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March 18 2012

My favourite British design

In pictures: As the V&A launches a retrospective on great British design, six of Britain's most creative minds choose their favourite object

September 03 2011

August 19 2011

Constructive criticism

Belfast's Titanic visitor centre prepares for launch, while Venice rebuilds its bridges and Ron Arad reinvents the wheel

The dramatic structure of the Titanic Belfast visitor centre, due to open in April 2012, is now complete. With its wave-like aluminium facades, by the Belfast and Dublin-based Todd Architects, the building is as unforgettable as the story of the Titanic itself. It broods at the core of one of the biggest regeneration sites in Europe, which is also named after the infamous ocean liner: the Titanic Quarter.

Isn't this a bit like naming a new city quarter the Lead Balloon district or Ring-o-Roses quay? The facade of the Titanic Belfast even looks like the prow of a ship crashing into an iceberg. Perhaps it's meant to, although you would have thought such fraught imagery might be unsuitable for a major urban development.

Still, as the Titanic Quarter is due to include high-tech industry and housing as well as colleges and offices, it might just outshine Stratford City in east London, a huge urban development also closely linked to a historic transport hub – in this case the Stratford locomotive works of the old Great Eastern railway – which has been hyped to death because of its symbiotic relationship with the London 2012 Olympics.

Will Stratford City sink or swim after next year's Games? The big hope is that with little else to distract them (aside from a dip in Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre pool), Londoners and visitors to the capital will be seduced by the lures of the biggest building here, the £1.45bn Westfield shopping mall that opens on 13 September this year. Europe's largest shopping centre will even sport three hotels, for those who feel that shopping here cannot be done in a day.

Such vast schemes would be unthinkable in Venice. And yet plans to replace the 1930s timber-and-iron Ponte dell'Accademia across the Grand canal have been met with anger this week. The city argues that, as the bridge is a black hole of maintenance costs, it should be quickly replaced. A provisional design for a stone, steel and glass bridge by Bologna architects Schiavani, however, looks cumbersome, while Lidia Fersuoch of the conservation group Italia Nostra is quoted as saying: "The [existing] bridge now has its own dignity and should be restored. Venice risks losing a piece of its identity."

Whatever the quality of the new Accademia design and however rightful the concern for its conservation, there's the worry that any new bridge in Venice might share the same fate as Santiago Calatrava's stone-and-glass-decked Ponte della Costituzione, which opened in 2008. Not only was the elegant new bridge expensive, but tourists have a habit of tripping up as they mount its irregular steps. Although this has been used as a stick with which to beat the bridge's contemporary design, it might well be that holidaymakers are so busy looking at the view that they miss their step, as they do on the Accademia bridge, too.

The Titanic's tragic fate – or something like it – is about to befall the 26-storey Harmon Building in Las Vegas. While buildings have risen and fallen with the treacherous tides of the local property market, the Harmon Building is no ordinary slice of the developer's pie. The blue, oval-shaped tower was designed by Foster and Partners as the centrepiece of the $9bn CityCenter leisure development for MGM Resorts International. Due to open in December 2009, and at 49-storeys high, the building has never been completed and may well now be demolished. At the centre of a hornet's nest of lawsuits, the Harmon Building shows how gambling on property can sink even the best-laid architectural plans.

And finally, Ron Arad has decided to reinvent the wheel. A designer famous for his unexpected ways with furniture, Arad has shaped one of a range of customised "WOW bikes" for the W London as part of the hotel's fundraising campaign for the Elton John Aids Foundation, announced this week. Arad's bike boasts strange flower-like steel wheels. "I wanted to explore the idea of a bike with no wheels," Arad explained enigmatically in a press statement from the hotel, "with just the suspension – like a smile without the cat." Guests staying at W London can ride this and other WOW bikes by, among others, shoe designer Patrick Cox, Paloma Faith and Alice Temperley – until 29 October 2011 when they will be auctioned off for charity. Bon voyage, indeed. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 16 2011

When Cat's Eyes met Ron Arad

Horrors frontman Faris Badwan tells Dorian Lynskey about his new work: an opera-pop crossover featuring a light-emitting curtain by Ron Arad. Will it be better than the day he fooled the Pope?

