Israeli designer Ron Arad talks to James Haldane about the Tailor My Tom Vac project with furniture company Vitra, and shares his belief in design’s perpetual capacity for innovation
In 1997, furniture giant Vitra teamed up with Domus magazine in commissioning Israeli designer Ron Arad to create a temporary installation for Milan’s Salone del Mobile. The brief was simple, if indefinite – ‘to explore both novelty and memory in design, art and architecture’. In response, Arad created a ‘totem pole’ stack of 100 chairs, simultaneously referencing a formal tradition of memory-making and the history of mid-20th century furniture design.
Arad used the commission strategically as an opportunity to experiment with the then new process of vacuum-forming aluminium. Although this manufacturing method proved too costly for Vitra to develop into large-volume production, its history lives on in the Tom Vac name.
Today, as part of their contribution to this year’s Clerkenwell Design Week programme, Vitra have opened their London showroom to stage a special exhibition celebrating the chair’s 15th anniversary. Entitled Tailor My Tom Vac, the show comprises a collection of 23 reinterpretations of Arad’s original design each created by leading architecture and design studios.
James Haldane: How do you regard the relationship between these creations and your original Tom Vac design? Are they offspring or siblings?
Ron Arad: I don’t think anyone here thinks they are doing a new version of Tom Vac. They are doing a comment – a piece in its own right.They have a common element. They all observe or play with the Tom Vac. They see things that we haven’t seen before – I’ve never seen it as a dog collar! It’s funny that lots of people saw the Tom Vac as the horn of a speaker; three designers made speakers out of it. But everything is their work, I’m an innocent bystander here. I don’t feel possessive about the work.
JH: You say you’re a bystander, but I understand you’re going to be announcing your favourite of the 23 new interpretations later in the week?
RA: Yes, I’ve been given the horrible task of choosing ‘a winner’. They’re all winners, but actually the real winner is not here. He’s a person called Tom Vack – he’s a great photographer. Every time I see him he complains that wherever he goes, when he introduces himself, people laugh at him. They say, ‘What, are you named after a chair?’ It’s the other way round. When he heard about this project he sent me a photograph of himself in a tailored suit saying, ‘Tailored Tom Vack’. He would be the winner, but he’s not competing.
JH: You sound begrudging of the process. Do you feel the notion of winning isn’t appropriate in design practice?
RA: I will choose ‘a winner’. But there are 23 participants, and 23 winners. I can tell they all enjoyed the process and all invested time, thought and wit. They had fun, but unfortunately one of them has to be named.
JH: Looking at the new interpretations, many of the designers and architects have chosen to draw heavily on an assemblage technique. Why do you think that is?
RA: The original Tom Vac is a chair like many other chairs. We’re in a room surrounded by them – the Jacobsen chair, the Panton chair, the Eames chair. The beauty of doing chairs is that it’s all been done before. The modern chair peaked in the 1950s – it was a lot easier to be an innovator then than it is now. We are here in a showroom that celebrates things that were designed before most people looking at them were born. The design of a chair now, even if it will be mass-produced and widely consumed, must still have something new to it – that’s the beauty.
When I designed the Tom Vac, many people had already done stacking chairs. But they always stacked the legs outside the shell. The Tom Vac has a hole in the back and two of the legs stack through the hole. This was my ‘giant step for mankind’. The designers on show today have sought out their own innovations.
JH: Given that furniture design underwent this period of accelerated development in the mid-20th century that you describe, where does that leave today’s new practitioners? Must they pursue new goals to remain innovative?
RA: Most people just want to join something – to jump on a bandwagon. This is true in every field from design to medicine. We never reach a ceiling, there is always more. In sports we assume no one can run the 100m sprint any faster, but there’s always someone who can push a little further using new means and technologies. Design is the same.