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Restless Ron Arad at the Barbican

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Ron Arad has gone from scavenging in London scrapyards to designing galleries in Tel Aviv, and the resulting works are now on show at the Barbican.

I don’t want no retro spective was an eponymous 1979 pastel by American artist Ed Ruscha. It was also the T-shirt slogan that design polymath Ron Arad chose to sport for his initial meetings with Barbican curator Lydia Kee to discuss Restless, an exhibition that maps out 30 years of work by the designer. This ‘non retrospective’ (which he from London for over 30 years, giving him honorary Brit status. In this period, he’s been an artisan-entrepreneur operating out of a Covent Garden basement; an industrial designer to clients including Vitra, Alessi and Kartell; an influential teacher at the Royal College of Art, where he created the Department of Design Products; as well emphasised by also wearing the T-shirt on the opening night) might be the first in his adopted hometown, but it is not the first of its kind. In 2009, MoMA hosted No Discipline, which had previously exhibited at Paris Pompidou Centre in 2008-09.

Arad was born in Israel but trained at the Architectural Association and has operated as principle of a successful architecture practice whose recent projects include a major 2,500m2 gallery in Israel and a shopping centre in Belgium. The Barbican’s exhibition is notionally split into two parts; the balcony level, which looks at Arad’s key studio (that is, non mass-produced) pieces and downstairs, which looks at relationship between these and his mass produced work.

Further splits are achieved by thematic sections with the similar cheeky nomenclature that Arad uses for his pieces: ‘Scavenging’, ‘Tinkering’, ‘Volumising’. These sections fit easily within the spaces’ natural alcoves, helped along the way by dynamic LED screens, designed by consultants Ledartist.

Slightly confusingly, the chronological ‘beginning’ is on the top level. Here are the classics from his early days, whose visceral finish is far from the sheen of some of his later work. The Rover Chair (1981) was one of the pieces that propelled him into the limelight; Jean Paul Gaultier famously bought six. It’s a Rover car seat, the result of a successful scavenge on a north London scrapheap, fixed onto a Kee Klamp scaffolding frame.

There’s also the Shadow of Time (1986), a large upside-down cone that projects a clock face onto the ceiling from its gaping maw. This form was derived from a conical balustrade he was required to fit to his Covent Garden shop staircase in 1986 to keep the health and safety inspector at bay.

Also of that era is the Concrete Stereo (1983). It’s hard to conceive of the impact that the scabrous form of the record player amp and speaker cast in rough aggregate would have had in its day when a top-notch HiFi would cost north of £1,000 and the requisite form was sleek, square and black. In contrast, this rough diamond meant that any careless handling would make the protruding reinforcing rods ruin any record’s groove.

The exhibition’s title comes from one of the consistent themes in Arad’s work; movement. His love of the springy qualities of tempered steel led to the Bookworm Bookshelf (1993) - a large version of which arches the gallery - and numerous sprung chairs. A spectacular rail mechanism called the Teeter Totter (2008/09) shunts two circular bookshelves up and down its 19m length. Arad protégés Tom Foulsham and Valentin Vodev were drafted in to make mechanisms that keep the rocking chairs moving throughout the exhibition.

And lest we forget, chairs are - in the main - for sitting on. Happily, the Barbican have avoided that annoying trap that design exhibitions often fall into - not being able to feel, touch or sit on what are on some level functional pieces of design.

There’s plenty of Arad’s mass-produced chairs (work for Moroso, Driade and Vitra) that are laid out ready for seating. My recommendation is to swing your legs up on to the aptly-named Spring, lean back into its leather upholstery, look up at the coffered ceiling and enjoy the languid sway and bounce of the tempered sprung steel frame.

Whether you love or loathe the resultant aesthetic, it is hard not to be compelled by Arad’s tireless interrogation of new techniques and materials

Arad set up his architecture practice in 1989. Some of its unsuccessful or pulled projects (the Olympic Bridge, proposals for Battersea Power Station) are represented, but the main emphasis, in models and flythroughs, is on the flurry of recent Arad buildings, including the a 18.75 million euros (£16.5 million) MediaCité complex in Liège, Belgium, a futuristic shopping centre, and the Holon Design Museum in Israel (see box), which covers over 2,500m2.

For all its wit, Arad’s work is often confrontational. Whether you love or loathe the resultant aesthetic, it is hard not to be compelled by his tireless interrogation of new techniques and materials. As well as his mass-produced work, Arad is a collector’s favourite and still produces one-off works for clients - such as Oh, the Farmer and the Cowman should be friends (2009), a bookcase with shelves in the shape of individual states of the USA.

All the while, Arad has kept his design studio to fewer than 20 people - product designers upstairs, architects downstairs - enabling him to retain a close authorship of output. According to Arad, it’s this close-knit team that makes the translation of his bespoke design details into his increasingly ambitious architectural work possible.

If he can deliver more projects like the Holon Design Museum, it seems likely that the next stage in Ron Arad’s restless career will be downstairs with his architectural team.

‘Standing within a sculpture’
The Design Museum in Holon, Israel, is the architecture wing Ron Arad Associates’ first large-scale space is split into two concrete volumes wrapped in Cor-ten steel bands. At different points these provide structural support, enclose corridors and give solar shading. Their monumentality amplifies Arad’s theme oftension present in Beware of the Dog (1990) and This Mortal Coil (1993). As James Foster, associate at the practice who worked on the project, puts it: ‘It’s like standing within a massive Richard Serra sculpture.’

Ron Arad: Restless, Barbican, London, EC2Y 8DS, until 16 May, £10, www.barbican.org.uk

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