A new gallery in the South Downs presents the work of industrial designer Ron Arad as you’ve never seen it before
Ron Arad is what you call a heavyweight of the design world. His experimental furniture designs have been the subject of major exhibitions at some of the world’s biggest art museums, including the V&A, MoMA, Centre Pompidou and Barbican. So it may come as a surprise to find his latest retrospective in a more domestic setting – a Georgian townhouse in the South Downs. Newlands House is a new art and design gallery in Petworth, a historic market town located around 90 minutes outside London. A far cry from the white-cube gallery, here Arad’s metal and glass creations are presented amongst ornate fireplaces, old wooden floors and grand windows. For perhaps the first time, these pieces aren’t brought together as a series of sculptural artworks, but as functional (if abstract) objects for the home.
This is exactly why artistic director Simon de Pury chose Arad for the gallery’s first design show, following an inaugural exhibition dedicated to photographer Helmut Newton. As a successful auctioneer, known by many as ‘the Mick Jagger of art auctions’, De Pury has been a fan of Arad’s work for decades, but he saw an opportunity to show another side to the designs. ‘It intrigued me to see the contrast between his work, with its resolutely 21st century feel, and the architecture and furniture of a Georgian building,’ says De Pury. ‘It’s a house you wouldn’t think lends itself well to exhibitions, but that’s precisely what I like about it; it looks more like a private home. It shows that Arad’s pieces cohabitate very well with anything you put near them.’
It intrigued me to see the contrast between his work, with its resolutely 21st century feel, and the architecture and furniture of a Georgian building
In one room, the polished aluminum volumes of the Tom Bloc and Thick Vac chairs (2006) are arranged as you might have the armchairs in your living room, with the smooth curves of the Spaghetti Kobra Chandelier (2008) creating a grand centrepiece overhead. Elsewhere, the iconic Rover lounge chair (1981) creates a cosy corner by a bookshelf, while the humourous Where Are My Glasses? vases (2018) are presented as ornaments on an antique console table. ‘We didn’t organise it in a chronological way, we did what we felt worked best with the rooms,’ explains De Pury. This strategy means that most pieces look at home, yet there is one piece that feels very out of place – the so-called ‘Brexit chair’ (2020) is positioned in the first floor hallway, somewhere a seat wouldn’t typically be found. It certainly makes a statement though, which was probably the point.
As a result of Covid-19 restrictions, Arad couldn’t be as involved in the curation process as he would have liked. ‘It’s nice to have the opportunity to be a visitor in your own exhibition,’ he joked during a press tour. For a man that already has a whole host of retrospectives under his belt, this may not be a bad thing – it means the show still has a few surprises up its sleeve. There are big hitters of the past and present, from the perennial Big Easy sofa (1989), which appears in both designer- and manufacturer-made versions, to the brand new Lady Gaga Vase. But there are also pieces that Arad had (by his own admission) forgotten about, like the striking but lesser-known Equal Partners (1994), a pair of dining chairs held within curved, stainless steel niches.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive overview of Arad’s work, this isn’t it. But at a time when London’s big galleries have lost their appeal, it offers the perfect antidote. With only six people allowed in the gallery at a time, not to mention the picturesque West Sussex surroundings, it’s hard to think of a more enjoyable way to explore the work of one of the greats.
Ron Arad 69 is on at Newlands House Gallery until 7 January, 2021.