There’s an intoxicating amount and degree of pleasure to be taken from Ron Arad’s designs, which makes his current mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art an especially dynamic and compelling show. At nearly 60, he has revolutionized and redefined the discipline of contemporary furniture design, crafting a spectacular aesthetic that has almost single-handedly extended postmodernism’s shelf life in the arts. His forms radicalize and warp the measured geometries of mid-century Modernism; his brightly colored materials and their reflective surfaces overpower the austere blacks, stainless steel and inconspicuous materials of contemporary furniture design; and the show’s title, No Discipline
, underlines the rigorous mix of consistency and innovation that runs throughout Arad’s work.
The display structure that Arad designed especially for this exhibition – a gallery-sized figure eight-shaped shelf system that lifts at its center to let visitors walk into the two inner loops – is a perfect monument to the greatest constant in his creative output. His most reliable motif is the irregular oval (sometimes one, often more), a swooping, dynamic, constantly shifting and adaptable form capable alternately of evoking solidity, balance, movement, repetition and irregularity. Arad’s most iconic designs feature ovals as their organizing form: from his series of Oh-Void
rocking chairs (2002) to the springy, spongy, drop-shaped Bouncing Vases
(2001), coil- and worm-shaped shelving units and the patterns of the Tom Vac
chairs (1997). In a design environment that has long favored sober, subdued and rectilinear forms, Arad has turned the circle into a star.
In addition to famous works from the past ten years (including gleaming tongue-shaped steel chairs and his surreal forays into architecture) No Discipline
offers a glimpse of Arad’s early work. Harder, sharper, more angular and less beautiful as objects, these earlier designs reflect a practice more akin to the exhibition title, wherein Arad demonstrates a willful disregard for the smooth surfaces and pop colors that have come to typify his work. These pieces are harsh, rough-hewn, more awkward, demanding and, as a result, more rewarding.
Aside from Box in Four Movements
(1994) – a massive gleaming steel cube that unfolds into a hard chair – the best of these early objects is a stereo system embedded in untreated and crumbling concrete. The piece, titled simply Concrete Stereo
(1983), is both a brutal anti-object whose massive weight and ugly materials defy easily reproducible industrial design conventions, and a pop art statement about the gritty glamor of the music coming out of underground scenes in crumbling cities around the world. An artwork rather than a functional electronic appliance, Concrete Stereo flaunts its disregard for good design.
And already in some of the early works included in No Discipline
, Arad’s oval forms start to take shape. The delightfully clever clock projection Shadow of Time
(1986) uses a climbing steel form reminiscent of a gramophone horn to project a circular clock dial onto the wall. Chair By Its Cover
(1989) anticipates the gleaming forms of his latest work, shrouding a worn out generic metal and leather chair in a massive and roughly cut cocoon of shiny stainless steel. In these and other early works, Arad starts to soften his lines, curve his materials and colorize his details. He also begins to experiment with cutting-edge technologies.
The works he’s best known for now couldn’t exist without advanced rendering and designing software, sophisticated production processes and an insatiable interest in the next materials, media and modeling tools. His Paved With Good Intentions
series (2005) features stainless steel tables flowing and spreading up walls, serving as both a working surface, a full mirror and a category-defying art object. The popular Ripple Chair
(2006) and ridged, egg-shaped Thumbprint
chairs (2007) both feature concentric oval forms repeating endlessly in a pattern that’s then cast into various materials – stainless steel and polypropylene in those cases – repeated, formed, molded and manipulated into infinitely customizable objects.
Two of the most unusual pieces in No Discipline
suggest the latest mutation in Arad’s oeuvre. At an awkward, bottleneck-prone spot on the floor at the very top of the high-flying exhibition’s figure eight, the Lo-Rez-Dolores-Tabula-Rasa
table (2004) draws surprisingly little attention to itself for a glowing orb over five feet in diameter with a constant loop of low-resolution video projected across its surface. That might be because as it sits on the floor, with its pixilated abstract light show beaming from who knows where, viewers aren’t sure if they should sit on it or walk carefully around it, afraid its seemingly lightweight material might buckle under the slightest amount of pressure. When it’s blank the table’s white surface resembles the fragile shell of an egg, or a helium balloon, but the material is in fact Corian
, a complex compound manufactured by the chemical giant DuPont, but relatively obscure in design circles since being invented forty years ago. DuPont approached Arad to create an object with the material, and this dazzling, ephemeral combination of a disco ball and a coffee table with a projector built into it was the result.
If the exhibition has a centerpiece – debatable, since Arad’s display system creates at least four major focal points – that climactic creation is also one of the most hopeful objects on view. Lolita
, also from 2004, is a five-foot tall, 350-pound chandelier made of a continuous, spiraling stripe of LED lights. If all it did was sit there glowing, it would already be something magical, but Arad is more than just a designer with flair: he’s a showman. Accordingly, Lolita
is also a screen for messages, which scroll down its unfurling band towards its tip. Better yet, you can send a text message (to 917-774-6264) and it – maybe it makes more sense to call Lolita
“her” in light of this feature – will display your words within a minute.
In pieces like these programmable media artworks, Arad suggests a way forward for furniture design that has less to do with ownership of singular or exclusive objects than it does with communal experience and interactive properties. In short, amid all the coiled chairs, reflective surfaces and brilliant colors, he’s exploring ways to make furniture design relevant to the lives of a larger public than the tiny tax bracket that can afford to buy original Arad works. The creative middle ground he’s exploring with this kind of object is an area too often left unexplored in a furniture design world defined by its polar extremes of luxury frivolities and thoughtless affordable basics.