A Ribbon Runs Through It

Posted inID Mag

By: Print Magazine | September 21, 2009

Ron Arad’s signature curves snake through MoMA. RON ARAD: NO DISCIPLINE The Museum of Modern Art, New York; through October 19 www.moma.org

The title of the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective, “Ron Arad: No Discipline,” is something of a misnomer. While the Tel Aviv–born, London-based designer has always had a restless imagination and a wide-ranging practice, he has nonetheless remained true to a single formal strategy for some 30 years now. If you are at all familiar with Arad’s work—his Bookworm bookshelf of 1993, say, or the ubiquitous Tom Vac chair of 1997—you already know this signature move. Call it the Ribbon.

No matter the material (steel, Corian, polyethylene) or the end product (chair, table, megastructure), Arad produces a looping, twisting, folding, scrunching, or warping band. Such consistency might make for a tedious show, if not for Arad’s unflagging creativity and relentless experimentation with materials and production techniques. The results, if not always functional, can be extraordinarily beautiful. His MT Rocker (2006), a combination of interlocking voids formed by polished bronze rods, might be the love child of a Harry Bertoia chair and an Isamu Noguchi coffee table. In his Bodyguards furniture series (2007), ballooning streams of blown aluminum flow in upon themselves as if made of liquid. It’s seating as sculpture.

The ultimate demonstration of the Ribbon is the exhibition framework itself, a 126.5-foot-long, 16-foot-tall steel Moebius strip that figure-eights its way through the gallery. Arad designed it with stacked display niches, many spotlit and backed with a translucent fabric that, viewed from the opposite side, provides a shadowy, impressionistic effect. Small monitors clipped onto the structure show videos of drawings, production, and finished products in situ. Though Arad’s steel ribbon makes little concession to the cramped gallery space, it’s a creative solution to the age-old problem of displaying design objects, and altogether more satisfying than the customary white-pedestal-behind-glass approach. Touching the works, however, remains strictly verboten, never mind actually sitting in one of the chairs, aside from a couple of sofas placed outside the show’s entry. (Even the designer himself had to wear white gloves during the installation.) This is typical of design exhibitions, of course, but given the primacy of the chair in Arad’s catalog, the fact that even mass-produced versions can’t be tested is unfortunate.

Ultimately, what one thinks of the show, organized under the direction of MoMA design curator Paola Antonelli, may come down to how one feels about the idea of the celebrity designer. I will admit that I went in on alert, but walked out charmed by the conceptual reach and rigor of Arad’s experimentation. The sensual beauty of his work is undeniable. If the bending of skeptical minds is the ultimate test of an exhibition, Arad just might have outdone himself.

Mark Lamster is an editor-at-large at Princeton Architectural Press in New York and the author of a forthcoming political biography of the artist Peter Paul Rubens. PHOTO CREDIT: HENRY HARGREAVES