Ron Arad - A Dialogue between two great minds

On the 31st of October 2013 the world of shapes and design blended with the inspiration of strategic and creative ideas. What you are about to read is a tribute to Wally Olins (1930-2014) and the most meaningful outcomes of the conversation he held with Ron Arad.

Ron Arad, architect and industrial designer by training, has gone far beyond this formal discipline. He has become a creator in its truest sense. As an Israeli based in London ever since he went there to study at the AA – Architectural Association (1974-79), Ron Arad has worked for prominent clients such as Moroso, Vitra or Alessi. His creations have been exhibited at the Pompidou in Paris or the MoMa in New York City.

His first creations were especially influenced by Dadaism, as can be seen with his masterwork, the Rover Chair. It is a design very close to a “ready made” art object, thus reflecting the inherent critique of the Dadaists to the tendencies in the art world. Even nowadays, Ron Arad stays true to his irreverent spirit that nourishes his creativity.

After over 30 years working on a large variety of projects, Ron Arad is still true to his original spirit: designing is all about creating something that did not existed before. He is an innovator of shape and function, constantly re-thinking our reality and reinterpreting the objects that shape our lives. He is a firm believer that design is not about embellishment or style, but about the purity in the shape of an object. It’s about creating something new every time, uncovering an object’s essence.

On the other side of the coffee table you see the ultimate brand guru, Wally Olins, who passed away in April 2014, about six months after this interview. Just like Ron Arad broke the boundaries of architecture to immerse himself into something bigger, as is the idea of freel shaping objects and spaces, Wally Olins was a pioneer in his sphere. He turned the world of Marketing and Advertising upside down by creating something deeper, more meaningful and lasting: Branding.

He was another non-conformist driven by the curiosity in finding the essence that makes businesses, organizations and places unique. Like this, and with his powerful sense of educated intuition he has helped shape businesses, and even nations, transforming them to be more engaging, honest to themselves and relevant.

"I am very very interested in new technologies, but I never forget the artisans."  Wally Olins

Wally used to say about himself that he did “all sorts of things”. But it’s certain that clarity defined him just as much as courage:”: “I try to be direct and clear. […] It’s nice to be nice, but it’s also nice to be straight.” Perhaps his secret to getting to the heart of everything? On this special October day, these two creative minds meet in Ron Arad’s studio in London. Their conversation needs no thought starter. As they are taking their seats they are already spontaneously starting to chat.

Ron Arad while sketching designs on his computer

Wally Olins: So, Ron, what’s your view on design…
Ron Arad: To design is to impose your will on the material to make it perform a function, generally. Of course, this means using different processes depending on the case. Related to Nude and glass, it involves blowing into a mould and turning a bit. In other cases, like metal, it involves me physically, using a hammer. But for a long time I have let other people do this. My fingers used to be dirty but they are not anymore. I moved the physical work elsewhere because I feared becoming a craftsman. I am not.
WO: Really? Why is that?
RA: Because I am not a craftsman. A lot of things were done by genius craftsmen, before computers, just from drawing sections, using knives and other tools…
WO: So, do you think an artist needs to actually build and construct his / her own creations? 
RA: Many artists really just give instructions. Think of Chamberlain, he just ended up sitting in his wheelchair and saying this way or that way. Is that constructing your own work? People do whatever they really want. A friend of mine goes to the pottery every day, and that’s what she does. She wants to feel it; she is a potter. That’s crafting. I am not a craftsman. I am not a glassblower. I am not as good as people that made genius things. They know what they are doing, they are conscientious and they are amazing craftspeople. I don’t have the temperament for that. I used to make stuff here, in metal; I bought metal tools, to manipulate metal and I had people who were getting good at it, but I wanted to do other things. When I worked with metal it was exactly what I wanted to do then. But I am not a hand worker. I am not even good at computed modelling. What I do is drawing.
WO: Are you saying then that the material, in a sense - glass or metal or whatever it is -, although it matters, because you don’t physically model it, it doesn’t matter that much, right?
RA: It’s comparable with my situation towards metal. It’s about whether I do a piece of metal myself or people who are, vocationally, much better than me with the material, actually do it. It takes a skill. Let me draw a comparison to very skilled people. A few weeks ago I went to Cognac and I watched a young guy making a barrel and I was full of admiration for that. That is something I could never do. He doesn’t waste a single movement; he knows what he is doing. He makes 14 barrels a day. It’s an astonishing daily accomplishment.
Now, let’s think about the material that Nude’s objects are made of, glass. The company was kind enough to take me to their two factories. One where they do everything physically, personally, blowing by mouth. There were 400 people wearing a uniform, it was crazy! They don’t talk and they’re not all doing the same thing. Each one does his own different thing. So sometimes it happens that our design turns out to be very difficult to make. If they see a struggle I say: Look, there is nothing sacred with what we designed, we can change it. 
Wally interjects: So do you mean you can modify it so it can be made more easily?
RA: Yes. We started with ignorance and designed a few things that, when they make it, there is almost no point in doing it because it doesn’t come out as beautiful. So when we observed that a few things didn’t work we said: Ok, let’s modify it.
WO: Ron, I have a feeling that, in your art, you love to challenge the limits of possibilities?
RA: I don’t know about challenge, sometimes I also ignore. I am not a big fan of conventions but I don’t think anything is sacred: “Oh the master did this”… But look, rather than struggle, you should look at it like: Look this is one idea that came on a Wednesday, maybe Thursday will bring a different idea. We should not be slaves of ideas. Ideas should serve us; we shouldn’t serve the ideas.
WO: The idea of you being involved in the creation of a very high quality, high design, luxury class product, Nude, how did that emerge?
RA: When in Istanbul, what you buy are tea glasses and then, when you are asked how you would like to design for a glass company, what you do is look around and think: how can I make a contribution to this?
WO: Is that what you thought, really? That’s very interesting, because you get projects from different people and there are times when you know what to do, but there could be others where your thoughts might be something like: what shall I possibly do with this now?
RA: For sure. But here, I didn’t doubt for one second that we could do something. You look at it and you the plate? Why? Different glasses, they are for all the connoisseurs, they know. But not for me. For me, wine is either good or bad, but all those subtleties are not really my thing. When I buy wine it’s about the price or the graphics. And sometimes it’s the nations that I quite like.
WO: For me, anything over 12 pounds sterling I get suspicious… (joking)
RA: Rather than having glasses ready for any eventuality, create one that serves any eventuality. Red? Or, no, no, White!
WO: So then, some clever dude says: I have had white, now I want red! What do you do? Different glass?
RA: Well, the name of the series is “Red or White”. But you can turn it around and you have a red ring on the tablecloth. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?
  Red or White wine carafe by Ron Arad for NUDE

