Saturday 19 October 2019

If you're in the market for a bum deal...

Loud and clear: The Well Transparent Chair by Ron Arad is worth a whopping €5,000
Loud and clear: The Well Transparent Chair by Ron Arad is worth a whopping €5,000

When is a chair not a chair? When it's a design art concept. And did I tell you I sat in a €5k transparent chair?

Nobody in their right mind could accuse Ron Arad's Well Transparent Chair of being a practical seating option. It's made of bent plastic sheets bolted together under tension. It dates from 2010, when an edition of 100 signed and numbered pieces was produced for an exhibition of Arad's work in the Barbican in London.

They were sold through the Timothy Taylor Gallery and at Barbican Art Gallery for £5,000 each. One of these is coming up for sale at De Vere's Design Auction on Sunday, May 19 (Lot 76: est €4,000 to €6,000). The Well Transparent Chair is a wonderful-looking object (if you can see it!), with its own special niche in design history. It's relatively small (80 x 80 x 100cm) and made of transparent polycarbonate, held together by wingnuts. The seat of the chair is made of a folded sheet of plastic, as is the back rest. It looks neither as if it should be sat on nor should it be comfortable.

But, hey, it's a chair. So I sat on it. This was an extraordinary experience. The Well Transparent Chair bounces. None of the design journals tell you this. The parts of the chair that support your body are designed to move in a profoundly destabilising way. It's a bit like sitting on a waterbed. More worryingly, it made an ominous creaking sound. Maybe this is as intended, but the noise didn't inspire confidence. But, as the chair will probably go to a collector for display rather than use, the point is probably academic.

Arad (68) is an Israeli who has made his career in London and is now considered one of the only collectible contemporary designers on the art market. He trained as an architect but, famously, the piece that began his career was made from a Rover car seat discovered in a scrap yard. He made a frame out of Kee Klamp scaffolding and an iconic chair was born. In the early '80s, Arad's One-Off company made hundreds of Rover chairs, which sold for £99. A battered Rover Double Seater (1981) sold for at Quittenbaum auction in Germany for €3,200 this February. It looked like it had a lot of miles on the clock.

In 1986, Arad came up with the brilliantly named Well Tempered Chair. As its name suggests, it was made of sheets of tempered steel and is the forerunner of the Well Transparent Chair, a very similar design but in different materials. It was produced by Vitra between 1986 and 1993. Like its successors, the chair references the shape of an armchair, but there the similarity ends.

In 2002, Arad designed a synthetic version, the Bad Tempered Chair, which is made from carbon fibre and Kevlar, held together by polyester. This was also produced by Vitra in an edition of 1,000. One of these sold for €3,600 at Christie's in 2005. Neither of these chairs remains in production, but you can buy a miniature version of the Well Tempered Chair for €250 in the Vitra Design Museum shop. This nerdy toy is true to scale and exactly one sixth the size of the historical original.

Arad continued to design chairs, and other pieces of furniture, in limited edition. Some of these command very high prices at auction. In October 2017, Sotheby's Design: Living in a Material World included several Arad pieces. Southern Hemisphere, a chair described as "a functional sculpture", sold for €126,191. It actually looks like a bronze sculpture in the style of Henry Moore, but is made from patinated aluminium. Prior to the auction, Sotheby's posted a video interview with Arad. "The most frequently asked question is what is more important, function or aesthetics?" he said. "They're good friends. They don't fight each other. They like each other."

In 2018, an early example of Arad's Large Bookworm shelving system (1993) sold for £68,750 (around €79,883) at Christie's in London. It's another iconic piece of design and, prior to it, the idea that a bookshelf could be made of a continuous snaking curve rather than a flat supporting plane was not on anybody's radar. The artist's proofs, including the one that sold at Christie's, were designed in patinated sprung steel, but in 1994, the design was taken on by Kartell. The Bookworm bookcase (€878) was produced for the mass market in extruded flexible thermoplastic polymer by Kartell and is still in production.

Arad's mass-produced pieces are far, far more accessible than the limited editions. In 2017, one of his MT3 rocking chairs sold at De Vere's for €500. The chair is a mono-form in polyethylene: white on the outside and coloured on the interior of the inner shell. It's part of Arad's MT series. Geddit? All the chairs in the series are made of empty forms and 'MT', spoken aloud, sounds like… Once again, the title is part of the fun.

De Vere's Design Auction is on view at 65 Fitzwilliam Square today (10am-5pm); Saturday (10am-5pm); and on day of sale (10am-1pm). The auction begins at 2pm. See deveres.ie.

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