In the basement of Ron Arad's studio in Camden, London, a promising artistic collaboration is coming under a little strain – and table tennis is to blame. Arad, the Israeli-born artist, designer and architect, and Faris Badwan, singer with the Horrors, are both fiercely competitive players. Arad has the advantage of having designed the table, a curious, broken-backed affair that sinks in the middle as if it's been quake-damaged, and sends the ball spinning in unpredictable directions. But Badwan, who has height and long arms in his favour, is winning. "No more Mr Nice Guy," growls Arad as he claws back points. But, just before he can draw level, the pair are summoned upstairs. A rematch is promised.

The two men have other, less fractious interests to bond over. Both are restlessly prolific. In the past year, Badwan has completed the third Horrors record, Skying, and launched Cat's Eyes, a project with Canadian opera soprano Rachel Zeffira, both to wide acclaim. Sixty-year-old Arad has been designing furniture, buildings and art installations since the 1970s. Deyan Sudjic's 1989 book about him was called Restless Furniture. Arad's 2009 MoMa retrospective was called No Discipline, and included everything from carbon-fibre armchairs to polyurethane bottle racks. Both titles are useful indicators of Arad's aesthetic.

His studio, which he has owned since the mid-1980s, is stuffed with his playful creations, most of which are curved: tables, chairs, window frames, even parts of the floor and ceiling. At one end is a fibre-optic curtain, a prototype for the huge circular version – eight metres by 18 and made of 5,600 silicon rods – currently installed at the Roundhouse across the road for three weeks. Arad has called his installation Curtain Call, and has invited musicians, designers, visual artists and performers to use the 360 degree curtain however they wish. "There was going to be a chef," he says, "but he dropped out."

Cat's Eyes are at Arad's studio on a rainy summer evening to shoot a video for their new single, The Best Person I Know, using the prototype curtain.

"What are you going to do here?" asks Arad, a cheerful, Chaplinesque figure.

"We're going to use a lot of your furniture if that's all right," Badwan says politely.

"Everything's all right!" says Arad. "This is a progressive kindergarten here."

The two men were introduced by Zeffira, who has known Arad since she sang with his daughter Dara in a choir in Hampstead several years ago (his other daughter Lail is also a singer). Zeffira grew up in "a little hick town" in Canada, notable only for having the world's largest lead and zinc smelter. Aptly, the dominant teen soundtrack was heavy metal. "I had to hide the fact that I liked classical music to hang out with the cool kids," she says. "My parents wanted me to have some culture so they force-fed me it. Before I met Faris, I had a huge hole in my playlist."

Badwan introduced her to obscure girl group records; she played him Bach and Ligeti. Zeffira had once sung for Pope John Paul II and used her Vatican contacts to secure the duo's debut show at St Peter's Basilica. "I didn't bring it up with Faris for ages because he hates gimmicky things," she says.

"It seemed ridiculous in the beginning," he confirms, "but then we thought it would be inimitable."

"It was all lies after that," she continues with a touch of guilt. She told the Vatican they were a choir called St Jude's and added to the end of the mass a song called Psalm 23, in reality an arrangement of their album-closing number I Knew It Was Over; the live Vatican performance can be seen on YouTube. "I think they thought Faris was a page-turner," she says. "If I'd have said we're a pop band, they'd have said no because it was a serious mass. It would have been totally disrespectful. I did confession afterwards. In my mind."

"The challenge wasn't to shock," says Badwan. "It was to fit in."

For someone who used to call himself Faris Rotter in the early days of the Horrors, Badwan is a quiet, thoughtful character with a wry sense of humour. The son of a Palestinian neurosurgeon, he attended Rugby school and went on to study at Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design in London. He didn't think much of it. "I was quite competitive, and there weren't many people up for doing anything – like turning up. It wasn't like I felt I was the best person around. I just didn't feel that people were really engaged. I found that when I was left to my own devices, I got a lot more done."

He still draws every day. "He can't stop," says Arad. "This is the first time I've seen him without his sketchpad." Deprived of his pen, Badwan spends the whole interview fiddling with a spoon. Asked why he launched the collaboration with Zeffira just a few months before the Horrors' return, he shrugs. "I guess I'm quite impulsive, and Rachel wants to do things so she's pushing me along. Honestly, when I get bored I just do stupid things."

"Like the wax mountain," says Zeffira, smiling. "Oh God, listen to this. For months and months, he was melting drips of wax and built an actual mountain out of candles. It was huge. It took hours and hours of dripping wax."

