His Discipline’s Like No Other

08/19/2009 4:00 AM |

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.