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Rad Ron Arad?

I managed to see the Ron Arad exhibit at MoMA recently. The show was quite a production – clear evidence of the status that star designers can rise to in the MoMA pantheon. The organizers must have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the installation. It was a large mobius-strip like structure made of stainless-steel boxes, each one individually shaped and fitted into a curvy grid. The whole thing must have been 70 or 80 feet long and maybe 15 feet tall. Chairs and other objects fit into the boxes, projecting shadows on a fabric surface wrapped around the whole thing. It was spectacular, to say the least.

Arad started off making hand-made objects. His first notable designs were consumer items like stereos embedded in artfully eroded concrete (1983) and later chunky welded chairs in polished sheet metal (1988). At the time they were never presented as craft, always as design. It helped in making that case that Arad used any number of mediums, so he could never be pigeonholed as a welder or a concrete guy. Over the years, he graduated to high-style and high-tech.

His current designs exploit both digital design and rapid-prototyping technologies. It’s especially interesting to compare his RP outputs to work done on the same machines, but emerging from craft-based programs in the U.S. Arad’s designs are much more wide-ranging, dealing with formats as varied as vessels, chairs, interior design and architectural models. There can be no doubt that Arad is unafraid to design anything.

One amusing design, rendered in epoxy resin, is called “Coupe Banana Bowl.” Arad wrote out the phrase “Not made by hand,” which was then extruded in a concave form via digital and RP technology. Only one end of the bowl can be read; the rest appears to be entirely abstract. It was produced in an edition for a gallery in the Netherlands.

Arad’s central focus has been on seating, especially chairs. His “Big Easy” armchair is widely known. It looks like a Tex Avery cartoon of an easy chair, with exaggerated arms and sharp edges. More recent designs riff on rocking chairs and chaise longues.

For all their inventiveness, Arad’s chairs work largely because they stay within the envelope. Even his conceptual chairs are recognizable as chairs, and do not stand as pure abstract forms. The thrill of an Arad chair is that we can see how much he departs from the familiar typeform. An Arad chair carries enough of the signifiers of “chair” to remain legible as a chair, while simultaneously giving us something new, surprising, or outlandish. But he never throws the context away completely. Without our knowledge of the history of chairs lurking in the background, the restless invention in Arad’s chairs would be illegible.

In a sense, maybe he’s more like a craftsperson than an artist. He’s loyal to his forms, the same way many people in the crafts are loyal to their mediums.

Still, Arad gets his artworld cred by working in any number of forms, as I noted above. His fearlessness sets him apart from the majority of craftspeople, especially older makers like me. I’m narrow: these days I make only jewelry. (I used to fool around with other forms like hollowware, furniture, sculpture, drawing and photography, but not anymore.)

Because Arad uses so many mediums, he offers a challenge to craftspeople who limit themselves to one medium. For instance, to the furniture-maker, he asks: Why just wood? Why ignore the astonishing possibilities offered by RP, carbon fiber, LEDs, and who knows what else? Arad exhibits an active curiosity about new materials. Those who choose to limit themselves to wood (or clay, or glass, or metal, or textiles) ought to have an answer for Arad’s challenge.

One of the oddities of the Arad exhibit is that museum-goers could not sit in most of the chairs and chaises on display. In fairness, a museum’s charge is to preserve the objects put under its protection, so they have to remain untested, remote. MoMA installed two Arad modular seating units outside the entrance to the show, though. I sat on one (“Do-La-Res,” 2008) and it was uncomfortable.

To what degree is comfort necessary to a chair? Frank Lloyd Wright designed any number of tortuous chairs, and yet we still celebrate them. Why, exactly? I think it’s because we celebrate invention. We appreciate departure from the norm, even if the results are ambivalent. I remember trying to sit on one of Mark Newsome’s “Lockheed Lounge” chairs, and it was practically impossible. You slid right off the thing. For all its weakness as a functional object, it remains a memorable variation on the chaise longue. Comfort is fine in its place, but so is discomfort.

Big proviso here, though. MoMA’s design collection is founded on several firm and relatively fixed principles, which go all the way back to the 1934 “Machine Art” exhibition. Absence of applied ornament is one (with an exception made for textiles). Sound usefulness is another. Industrial fabrication (or its appearance) is a more recent addition to the canon. MoMA has long collected objects that embody these principles: the helicopter in the light well, the Ferrari racing car in the educational wing. Furthermore, MoMA aggressively excludes objects that don’t conform to its principles. Try finding wallpaper with a representational pattern in the MoMA collections. Or whimsical design, like Kid Robot toys. Or anything produced in the past 15 years that comes out of the studio craft context.

That being the case, what does one make of the early Arad chairs that were strictly handmade? Or the sexy forms that bear only the most tenuous relationship to function, like the corrugations in his “Ripple” chairs or the vast 3-D grids that he proposes for interiors? The truth is, many of Arad’s designs (or parts of them) are blatantly decorative: useless elaborations applied to designs simply because they look great. Arad’s decoration is acceptable to the stodgy powers within MoMA.

Which is great, because the design world is already there. High-end designers like Marcel Wanders and high-end stores like Moss embraced decoration years ago. Artists like Ryan McGinness revel in it. Now Ron Arad has been officially anointed by MoMA, in an act of bold hypocrisy. (Not his, but MoMA’s.) Arad shows what the decorative arts look like right NOW: inventive, smart, lightly ironic, often funny, often implicated in new technologies. Anyone who has the slightest interest in ornament needs to watch closely.

September 15, 2009

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