Sunlight appears elastic in the lobby of Upper Manhattan’s Opera Gallery. It shoots through the glass facade and collides with a row of crystalline resin armchairs; some blue, amber, and black. The spring light passes in and out of the transparent objects in wild, refracting rays. Everything about the furniture reads as a contradiction: They’re delicately dyed like blown glass, but capable of carrying great weights. They’re in a gallery—that supposed sacred space—but someone is seated on its hard cushion with the blessings of its creator, Ron Arad.
After a long conversation with the Israel-born, London-based artist it’s more appropriate to replace notions of contradiction with those of fluidity. For more than 40 years, Arad has designed museums, like the Holon Design Museum, that look like works of art; coiling sculptures that, in his words, should be comfortable; and cars that will never meet a street. Some of Arad’s “Big Easy” chairs have sold at auction for six figures, while others are perched in his backyard; another, loaned to the Centre Pompidou for a recent retrospective but now back in his home, serves as the world’s priciest cat bed.
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Is there a difference between design and art? In a world where art fairs carry Lichtensteins and lamps, does anyone cares? It’s more interesting to interrogate the relationship between objects and their containers, or the visual semantics at play when an object heads to auction. Arad’s solo exhibition at Opera, called “Don’t Ya Tell Henri” offers a good opportunity to mull over those matters. Its title is after Henri Matisse, whose radical cutouts collages have been a longtime touchstone for Arad. Many pieces in the show, including new iterations of his Big Easy Chair and Tube sofas, traveled to New York from the gallery’s Geneva outpost.
It was not, to put the situation lightly, the smoothest installation process: Arad, 72, fell into a coma days before the opening, leaving his fate, and that of the show, in a suspended state. Thankfully, he did recover (though he missed the opening), and later sat down with ARTnews via zoom for a chat about his practice. The conversation has been condensed.
ARTnews: Not to ask a loaded question, but how are you?
Ron Arad: I’m feeling better everyday. I wish it was a faster improvement, really my family suffered more than me. I was in a coma for three days and they were giving me 50/50 from the doctor. But I missed all that, like I missed the show.
I’ve always wondered, do you dream when you’re in a coma?
No, not then. It was like they flipped a switch when I woke up. I wasn’t aware I had been asleep, intubated—nothing. Absolutely nothing. The intensive care unit is like science fiction, full of amazing people from all over the world. It was like the Tower of Babylon. It makes you think, what am I doing? [laughs] They’re doing such important, amazing things. But it was good to be released from there into the world, to home. And here I am.
I haven’t been to New York to see the show yet. Well, I’ve seen the first show we’ve put on in Geneva. The title of the show, “Don’t Ya Tell Henri,” I stole it from Dylan, he has a song in the basement tapes. I’m sure Henri would be very happy with what I did. I really loved it in Geneva, it really cheered me up. Ideas are never a problem, the problem is which one you give your time too, and which one.
How much of the show is in dialogue with Matisse or Dylan?
There are older pieces in the show, like the “Big Easy”, it’s a piece that I first did many years ago. This shape kept coming back to me. Every time I had an idea or started a new process the Big Easy would volunteer, “Me!”. I’ll show you. There’s one in my garden, you see it?
I’ve always been interested in how an object changes when in a gallery or outside or a museum.
I can’t claim the credit for the beautiful places these pieces are in, nature just happens. But I didn’t spoil it at least, that’s my contribution. But let’s see what happens, there’s your intention, and then what actually happens. But more than anything I’m very grateful for what the material does. There are so many things I couldn’t have done myself.
Can you see my screen?
I went into a scrapyard and made it a domestic piece of furniture. Then, what I had in mind were readymades and found objects more than furniture; this is my first chair. When I had my retrospective at the Pompidou Center I lent them this piece. When they wanted to move it I shouted not without white gloves!
My mental reference was action painting. Take a piece of sheet metal and start hammering it. And someone could ask: Can you make more support in the lower back? Sure, here, “bam”.
