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a radical Christmas

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Ron Arad has designed an innovative and seasonal window display for Selfridges and a technology hall inside the store. Both are typical of a man who delights in breaking new ground, whatever he designs by david taylor. It is not easy finding a 'Christmassy' profile.

And it is harder still when the man you do choose, principally because of the unusual Yuletide window display he has done for Selfridges in London's Oxford Street, just happens to be something of a legend in design who is much more famous for the pioneering products, architecture and furniture he has produced over the years.

Not easy. But not impossible. So here goes.

Ron Arad has delighted in using new technology, new methods, and taking risks all his career. And in Selfridges' window this season, he has turned to fibre-optics connected to the glass by suction pads to spell out the names of technology companies whose goods are being snapped up in the Christmas rush inside. In another series of windows, he has assembled huge rows and columns of products - such as teddy bears, bottles and bras - with a top- or back-lit computer-controlled display. The idea is that, using the binary system of 'off ' and 'on', messages can be displayed and scrolled across the building's frontage.

In practice, it is not so great - you can't quite read the messages when you are close up - but both Arad and his designconscious client, Selfridges boss Vittorio Radice, are pleased with the way it has turned out: 'provocatively and innovatively' using light, a traditional element of Christmas, says the press blurb.

'What Selfridges really love about it is that they normally have to dismantle the Christmas windows on 26 December and replace them with sales windows, ' says Arad.

'Here they just have to type 'sales'.'

As with much of his work, Arad delights in the simple things, and is excited by a new way of working, new materials, different possibilities. Christmas clichÚs are avoided - the scheme attempts to connote with the festive period through light, allying it to another Arad project inside the store, the technology hall. This is Mammon after all, and any sense of religion is ignored. 'You want me to do Bethlehem scenes?' No.

Arad was born in Tel Aviv in 1951 and studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Art before moving to London and the Architectural Association, mainly because at the time in the late 1970s he reckoned it was more like an art college than the Slade.

After graduating, he says, he 'attempted to work for an architectural practice'.

'But it didn't take me long to realise I'm not cut [sic] to work for other people, ' he says. Is he a designer, an architect, what? 'I don't call myself anythingà I never asked myself about what I wanted to be. I never had a plan. Still don't.'

Although involved in architectural commissions - including buildings for Adidas, the London restaurants Belgo Centraal in Covent Garden and Belgo Noord in Chalk Farm, minutes from his office-cum-showroom - he does not hold architecture in a high regard. 'I don't like the profession so much, ' he says. 'Sorry readers!'

It's all 'giving service' and architecture is too much about following trends, he says.

'After Bilbao, people have to apologise for doing a straight wall. You're dependent to a great degree on other people's will, ignorance, perception, budgets, lack of imagination, whatever.'

No wonder, then, that Arad found it too stifling. So, after lunch one day at the practice he was 'attempting' to be a part of, he never returned. At least he would cease working for 'anticipators' or 'requesters' in his new career and he would not have to enter competitions 'where you don't rate the judges anyway'. But that afternoon, in his early 20s, he had no idea what he wanted to do.

Things moved quickly, though. Within a month of his lunchtime epiphany, Arad had found a studio in Covent Garden. It belonged to the GLC ('rest in peace') and was set for demolition. So when it was, the council felt obliged to rehouse Arad and he moved a short distance to Neal Street, where he created a studio with a staircase that played a tune on impact. 'It was where I did my first architectural project, ' smiles Arad. 'I had a very enlightened client.Myself.'

In 1981 he set up 'One-off Ltd', a design studio, workshops and showroom in Covent Garden. Arad was beginning to make his name with items like the Rover Chair - essentially a seat from a Rover 2000 car and some tubular steel - and 1986's Well Tempered Chair for Vitra. (A new version of the latter will shortly be issued, made of carbon-fibre. ) 'I wrongly thought that doing one-offs was more interesting than designing for the industry, ' says Arad of the period. Mass produced, he learned, is no worse or less exciting, but Arad feels he missed a trick with the Well Tempered Chair because it was commissioned without the usual commercial constraints and with access to a big company's machinery. 'I sort of blew it, ' he says - it was the sort of chair he would have come up with anyway.

It took Arad a while to learn how to design for mass production. 'There is a difference in printing a book and writing a letter to a friend, ' he says.

But not every Arad idea translates into sure-fire success.A clever, plastic, cuttable coil of a CD holder which 'disappears when the product is in use' did not set the world on fire.

Arad appears hurt at this, and thinks that marketing could have been better - it could have been sold in CD shops, not kitchen outlets. 'A brilliant idea is often not enough.'

He may have better luck with some forthcoming projects - all, since 1994, produced under the Ron Arad Studio banner. Arad shows me, on his shiny Sony Vaio laptop, some digital movies - always movies - of products he is designing for Alessi. 'They were the gentlemen I saw earlier, ' he explains. For Alessi he's designing professional bar equipment, including a sinuous ice bucket, a cocktail shaker and a disposable stirrer for drinks. This last looks like a normal spoon, except it is longer, plastic, blue and, by twisting another to it at right angles, it spins its head. It's like a child's toy where one powers a model car engine by pulling at a corrugated strap. 'That's exactly where I got the inspiration from, ' says Arad, 'from a toy that I found on the beach.'

He's also doing a watch for the firm, and shows me another scheme in development, a table which miraculously mutates into a table with chairs. Like a Transformer, the chairs slide into the table's underside on runners and fold out. They also stack, useful if more people turn up to your dinner party than you expect.

It's an impressive oeuvre, and the Selfridges window display encapsulates a little of what it is all about.

'It's about selling stuff, ' says Arad. 'It's about Selfridges having the belief that innovation and new design and architecture will help them sell more and make their shareholders happy and wealthier.'

Amen to that.

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