Badwan mutters with unease. He seems constantly in the process of wriggling out of things that bore or confine him. A mention of David Lynch as an influence on Cat's Eyes draws a heavy sigh. "David Lynch is great, but it's just the repetitious nature of [the comparison]. It's like the goth thing. Now Rachel's the goth queen by association. We're 'the dark duo'."

Suing Michael Jackson

Even being in the Horrors, which he loves, has its bothersome deadlines and expectations. "Before you make anything to be presented to an audience, it feels like a thing out of reach; and then, when you've been doing it for a while, you start to see the pattern. Once the pattern is obvious, it loses a lot of the magic."

Arad nods sympathetically. "When you do a building, it can take five years and it's full of obstacles and difficulties that have nothing to do with your creativity. But some things have no negotiation at all. You just do what you want to do when you want to do it, and you're not answerable to anyone. So you do the whole spectrum from irresponsible to super-responsible – sickly responsible."

Has he worked with a musician before? "Yes, I sued Michael Jackson once. If you go to a video called Scream, they used my pieces as props without asking me." He smiles. "This is my first non-litigious collaboration."

Cat's Eyes are sketchy on the details of what exactly they will do with the curtain. Badwan doesn't like to over-explain anything. A suggestion that the duo's album might have been a deliberate attempt to make a narrative song cycle (it certainly makes sense as one) is met with uncomfortable denials. "The best things appear by accident," he says. "When it's too self-conscious, you don't get any real emotion. We just became really excited about the whole thing. When you find someone you enjoy working with, it sends you into overdrive. I guess Ron's the same with his output."

"There's a need to play and to fight boredom and to keep yourself entertained," says Arad, adding that it's a bonus if you can earn a living from it. "I think we're all lucky in that way. We get away with it."

• Ron Arad's Curtain Call is at the Roundhouse, London NW1 (0844 482 8008) until 29 August. Cat's Eyes perform there on 22 August. Cat's Eyes by Cat's Eyes is out now on Polydor. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 08 2011

Ron Arad's Curtain Call installation makes its bow at the Roundhouse

Curtain made of 5,600 silicon rods forms a canvas for exclusive screenings at Camden venue

In the swishing space created by legendary designer Ron Arad in the cavernous Roundhouse in Camden, north London, spectators blunder in and out through a jungle that includes sinisterly beautiful lilies rotting in a thunderstorm, hands playing double-decker bus-sized piano keys, and a hairy giant, naked apart from painfully heavy boots, trudging around in a circle, belching sadly.

"Let's do something round and big," Arad said, when he bumped into Roundhouse director Marcus Davey in the street and was asked to create an installation for the venue's birthday. "Maybe a curtain as tall as possible and as wide as possible?"

It sounded so simple, but Curtain Call proved anything but. Making 5,600 identical eight-metre tall silicone rods and hanging them from a circular rail, 18 metres in diameter and suspended from the roof of the building, took the ingenuity and muscle of the entire staff of the theatre and Arad's design firm.

Arad then asked his mates, musicians, artists, fellow designers, and students from the Royal College of Art, where he was professor of design product, to create 360 works to be screened through eight state of the art projectors on to the rods. The pieces, including Christian Marclay's piano playing hands, Greenaway & Greenaway's fractured mirror image of the surrounding building, Mat Collishaw's Sordid Earth, and David Shrigley's dismal giant, will run until 29 August, with the public invited to pay whatever they can for admission.

Davey looks anguished and says the bills aren't yet all in, "but including all the art commissions, [total] many hundreds of thousand pounds" — fortunately sponsored by Bloomberg. "It should last for five years at least, though – people all over the world are interested in showing it next."

Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

• This article was amended on 8 August 2011 because the picture caption misnamed Mat Collishaw as Collinshaw. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 06 2011

Curtain Call

Roundhouse, London

According to the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, "There are things – pornography, the taste of water – that are impossible to define but easy to recognise. Ron Arad's genius is such a thing." He is a designer who was educated as an architect and now is doing some architecture again, dabbles in digitalia, and does things that might be called sculpture and/ or installation art. The most constant thing about him is his appearance – asymmetric hat (woven or felt), T-shirt, big trousers, no socks, amused smile, sidelong look. Also his studio in Chalk Farm, where he has been for 20 years, and which still has the "temporary" construction work he installed when he moved in, and now looks like a period piece.

