Wishing on a star(chitect)

Hotshot Ron Arad discusses his background, aesthetics and creation, the country's first design museum.

January 27, 2010 21:23
Ron Arad design

Arad design . (photo credit: .)

Like a few cities around the world, Holon is betting on an artist to breathe in some new life.

The city has had many reincarnations. First mentioned in the Book of Joshua, biblical Holon was in the Judean hills, near Jerusalem. But the roots of the name Holon - sand - spoke to the modern founders. The first new neighborhood of today's Holon, a few kilometers from Old Jaffa, went up in 1929 and other neighborhoods sprouted up from 1934.

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In 1940, the British governor of Lydda ordered all these communities united as one council under his district. Only in 1950 was Holon officially declared a city and then doubled in size, when it annexed the neighboring Arab villages, Tel Arish and the orange groves of Yazur.

The days when groves, sand dunes and isolated buildings dotted the landscape there are long gone.

Since Moti Sasson was elected mayor in 1993, he and his partners at the municipality have been hard at work reinventing the city from tired, sandy, industrial park to bustling, attractive cultural center. It now boasts six museums, scores of parks and gardens, 89 sites with public sculptures, including more than 300 art installations, and six cultural festivals each year for the 190,000 residents and numerous visitors.

"Holon does not have a seashore or a Crusader castle," a municipal spokesman said, explaining why the city had to look for creative ways to brand itself. It initially invested beautification and a focus on children and families, including building of the country's biggest children's museum and its first museum of cartoons.

But the municipality, in trying to attract larger and more diverse crowds, has been betting that the creation of the country's first design museum will now ensure its place on the culture map for local and international tourists. Opening to the public next week, the museum will be the only one here to exclusively showcase international and local designs, from contemporary and historical graphic design to product, furniture, jewelry, textile and architectural design.

The building, more than three years in the making, is also expected to be both landmark and work of art in its own right, with help from international design darling Ron Arad, whose name has started to be associated with lists of so-called starchitects.

Architects are notorious for hating this label. Frank Gehry, for example, cursed recently when a journalist asked him if he was one. Gehry is best known for buildings that are not only unusual and artistic, but also magnetic - drawing in tourists, publicity and big money for the building and the city. Gehry's iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, was said to put Bilbao on the map, paying for itself in the first year.

Holon's team had their eyes loosely on Bilbao when they turned to Arad, even though its budget of $17 million and its 1,250 sq.m. of exhibition space are obviously dwarfed by Bilbao's $100 million and 11,000 sq.m. But Arad is one of the sabra artists who has made a huge name for himself not only in the world of avant-garde design, but in the international market, for design of practical objects like furniture, art pieces and architecture.

Since 1973, Arad, 59, has been based in London, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He grew up in Tel Aviv's Tel Baruch neighborhood where his life was surrounded by art and artists. His mother gained some acclaim as painter and teacher. His father, Gricha, a sculptor, studied with Yitzhak Danziger, and also went on to sell and show his work.

But Arad's works have always been a departure from his roots and his peers, called daring, edgy, and even subversive. Anything else would probably annoy him. Arad admits he hates to be bored, hates to see designers build furniture or objects that looks traditional or to see architects erect buildings that look similar to the ones next door. Arad has designed Swarovsky crystal and LED chandeliers that can receive text messages, bookshelves shaped into a map of the US, a light that can coil down flat or blossom into an arching lamp, chairs that look like liquid silver running down a flight of stairs and furniture so large, shiny, abstract or amorphic that it qualifies as sculpture.

As designers and architects lose or scale back jobs since the market crash last year, Arad seems to be at the height of his career. In recent months he has had solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the Pompidou in Paris and shows in galleries across Europe.

For his show at MOMA, Arad dressed in a designer T-shirt stating, "I don't want no retrospective." He fits the prototype of anti-establishment bad boy in some ways, yet his furniture designs are still priced in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Somehow he has made it in the avant-garde as well as popular culture arenas.