The second one you have the advantage. I did this collection of the thinacture. When i had my retrospective there. All the seats that had never met, finally do.I call them the volume pieces, there’s no skeleton, just skin. These are the first big easy i learned to welt when i did them. They were not the best welding but there’s always the—why should everything be perfect? Why shouldn’t things have the quality of a sketch? Why can’t a piece of furniture look like a piece of jewelry? All you have to do is change the idea of what it is.
So you always intend for your furniture to be used?
Yes, if you make a chair, you have to sit on it. When you sit on it or see someone sit on it the work is completed. This is a belief that has followed me through the years. But this has a problem, you know? The art world and the auction house, everyone wants to compartmentalize everything. If you can sit on it, it’s not art.
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Recently about a year ago a prototype of [a Big Easy chair] sold at Phillips for an estimated for $1.7 million. In Europe, when a piece sells in an auction, there’s a small percentage that goes to the artists, but it’s not like that in America. The auction house said because it’s design, it’s not art—despite the fact that I did it in my studio.
They didn’t want to give you a percentage of a sale?
Because you put your bum in it, because they can’t see that that’s part of the art. But they had to see in the end. I don’t like people to tell me what to do. They may say it needs to be beautiful, but what I enjoy is using sophisticated technology to make the product look less machine-like. They will say to me: The last thing I want my clients to see is a video [of the piece being built by a machine]. They want to imagine me like Michelangelo, with a chisel and a hammer.
So what do you say when people ask you to define yourself as an artist, a designer, or a craftsperson? Or, is the question itself reductive?
I don’t kid myself, when I do a piece for a [furniture company], there are different criteria, different destinations. It’s the cost of production, the quantity—all sorts of things. But for me, the production does matter—if it’s a chair it needs to be comfortable. But I don’t need a passport to go from one discipline to another; I also build towers, and museums. I’ve been designing a cancer ward right now. A friend once told me to be taken seriously as an architect, you have to stop doing furniture. I don’t agree.
People like to compartmentalize you. Maybe people that write about architecture don’t always know much about art; people that know art might not know architecture.
To return to the resin works at Opera: They have this dynamic relationship with light and space. I understand this was your first time working with the material. What was the process like?
I worked with this amazing guy in Madrid, named Jesús. A lot was done online. The first time I actually saw one it was at the Royal Academy. There is nothing I would do differently, but like before, it is a dialogue between the will of the artist and what the process and material will do for you.
I think you once said you had to “exert your will” on the works, and earlier you said you “drag” what the pieces will look like out of the material. It all sounds like an antagonistic relationship.
No no, it’s a love affair. I did a piece recently [inspired by] walking in the street and seeing the cars covered. You want to imagine what’s under the cover. So I thought I would draw what I don’t see. I did a sketch of a Morgan car—a very British sports car, very iconic—and I was going to show it at the Royal Academy summer show, but, you know, the pandemic.
Whether I work with technology or I work with artisans and it’s handmade, neither is better than the other. I love them equally.
And I trust [the artisans and installers] completely, they also are the producers of the pieces. I wish I was there to organize the show, maybe it would be slightly different, or maybe it’s best I wasn’t there.
Do you feel a pressure to defend your ideology?
Here is a debate, and we respond to it. I don’t have a battle with anyone, I don’t do things as a reaction to anyone, but when you do a big piece of marble you have to think about where it is going. It’s not going to be sold in IKEA; it is very costly to make. Oscar Wilde said that “All art is quite useless. So is a flower”. That is something with a function.
There is another quote of his [“There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating—people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing”] I use for the show: “There are only two types of people: curious people and charming people.” I say the same thing about objects: there’s boring things and exciting things.
So what about an object makes it exciting?
Sometimes it’s the material, sometimes the shape. The best idea—the ‘do I do it, do I not’—the biggest test, is: if I went to a gallery and saw this piece, would i be jealous? If the answer is no, I let the idea go. If we concentrate on the reason we’re talking to each other, the crystalline resin, that entire experience was exciting.
The resin has this complex refraction. I try to work too on some that have light in it, not waiting for the sun. I like the light. The pieces in the gallery—I’m not going to tell you—some I like more than others.
I won’t push, but I’d love to know your favorite.
Okay, it’s the black one. But maybe some like others more, that’s fine too.