Ron Arad on London 24.03.07

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Yesterday (20 May 2014), Icon editor Christopher Turner interviewed Ron Arad and his architectural colleague Asa Bruno at Clerkenwell Design Week. Here is a piece from our archives, from 2005, in which Arad considers the early years of his career in London

I came to London in 1973. I’d spent a year at art school in Tel Aviv and I needed a break. I didn’t even pack my LPs – they were very important to me. So I came to London for a break – and I’m still on my break.

I found myself studying at the Architectural Association. I didn’t plan to study architecture but it seemed the action was at the AA – more exciting than the Slade or the Royal College. Zaha [Hadid] and Nigel [Coates] were a couple of years before me. Will Alsop was teaching there, so was Peter Cook, so was Rem [Koolhaas] … something was happening.

Then punk happened of course. When I started to work I was described as punk by lots of mainly foreign writers. But I wasn’t punk. Punk was from deprived council estates, it was angry – I wasn’t angry. I was always over-privileged. I came from a very cultured background [Arad’s parents were leading figures on the Tel Aviv art scene].

I wasn’t shouting about anything. My concrete stereo project [1984] was a piece about looking for beauty in an unexpected place; about making a connection between pebbles and electronic components. It wasn’t advocating destruction, but lots of people dubbed it “Beirut style”; “heavy metal”. Lazy interpretations.

If someone at the AA had said I was going to be a furniture designer I would have laughed them off. I tried when I graduated from the AA to work for a firm of architects but I just walked away one lunchtime and went to a scrapyard and made the first Rover chairs and became a furniture designer. I had nothing to lose, I was about to be deported – I didn’t have a work permit.

I couldn’t have done what I did anywhere else but London; absolutely not. Say I had gone to Milan instead of London; it would be no problem for me to design forks and chairs and things and find manufacturers to do them and – va bene! – I would have become another Antonio Citterio.

I remember once looking at the Vitra poster – you know the one with all the chairs? – with Citterio and he said to me “I’ve been working for Vitra for so many years and I don’t have a single chair on this, and you have six.” I think that’s because he grew up in a place where there was an industry and there was a happy symbiosis that didn’t breed a lot of excitement; didn’t push the boundaries.

But here in London I had to invent my profession. There weren’t any role models. Who would be a role model? There was fashion: Biba, Mary Quant, the mini – I mean the mini skirt, not the car – but who were the designers? Who could I look at?

There was no manufacturing in London. This bred the designer-maker thing, people like Tom Dixon, people who designed and produced themselves; actually welding and making and crafting. André Dubreuil and people like that. In those days we had to do everything ourselves.

It came with a certain look. It coincided with people like Nigel Coates talking about neo-baroque, so they went to the scrapyard to find raw materials and old winged fireplaces that they turned into something else.

So there were the designer-makers, and the others had to travel to work. Jasper Morrison’s work was abroad, Ross Lovegrove’s too … and they made a name for British design, people started to talk about British design. It has a lot to do with the lack of British manufacturing.

Is it British design or is it London design? I think it’s London. Look, London is one of the centres of the world. I think in all fields it creates ideas, ideas that have resonance. There are very talented people in New Zealand, in Tel Aviv; you can find very good design schools abroad – and in this country, such as Sheffield Hallam – that are doing work that is better than at St Martins and Ravensbourne. I see them coming to the [Royal] College [where Arad is head of the Design Products course], these people, and they come here better informed, better educated.

But here, people are in a place where Swarovski is, where Bombay Sapphire is, where icon is, where the Royal College is, all these people … that’s why someone like Paul Cocksedge – who’s from Sheffield, by the way – can thrive. He has to be talented, he has to have drive – I don’t take anything away from him – but he needs the facilities of London to get the resonance for what he does. Had he grown up in Bratislava, we wouldn’t have heard of him. He wouldn’t have created as good work as he has here.

Sixty per cent of RCA students come from abroad. It has a very good reputation. Some people from Asia come just to get the diploma, they think it will be better for their career in Korea or Taiwan … but we try to spot that. A lot of them come because it’s London. Somehow, they’re not likely to find a better group of people to spend two years with than the international group that comes to the Royal College. We have brilliant students every year not because of us but in spite of us.

It’s very easy to get complacent and lazy and too pleased with yourself. The Royal College runs on inertia. [Arad’s mobile rings – it is his partner, Caroline. She’s unable to get home to south London because the transport network has virtually shut down due to the four unsuccessful suicide bombing attempts. He returns after a few minutes.]

Town is closed! It’s all cordoned off. There are sirens and all the TV cameras in the world. She has to walk home now. It’s so easy to create panic just with nothing. What else do they want…? Anyway, it used to be that for all the Italian companies, nothing happened here; they didn’t sell anything. There was absolutely no interest in design. But the place has changed. Now they’ll all tell you that London is one of the most important markets for them.

First of all it’s related to the economy. But also awareness – there’s quite a number of design magazines now. Back then there was Design Week, which we never took seriously, and then Blueprint started roughly when I started. We were quite dependent on each other. I had stuff to publish, they had stuff to write about.

I think there’s an advantage to not seeing the manufacturers every day. And London is exciting for them; it’s an exotic place for Europeans. We are also so lucky that English is the computer language. It gives us a great, great advantage. I just sent a [digital] model to Vitra. We design them here and they manufacture them in Weil am Rhein. I don’t need to live in Switzerland to work for Vitra. 

London is so rich and so big and so amazing. It’s nice to see new areas getting discovered, until you’re fed up with them. The fact that there isn’t an obvious centre to London allows more things to happen. There’s definitely a new street life to London that didn’t exist before. Now when you go to Soho you think, oh, there’s a party going on!

But I’m a very lazy user of London. I live within walking distance of here. My local area is not the most exciting – Hampstead, Belsize Park; this part of Camden; Primrose Hill. Cosy and pleasant and comfortable.

But London is an expensive city. Jasper [Morrison] moved to Paris, Marc Newson moved to Paris; they were driven out of here. Young designers – why do they live here? The cost of getting to work … and rent and transport and food. All the German students at the Royal College used to stay in London, but now they are moving back to Berlin. We’ll see what happens now – with the panic.

This article first appeared in October 2005




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If someone at the AA had said I was going to be a furniture designer I would have laughed them off

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