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Innovative optimist

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review - Ron Arad By Matthew Collings. Phaidon Press, 2004. £39.95

Ron Arad trained as an architect, but is best known for his furniture design. When it came to a monograph of his work, one might have expected something trendy and perhaps object-like in itself. The final result, published by Phaidon, is entirely different.

Phaidon largely relies on formulas for content and design, and its titles are normally produced in series. Arad's book seems to represent a new direction, in that its written content consists entirely of interviews.

Matthew Collings was perhaps an unlikely candidate to interview Arad, as he clearly knows very little about the worlds of design and architecture. At one point he asks what Vitra is, and the only female architect he can name is Zaha Hadid. But however unexpected the choice of Collings might seem, it works. He enters the conversation as an outsider to Arad's world, and thus places him in a wider context than that of design.

Collings is also refreshingly unpretentious and seems totally at ease with Arad, unafraid to ask what might be inane questions. The dynamic between them works, maybe in part because, while Collings is a well-known art critic and television personality, he's happy to take a backseat to Arad. In short, what might have been an experiment on the part of the publisher has paid off.

The book, like all of Phaidon's publications, is well designed and contains numerous colour reproductions of Arad's work. It is a great resource for anyone interested in design or architecture, covering Arad's practice from his student days at the Architectural Association and his earliest recycled furniture pieces, to his recent architectural proposals for public buildings.

The content is roughly chronological, which works if you read the book from cover to cover. It's not the easiest publication to dip into, however, partly because of the interview format and additionally because of its structure. Rather than being divided into, say, periods of time, the book is split into what seem to be totally random chapters, labelled with subheadings as disparate as 'Readymades peaking and waning', 'Shopping', 'Being a ruinist' and 'Not macho'. While these may be entertaining, they aren't very useful.

The sheer range of Arad's subject matter is what is most impressive, as well as his attitude towards work and life. Arad seems to have stumbled into design. Fed up with the monotony of working in an architectural office, he quit without having a secure income or plan. This kind of optimism and confidence is surely a component of his success, combined, of course, with a huge talent.

From small objects to his signature chairs and larger building projects, the abiding quality in his work is innovation. At first this included recycled objects ('readymades' as Arad terms them). Then he exploited the means of mass production by inventing a process to create two chairs out of one mould. Finally, in his architectural projects, Arad rethinks simple elements such as clothing rails, elevators and car parks.

Thus, the book follows his practice's evolution from handspun one-off functional objects into a global industry. However, Arad seems to take the same approach today as in his hippie 1970s. This publication echoes his way of encountering the world: unpretentious, and whimsical in places, but always compelling.

Kathy Battista is a writer and curator

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