WO: You didn’t walk around asking people: Would you like this? I hope you didn’t…
RA: No… Well, I have some friends that are professionals that have restaurants.
WO: But you didn’t do focus groups and so on.
RA: Market research? No, I don’t do that.
WO: Fine, then we are on the same page. I am extremely glad to hear that and I am not in the least surprised.
RA: It’s like when I did that perfume bottle once. I did so many interviews about the perfume and I know nothing about perfumes. I don’t know more about wine, now. Same with cognac, I had a lecture about the Cognac and I tried to get them to discuss that the tastes are different and so on… But what about the effect? What about the kind of high you get? Does that enter the conversation? They didn’t even hear my question.
WO: Yes, I see. It’s not about all that, for them. It’s very sensible from Nude’s side. If you are doing this very new project and you ask people what they want they are going to be very conservative and look at each other and be very dubious about everything. I think to do something like this you need to intuitively believe in it.
RA: Not only that. This is one connection, but there are other issues. We did some stacking glasses. When you think about it, it’s ridiculous that for thousands of years people do glasses that stack on the rim. They get caught and damaged and you can’t open them up. There is absolutely no reason for it. And then you immediately think… why didn’t anyone think of it before?
I have been to so many dinners with redundant glasses. I couldn’t understand why, for so many years, people couldn’t do glasses that are allowed to be adjusted. So we did “The A-frame”. If the A goes down they get closer to each other, if the A goes up, they go further apart. People always ask: Form or function? They are not at war with each other; they work together. Like this glasses collection we just created… how do they look?
WO: What are you trying to sell me some spectacles? (Joke) Oh this is nice, (Ron brings him glasses) these are clever, because mine always get loose.
RA: Also, I am very good at designing things you can sit on!
WO: You are talking like an All Star Bauhaus Designer. Form follows function.
RA: Oh no, no. Don’t say that!
WO: You are just talking like one. I know what you said; you just sound like that. It’s quite funny.
RA: I don’t subscribe to any slogan.
WO: I understand that.
RA: Ornament is crime.
WO: Going back to our conversation about glass: did you do a bit of design for glass before?
RA: Yes, but never a collection.
WO: So now you were seduced to go deeper into designing for glass?
RA: Exactly
WO: So, what was the motivation for hiring you for this project? Going into something that is less conventional?
I´m asking because when I think about my career and experiences I see that there have been very few companies that were able to move upmarket. In the glass market, what you would expect a company wanting to move upmarket to do is imitating the Frenchmakers. So it’s very respectable that Nude is not doing that at all. It’s an admirable move. Even more, that you didn’t find any resistance. Ron, have you been associated much with new luxury brands before?
RA: They asked me once to do a special edition perfume bottle. They came to me with a presentation and a mood board and so on. They wanted me to really know the perfume I would design for. I should listen to all of it and design for that; but I ignored it later. I wanted to do the first perfume bottle that is designed for the iPhone generation.
WO: Not sure if I like it… Hmm, don’t you need to have a big hand?
RA: No, not really.
WO: So what kind of stuff are you doing right now mostly?
RA: We are doing a lot of Architecture.