Foer made his remark in an essay of wit, erudition, and quotes from Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde, written because he and Arad became friends, after they hit it off at some function or other "in a city neither of us called home". One of Arad's skills is the ability to make friends with creative people and, from 9 August, everyone is invited to a party he has orchestrated in that venue of legend, the Roundhouse. "I thought it would be a lot more exciting to invite other people to do it than do it all myself," he says.

This is Curtain Call, an installation in which a curtain of white silicon rods, eight metres high and hanging from above, encloses the great circular centre of the building. The rods collectively form a 360° screen on to which are projected animations and films by some of Arad's creative friends. Christian Marclay will ring the circle with piano keys, running vertically, played by giant projected hands. Mat Collishaw will show a gorgeous tropical landscape which is nonetheless "poisoned by diseased and malicious-looking flowers". Ori Gersht will show crowds at a bullfight, putting viewers in the middle of the circle in the position of a matador, or a bull.

Because the rods are translucent you will be able to see the projections from inside and outside the circle. The silicon is bendy and, as you will be required to push through it, the curtain will be in a state of perpetual oscillation. The spectators, as they pass in and out, become part of the action. On one night there will be Bring Your Own Beamer, a "favela of images" in which people can bring their own laptops, and have their work projected on to the screens. Arad has promised that "you'll be engulfed by images – a captive, but also a creator". He says the aim is to be "as inclusive as the Roundhouse is, plus high art, but without the bolshevism of the art market. Kids will love it."

If Curtain Call is a big sophisticated playground, it is consistent with almost everything Arad has done ever since the day, long ago, when he walked out one lunchtime from the middling architectural practice where he worked, cut seats out of an old Rover car and made from them the prototype of his Rover Chair, which became an instant hit. Since then he has been producing objects characterised by opulent curves and a playful interest in the unexpected properties of materials. He likes rust and reflection, fat things resting on thin things, or off-balance objects that look like they should fall over. He likes things to look highly finished and still in progress at the same time. He likes loopy, curvy bits and bits of text, whether graffiti-like scrawls or digital displays, applied to his work.

For a while these objects were mostly furniture, but he started doing interiors and other forms of product design. Ten years ago he presented an idea for a touch-screen tablet to the electronics company LG that was "pretty much the iPad, but they had no idea what we were talking about". He does sunglasses. Now, more than 30 years after he left architecture school, he is doing large buildings – his Design Museum Holon, in his native Tel Aviv, was completed last year, his Médiacité shopping centre in Liège, Belgium in 2009. He is now designing an apartment block and a commercial development of "science fiction scale" in Tel Aviv, and a hotel in east London.

He also does "studio pieces", works he does not quite call sculpture, but which are not quite anything else, and which fetch handsome prices as one-off collectibles. "I'm lucky that, however much I invest in something, someone will like it," is the way he puts it. For all his dressed-down, scruffy style, he attracts luxury clients. A consortium of Swarovksi, Red Bull and Bernie Ecclestone commissioned him to design a restaurant at a ski station near Gstaad, a rotating thing perched on a peak that is pure Ernst Stavro Blofeld. "I don't care how much it costs," said Ecclestone. "I only care who's paying for it." Whatever answer he got was not the right one, and the project is not currently going ahead.

The common denominator to all this work is playing with stuff to make other stuff. There is no grand theory or social programme, and whether the opportunity takes the form of an ultra-luxury restaurant, or a popular installation at the Roundhouse (admission charge: pay what you can), is not Arad's main concern. "We're interested in doing fantastic, amazing projects," is his not very sophisticated philosophy. He wants to stay in motion, to keep on inventing, not to pause too long on the ground: "We're the last people to be upset if someone comes back in the future with a better idea to make something we've done redundant. It might be us who do it."

He's at his best when he gets close to the business of making things, of what materials and techniques can and can't do. He's less convincing when he floats into a world of whirls and blobs, of making shapes for the sake of it. Curtain Call, with its smart use of hanging silicon, and projection and light, and its engagement with other artists and the public, promises to be one of the good ones.

Guardian Extra members can get 50% off full-price tickets for Curtain Call with cellist Steven Isserlis on 17 August © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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