Holon, meanwhile, hopes that his continuing draw to the public will translate into long lines at the new design museum.

A week before the opening, Arad discusses his childhood, his aesthetics and on his bold design of the Holon Design Museum.

How did your childhood in Tel Aviv affect your sense of aesthetics?

I grew up in a place where art was taken for granted. My mom had good taste and was aware of proportions and colors and was an amazing virtuoso craftsperson, nonstop, unstoppable. My friends and I used to draw a lot and there was always life drawing going on, and my mother until she was very old used to teach. My father made a lot of our furniture; it was good. If something was needed at home, he would sketch it, make it - tables, sofas, benches, shelves. A lot of family friends were architects of their generation. Aba Elhanani designed our family home. There were always architects around.

I was good at drawing from the age I started holding a pencil. Mostly I drew things that didn't exist. Mom never said I was going to be a good artist, though she always said I was going to be a very good architect. She wanted me to have insurance to do something professional, combining the artistic and practical. It was a joke between us.

Why did you leave Israel for London?

I studied product design and environmental design at Bezalel [and] one day I just packed a suitcase. All my friends were in the fine arts and I am still friends with all the people I grew up with. When you grow up on the periphery [of the art world] you [are attracted to] the center in a more intense way. As '60s children, the '60s didn't stop with Ta'amon [a cafe once popular with intellectuals in Jerusalem]. London seemed exotic in comparison. They had rich cinema and music and everything from England had the smell of more culture than even Hollywood. How wrong I was.

How did you get into architecture?

I didn't plan to study architecture, but The Association had a buzz and it was a period where architects weren't building buildings, so they had time to play and think rather than make it a vocational school. I joined by a fluke; I didn't even have a portfolio. When they asked me why I wanted to be an architect, I joked and said, "I don't; my mother wants me to be." When they asked to see my portfolio, I said, "Here is my 6B pencil, what do you want me to draw?" I thought I'd make them curious, so they would think, "Who is this cheeky brat?" Somehow they decided to gamble on me.

I was always a reluctant architect; I wasn't happy to just be a conventional architect in studies and later didn't want to join the "religious architects." I love architecture, but have always been an outsider in the profession.

How is working in the world of design and architecture different in Israel than in Europe?

Israelis tend to watch what's happening [in the larger art world] and there are a lot of intensely idealistic works being done in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and there are lots of clever and creative people, but maybe there is something about being distant from the center of things that sometimes helps and sometimes doesn't. The world today is really, really small and there's information flowing and reaching faraway places so fast, so there is no excuse for ignorance anymore. But there are other preoccupations and urgent problems in Israel other than aesthetics, but that doesn't and shouldn't stop people.

Are you trying to be diplomatic?

Yes, how am I doing?

Are there differences between the personalities in London and Jerusalem that influence design?

London is bigger and not so "tight,"  so we can enjoy freedom; we don't have to be accountable to the group we are affiliated with. There is a peaceful indifference.

Is that good?

Yes, but only sometimes. Sometimes you want intense reactions.

Why have your shows carried names like "No Discipline" and "Restless"? Does this have anything to do with the impression people have of you as a bad-boy subversive?

[These titles] can mean reluctance to join or get exclusive membership in any discipline; also they describe a temperament. I'm not methodical; I jump from one thing to another, and I'm not good at rehearsing the conventional. I am a very good boy, but I don't enjoy or care about conventions.

How do you feel about the label starchitect?

Labels breed genres that are lazy.

Is your work political?

It can be seen as liberating in some way, with loose political relevance, but I'm not campaigning.

It seems like you have designed hundreds of chairs. What is the attraction for you?

There are some things that have been done to death and there is no mystery left; they are all more or less the same dimensions, so the challenge is to come up with something new that is interesting. It's almost like a form of poetry, to see if you can write another sonata about the same subject. It's exciting to find something with enough uniqueness in spite of the fact that it's been done.

