump and it is a bad surprise," he says. “Yes, it is important to control speed and save lives, but someone should come out with a more intelligent way to do it."

This is what defines Arad and his work: experimental and functional at the same time. His forms are fluid and sinuous, and he loves to play with shapes, structures and materials.

Though he is called a free thinker by experts, one who likes to bend the rules, Arad doesn’t agree with this assessment. “There is no manifesto and there is nothing I am rebelling against. I am just doing what I am interested in," he says.

He created the Design Museum Holon in Israel, wrapping the gallery building in layers of corten steel. He is also designing the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in London near the Houses of Parliament in collaboration with Ghanaian British architect David Adjaye. The Holocaust Memorial comprises 23 vertical bronze structures, and the spaces between each symbolize the 22 countries where Jews were killed during the Holocaust. “It was important to do something that was not just a piece on the pedestal, but something that one could go through and experience," says Arad.

Another work of his in progress is a cancer treatment centre in north Israel to serve Jews, Christians and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians alike, he says.

Retrospectives of his work have been held at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Barbican Centre in London.

Dressed in his trademark Cappellone hat, baggy trousers, an open button-down shirt and a pair of sandals, Arad’s ensemble is all-black, except for a long magenta scarf. He speaks in low monotones and short, broken phrases.

Arad says he has no favourite material or form. “You can get excited with material and processes and ask yourself what you can do with them. Or you can create a design and think of what material and processes go best with the design. It is a two-way conversation," says Arad. “Recently, I did a project with logs of trees and enjoyed it."

Arad studied architecture at the Architectural Association in London from 1974-79 and then worked for an architect in north London. It didn’t take him long to understand that he was not cut out to work for others. He got bored easily. “I tried. But it was difficult, more so after the lunch hours. So one day after lunch, I didn’t come back and went to a scrapyard instead. And the rest, as they say, is history," says Arad.

The Rover Chair. Photo Courtesy: The Museum of Modern Art

That day in 1981, he gathered some car seats and made his first Rover Chair, now an iconic design. “If a week before that someone had told me you’ll be a furniture designer, I’d be like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I never had a plan, not a five-year plan, not one for when I’d grow old. I never thought I will end up designing furniture for leading international brands," says Arad. “I had said once that boredom is the mother to all invention and it has gone viral since."

The most difficult part of designing something, says Arad, is to ensure that the “finished product should be better than you had expected or you deserve". “To me, to design is to make something that wasn’t there before. And to discover things that you thought you didn’t know. That’s the challenge. Okay is not good," he says.

Arad has refused several projects in his over two-decade-long career and says it is not difficult to say no when the ethics of the project itself are in question. Therefore, a good client is as important as a good architect.

“It is very easy to say no to a tyrant asking you to make a monument for him. Even if there are many temptations. I would not, hypothetically speaking, build a wall between the US and Mexico," he says.

“Even in industrial design, there are some materials that are more environment-friendly than others. We should use them. I never use products that are based on child labour," says Arad. “Look, we are no saints, but we have to try and be good where we can."

What is the worst criticism he has heard of his work?

“That my works are obscenely expensive," Arad says. “I design products for international furniture brands and there is a cost of production involved there. But when I make something for myself at my studio, I don’t care about costs.

“When I go to exhibitions and see sculptures of (Alberto) Giacometti, the last thing I am interested in is the price. I can consume things without purchasing them. And I believe that some of the obscenely expensive pieces that I do, people don’t really have to own them to enjoy them."

India Design ID is on till 25 February at New Delhi’s NSIC Grounds. For timings and ticket prices, visit here .

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