At the Italian furniture brand Moroso’s showroom during this year’s Milan Design Week, Ron Arad faced TV crews with his trademark felt hat he designed for Alessi in 2000 pulled low over his ears.“Some people have fabulous hair,” he said. “I have fabulous hats.”
The Tel Aviv-born, London-based designer also happens to make fabulous furniture—unexpected designs that could only come from a mind as expansive as his. Particularly outstanding is Arad’s ongoing work with Moroso, with whom he collaborated on furniture pieces for the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., which recently reopened following a $125 million renovation. (For more on the hotel, see our Gallery on page 210.) This year marks the 25th anniversary of Arad’s projects with Moroso, including chair designs such as the car seat–inspired Rover (1981) and the curvaceous Big Easy (1991).
This summer, Arad takes his work to the architectural scale with a trio of sculptural works in London: the 52-foot-tall Spyre, a Cor-Ten steel cone installed in the courtyard of the Royal Academy (through Aug. 21); Totot, at St. Pancras International station, referencing a train of thought as well as trains themselves, which was unveiled in July; and Curtain Call (2011), which will be reinstalled at the Roundhouse from Aug. 6 to 29. Here, we speak with Arad about the Watergate project and his multifarious creative practice.
Luigi Moretti designed the Watergate Hotel in Washington in 1962 as a playground for powerful people. You’ve spent the past few years overhauling it. Do you admire it?
That building is a period piece, but it’s not the best example of ’60s modernism. I had to deal with low floor-to-ceiling heights. The vertical bronze pipes in the lobby, the bar lined with whiskey bottles, the columns made of twisted mirrored polished stainless steel that distort reflections around them—we designed all of this to take the eye upwards and out toward the Potomac River. It was good to work in a building with nothing pastiche about it. I enjoy the diagram of the building, its floor plan and its flow.
You managed to somehow keep the context in place while still making it your own. How?
The context is the building. It was at the hub of the Watergate scandal that hit Nixon. I admit our initial attraction to this project was actually the Watergate scandal—Deep Throat talking to the Washington Post reporters, the break-in that brought down Nixon.
Materials can be economic decisions: A drop in the world price of titanium influenced Frank Gehry to clad the Guggenheim Bilbao in it. Did a drop in the price of copper lead to your choice for Watergate?
No, not at all. Since when am I accused of being responsible? We looked at the tones we wanted and played with them, mixing steel, wood, copper, and bronze. Apart from the copper, there is brass, steel, gold, silver, and glass. It’s all to do with the warm colors of whiskey—we even made a building block of whiskey bottles. I designed the labels, identical on every bottle of generic whiskey. Through Nanimarquina we had carpets woven in India [featuring] The Doors’s lyrics “Show me the way to the next whiskey bar.”
Do the chandeliers in the lobby relate to your “Hot Ingo” earrings you did with the Louise Guinness gallery in London?
Of course. I called the jewelery “Hot Ingo” for historical reasons, referring to when Ingo Maurer, and I showed our designs together at Spazio Krizia [in 2007]. Just wait till Ingo Maurer gets his hands on those chandeliers! They’re like an Oldenburg version of the jewelery, playing with the scale. There are uplighters at the bottom of each anodized aluminium spiral, so the whole thing lights up and you don’t see the source.
Is there anything left you want to design that you haven’t?
I would like to design a new theater, an opera house, a new house, a hut—and a hat. But I don’t work like that. I’m always doing new things that spring to mind.
What’s the most unusual building you’ve ever stayed in?
Jean Nouvel’s apartment in Paris, because it has a glass wall in the living room with a swimming pool on the other side, so that you can be seated and see the swimmers. It’s like visiting the London Aquarium.
You were a professor at London’s Royal College of Art from 1997 to 2009. What advice would you give to post-grad designers there today?
Protest about the conservative waves that hit the RCA after a group of us tutors left. We tried to ignore business and follow Ettore Sottsass’s advice that money is very jealous. Ignore it, and money will seek you out and look after you. Design at the Royal College of Art is about curiosity, experiments, doing things you’re interested in, not thinking that good design is good business. I mean, we had no manifestos and never used the word “should”—should do this and should do that. Now they refer to that time I was there as an anarchic period they want to forget. They forget the great students that came out of it, like Raw Edges, Paul Cocksedge, Random International, and Tomás Alonso.