Ron Gilad

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This profile of industrial designer, Ron Gilad, was first published on the website of Disegno magazine, disegnodaily.com, in June 2013.

Ron Gilad is most at home with a pencil and the A4 paper he draws on. These basic tools of creative inquiry and motifs of the home make up the formal language of the Israeli designer’s new solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Throughout the exhibition, Ron Gilad: The Logical, the Ironic and the Absurd, the square or cube shape with triangular roof recurs. At the beginning of the gallery space, a long room divided by eight freestanding walls, a three-dimensional line of black-enamelled brass traces the outline of and connection between two neighbouring houses.

From inside one wall in the gallery, a pair of eyes with eyelashes torn out of the plaster, stare at the visitor. On another, a matchbox-sized window complete with tiny sash and lintel beckons the visitor to peer in. A cement cylindrical plug, twice the size of a tin can, that is displaced from a hole in the gallery’s floor will likely make visitors wonder whether they themselves are miniature players on someone else’s grander scale. In Gilad’s world, there are walls within worlds and worlds within walls.

The Logical, the Ironic and the Absurd marks Gilad’s return to his native city after 12 years living and working in New York. On a sunny summer’s day in suburban Tel Aviv, the walls of the house that he uses as a studio glow in their whiteness. Sitting on the back porch smoking a cigarette, the Israeli designer talks of feeling not quite comfortable working here, ‘I like to be able to create in a studio where I can safely destroy things.’ He also admits to ‘having felt a foreigner for many many years.’ He is not at home anywhere; but to him, this is the point. ‘I want to be awake all the time. Being awake can mean sitting on an uncomfortable chair.’

This might seem a strange confession for someone who designs furniture for high-end Italian brands such as Flos, Molteni & C and Adele-C for Adele Cassina. A feeling of unease, whether laced with humour or melancholy, suffuses most of his one-off and commercially-produced pieces. It is a feeling that can be identified with the aesthetic sensation of the uncanny, explored by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay of the same name. Freud coined the term from the German word ‘unheimlich’, literally meaning ‘unhomely’ and used it to describe the inexplicable feeling that arises when that which is familiar becomes strange. As such, the uncanny is often located in domestic settings. The haunted house or doll that comes to life are two of its most common emblems.

How a designer induces a goose-pimpled reaction or provokes what architecture critic Anthony Vidler described as ‘a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming’ is not so clear cut. Gilad concurs: ‘Scale is something I play with in order to make you feel like you are not walking on stable ground.’ He wants the cement floor of the gallery to feel to the visitor like Jello. Yet there are many other devices he uses to animate objects. In the exhibition, the melted shape of a plaster candle evokes a metamorphosis into a tree while The Birth of a Chair (2009) introduces a sense of evolution or narrative to the geometry of furniture. A series of enamelled-brass line sculptures map the transformation from rectangle to prism to chair.

Gilad deals in concrete images rather than in specific things. Cigarettes, pencils, power points, generic locks, keys, doors and windows make up his lexicon. To this he adds icons of modernist design. In 2005, for instance, he designed a chandelier for Moooi, called Dear Ingo, by assembling a number of the German industrial designer, Ingo Maurer’s anglepoise lamps into a light resembling a mechanical spider. More recently he named his 56 Daybed and -Cabinet, designed for Adele-C, after the four 27cm high cast iron Thonet 14 chairs they each use as supports.

Having grown up in an international style Modernist building, such homages are personal and autobiographical as much as they are historical references. On the back porch in Tel Aviv we sit on a replica of Le Corbusier’s tubular chrome-framed LC2 sofa. It references Gilad’s time as an aspiring designer: ‘I always wanted one. When I moved to New York, I didn’t have enough money to buy an original.’ The LC2 reappears at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art entitled RG2 (2013) for which Gilad has folded it in half to a ninety degree angle and balanced it impossibly on its corner in a v.

Such recasting of signature designs release them from the tyranny of their claims to pure function; which is not to say Gilad’s uncanny or dreamlike excursions should be mistaken for unbridled flights of fancy. His process is rigorous, intellectual and disciplined. The enamelled-brass line sculptures are minimal and geometrically reductive. Another strand of work in the exhibition explores systems of display. There is a series of investigations into the relationship between picture frame, A4 paper and the drawing of a cube. Made from different materials, in various combinations of wood, glass, wire or even etched out of the wall itself, frame, ground and image are rendered unstable.

The influence of these works and of others involving marble pedestals inside prisms can be seen in the Gradoº furniture collection Gilad has designed for Molteni, for which the coffee table is an elegant glass-top wooden box in outline. It opens up new dimensions through its internal bright red highlights and by being faceted at forty-five degrees instead of at the conventional ninety.

Gilad maintains ‘Each idea deserves to be materialised in the right way. If you are trying to convey the idea of fragility, it is much more interesting not to do it out of glass but out of heavy stone.’ Such are his demands for material refinement that he often scouts the world for expert craftspeople. He pushes materials to the edge of matter. Various sketches and models are scattered around his studio. On one table, a feather vibrates at the end of an arched wire. Mounted high on a wall in the exhibition, in its final incarnation it becomes a gently moving wisp.

His attention to craftsmanship notwithstanding, Gilad says that his ‘starting point is function.’ He adds, ‘Function, however, is not enough.’ Design historian Adrian Forty has written that ‘if the uncanny is contrary to the conventions, even the definitions, of domestic décor, there is a yet more serious objection to needlessly introducing it into our lives, in that it has been the whole purpose of enlightened thought to banish superstition, to rid the world of things that come to life, of objects that carry talismanic powers…In the modern era, the normal expectation of objects for everyday life was that they should above all be useful. In their usefulness is encompassed their whole being, and great lengths have been taken to rid them of any trace of magical or supernatural powers.’ Gilad probes the rationality of objects until they yield these powers. From this perspective his methods of extreme logic can be seen as attempts to wrest the meaning of objects from the collective unconscious.

Gilad’s latest project has him appropriately designing a real home, a summer house in Northern Italy. He describes it in signature terms. It will be conceived around the geometrical volumes formed by two stacked cigarette boxes displaced in two directions to account for the play of sun and shade. He will design it so it feels from the outset as if it has been lived in before, as if it is an old house. One can expect it to be a highly effective machine for living; but no doubt it will be magical too.

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