Interview by Farah Nayeri
(Bloomberg) — Ron Arad was on a lunch break in 1981 when he made what was a smart career move.
Bored by his architecture job, Arad headed for a scrap yard in north London, yanked away two leather seats from a Rover car, and made armchairs out of them.
"At that time, I didn't know that this action was going to suck me into the world of design, but it did," he recalls.
The worn-out Rover Chair opens Arad's retrospective at London's Barbican Centre (through May 16). Two floors are filled with Arad's three-dimensional doodles: sculptural contraptions that serve as seating or shelving, and straddle the worlds of art and design.
Gray-bearded Arad and I settle on an electric-blue sofa with pieces that fit together like a puzzle. He wears a comical hat of his own design—a felt cap with a flipped-over brim—and displays the same playful humor in conversation.
The Barbican show comes after surveys of his work at Paris's Pompidou Center and New York's Museum of Modern Art, rare tributes for a designer. While Arad has successfully infiltrated the museum world, design is still shown separately at fairs, not where the art is.
"Who is it that makes the rules that you can use cows in art fairs, and you're not allowed to use things that might suggest some function?" he says, an oblique reference to Damien Hirst's pickled cattle. "Art is an open field, and it should include everything."
Arad was born in Tel-Aviv, studied art at an academy in Jerusalem, then landed in London in 1973. He graduated from London's Architectural Association.
Of the Rover Chair that jumpstarted his career, he made hundreds of copies—including a few bought by French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier—then stopped when sales were at a peak. "I thought, 'I'm not going to just be a Rover car-seat merchant,'" he says.
Arad has created many more cult pieces since—including Bookworm, a snake-like wall-mounted bookshelf with built-in bookends; and the Tom Vac chair, with a curving, partially hollowed back that is now copied in China.
"When they stop copying you, that's when you should start worrying," he says. "I congratulate them on their taste."
Arad's furniture has also cropped up on U.K. television programs: the Rover Chair on "Top Gear," a popular car show; the Victoria and Albert sofa on reality-TV show "Big Brother."
"I have to force myself not to be upset by it," Arad says of the Big Brother accolade. "It's not something I'll put on my CV." The V&A sofa, he hastens to add, is also used by travelers at London Heathrow Airport and Hong Kong International Airport.
This month, Arad's Design Museum opens in Holon, outside Tel-Aviv, with a roof featuring rust-colored bands of undulating weatherproof steel. Whether he designs more museums depends on if he's asked, he says.
For now, Arad is marveling at the reverence that his Rover Chair commands. The Pompidou Center curator had him wear white gloves to handle a seat that came straight out of his living room and that his two daughters long pounced on.
"It's pretty amazing that there weren't any labor pains to it," he says of his maiden design. "What you see up there in the room is, very simply, IT."
During the boom in the Design-Art market, collectors paid a record auction price of $409,000 for Arad's stainless steel "D-Sofa" (2003) at Phillips de Pury, New York, in 2007.
Two years later, amid the financial crisis, two Arad chairs—Blo Void 4 (2006) and Big Easy Volume II (1988)—went unsold against low estimates of 100,000 pounds and 50,000 pounds, respectively.
A new Arad design—made in an edition of 100, partly to benefit the Barbican Art Gallery—is now on sale for 5,000 pounds at the Barbican and the Timothy Taylor Gallery. "Well Transparent Chair" (based on his 1986 "Well Tempered Chair") is made of see-through polycarbonate held together with wing nuts.
Arad's collectors sometimes worry that the rivets on a pair of jeans might scratch his metal furniture. His dealers dismiss any weight-bearing concerns over the "Well Transparent Chair."
"This is in many ways a conceptual piece," says Oscar Humphries, a spokesman for Timothy Taylor. "But you can sit on it."
To contact the writer on this story: Farah Nayeri in London at Farahn@bloomberg.net.