You use unusual materials, from metal to resin and rubber to crystals. How do you determine what material you are going to use?

Sometimes I come across a process and am excited to see how I can use it, and sometimes I ask which material will give the best results. When I started, I used a lot of metal because it is a very forgiving material, so I bought the tools and then I had to use them. After some years I freed myself from the workshop because I didn't want to become a craftsman.

Is there a line between fine arts and design?

I don't need a passport from one discipline to another. Twenty years ago there was a debate if photography, for example, can be art. These discussions may be interesting, but after a while we are taking them for granted. I'm not saying everything I do should end up in a museum, but the fact that I have best-selling products doesn't mean that I'm not an artist.

Does your work reflect an Israeli identity at all?

I left Israel very young, so when I had a show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art, it was an import.

Before the Holon commission,  you designed the auditorium of the Tel Aviv Opera House and an installation for Zion Square in Jerusalem. Why was the latter never realized?

The design passed all the committees and panels and had money from a very enthusiastic donor from Texas, and we were just waiting for the then-mayor to push the go-ahead button, but he never said no or yes. The Jerusalem Foundation lost the war of attrition with the municipality and it's really, really sad.

I don't like public art that is like "a turd on a plinth," very typical, sits there in the middle and then becomes difficult to get rid of. I do like the Calder [installation] in Jerusalem and the Kadishman in Kikar Habimah, but I wanted to create a place you can be under but without a roof and without covering the sky. There was some nationalistic religious group which put its response on YouTube with a Star of David and "Let's show Ron Arad." It was fascist. This project was my fantasy and I still hope it can be realized one day.

What other projects would you like to see done in Israel?

There was a period where the most important thing was building fast and architecture was kidnapped and given to developers and contractors. But still, Tel Aviv won the UNESCO charter, and look at some of the Tel Aviv architecture from the 1930s. There are some delightful things there and the way that Tel Aviv started so modestly with streets running parallel to the seashore and boulevards crossing them is very nice. Jerusalem was once beautiful, too. The problems are going to change only when people desire different things; it takes time.

How did you decide to approach the architecture of the Holon Design Museum?

I was approached by Holon and the original idea was to convert an old library, a very good example of 1970s brutalism in architecture. We told them it would be a better use of time and resources to build new and they were convinced. You do the best you can for the circumstances. It doesn't mean that you are in love with all the buildings around.

You start by looking at the site and piazza and this is not a real urban place, so at some point the building was turned with its back to the piazza, but it makes sure to invite you in through the hierarchy of outdoor spaces. [To maximize the small space] one gallery [is] perching at the end of another. It creates a lot of negative spaces, but because it's a building, we call it outdoor spaces. This envelope wraps around itself and forms a building without a single column, and not a single vertical interruption. The envelope [is devised] of five different [metal] bands; sometimes they fray and leave each other. The bands gave me the opportunity to form a wall or louver and a hovering [canopy] to protect the courtyard from the sun.

The building is seen as an object from outside, but once inside it cuts off the outside world, except when you look up and see the sky. Corten steel is a material that has nice lovely earth colors. We wanted to build something that would age gracefully because Corten is constantly changing, not like paint that hides the materials.

Can you put Holon on the map with this building?

Part of the brief was to do an iconic building to make Holon more desirable, and Holon is doing this with lots of other things, too. They have a very active municipality. I don't think a single building can change a city, but it can make a contribution. If it is a successful destination - and I hope it will be - it is down to the architecture and its contents, and it will make people from Jerusalem come to visit when they come down from the mountains and give the courage to architects to do other exciting works.

On February 1 at noon, the day after the gala opening of the Holon Design Museum, Arad is holding a dialogue and show-and-tell event, called "No Agenda" with six of his close friends from various design disciplines, including Dai Fujiwara, artistic manager of Issey Miyake; Prof. Deyan Sudjic, manager of the London Design Museum; and Javier Marisca, the German light designer. Tickets are NIS 120. Further information about the museum is available at www.dmh.org.il.

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