The AKO Project

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Architect, industrial designer, artist… Ron Arad pretty much defies labels. He may have trained as an architect at London’s AA, yet he thinks more like an artist, approaching projects in an unconstrained, freewheeling way that produces inspired results. Being labelled by others no longer frustrates the Tel Aviv-born 68-year-old, “If I painted the Mona Lisa people would say ‘designed by Ron Arad'”, he shrugs, “but I called my [2008] retrospective at The Pompidou Centre No Discipline, because I don’t have exclusive membership of one discipline.”

A visit to his sprawling Camden studio, a ramshackle cabinet of curiosities, reveals the vast scope of his creativity; from the sloping skatepark-style interior architecture to the littering of various chairs in many materials – including his original ‘readymade’ Rover chair. There’s a gallery of illuminated etched glass sketches produced by friends such as Antony Gormley and Ai Weiwei, that originated from his collaboration with Steinmetz Diamonds for the 55th Venice Art Biennale in 2013, a prototype of his iconic bookworm shelves, and a copy of his recent 3D-printed book Genius: 100 Visions of the Future, shaped like Einstein’s head. You begin to wonder if the be-hatted designer’s ever-changing choice of headgear is a sartorial nod to this effortless wearing of many professional hats.

“It’s the artistry behind Ron’s work that initially appealed to us,” says Creative Director and Co-Founder Sue Jones about the collaboration. “Celebrating 20 years in business, we thought it would be a fun, interesting idea to push the boundaries.”

One visit to Ron’s studio and their minds were made up. “I didn’t know what to expect,” admits Sue. “I’d seen his work but didn’t realise everything was so usable and incredibly comfortable. At OKA we have to create comfort with something like feathers, but Ron manages to do it with a piece of wood, or steel or metal, it’s amazing. We spent quite a long time trying every single chair, it was eye-opening.”

For Ron, part of the attraction was exploring a different territory from his (relative) norm, or at least from working with the likes of Vitra or Moroso. “OKA is the other side of the spectrum from what I do, although of course it’s actually the same.”

OKA is the other side of the spectrum from what I do, although of course it’s actually the same.

“A chair or sofa is to be sat on, but I never did things for interior design, I just did them because I was interested in them,” he explains. Ron was immediately impressed when he paid a visit to our head office in Chelsea. “I could see the care, taste and consistency. To me, the brand seemed the epitome of Englishness.”

Sue couldn’t agree more. “If you think of Englishness as eclectic and having the confidence to mix things, not sticking to one particular style and being crazy enough to introduce African or eastern art or something Turkish,” she says, “those are all very English things. It has been so for hundreds of years and we definitely try and do that.”

And so, from this mutual admiration, the project was born. Going back to his roots, Ron selected two of our most popular pieces, the oak and wicker Washakie velvet dining chair and the Crosby armchair, and decided to ‘interfere’ with them in his archetypal way. “My first piece of furniture was the Rover chair,” he explains, “but I also used to do this thing called Chair by Its Cover. I’d go to Camden Market, pick up a chair and play with it to make it my piece. And I miss that, so here was a chance for me to go back to something that I used to enjoy doing.”

What’s the point of a chair if you can’t sit on it?

AKO is a limited edition evocative of Ron’s late 1980s pieces that saw him wrapping a simple secondhand timber chair in chunky sculptural stainless steel. In the prototype, the Washakie dining chair wears a high collar-like coat of highly reflective, slender stainless steel which refracts and distorts a mirror image of the chair and the words ‘Reserved/Reversed’ are painted on its rear, transforming it into a throne of sorts. In addition to his creative genius, he’s also a brilliant pundit: the further 10 chairs in this exclusive collection each bear their own catchy title, half-wrapped in a reflective sheet of stainless steel or copper. For Ron, part of the process is about changing the experience and behaviour of the user. “What’s the point of a chair if you can’t sit on it? It’s not a big deal to make a chair that’s comfortable, it’s easy. I wanted to add something about sitting. From a dining chair it becomes a throne; you enjoy sitting on it, but differently.”

Sue loves the drama of the piece. “Dining chairs are really strong for us and we’re aware people can never buy just one. I love the idea of one being more special than another, but it hasn’t lost its identity. You could have a dinner party with this at the head of the table and the rest just uncovered,” she says. “Uncovered and jealous!” concludes Ron with a grin.

The AKO chair is exclusively available to buy on The Invisible Collection.

Part two of the Ron Arad X OKA collaboration will be revealed in 2020, so make sure you’re one of the first to hear all about it by signing up to receive the OKA email newsletter.

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Topics: designers