Ron Arad plays ping pong on his steel table at the Barbican.
Ron Arad plays ping pong on his steel table at the Barbican. Photo by Dafydd Jones
(Image credit: Dafydd Jones)

The Barbican’s new retrospective of Ron Arad’s career charts 30 years of risk-taking, eccentricity and experimentation – the hallmarks that have secured his place among design royalty.

‘Ron Arad: Restless’ is the first major show of his work in the UK and, with over 120 pieces, ranging from the familiar personalities of his post-punk years, like the Well-Tempered Chair of 1986 – a puffed-up steel take on the traditional club chair – to his pioneering experiments with technology, it's a thorough education in Arad's singular approach to design.

The show captures the comfortable collision of work and play in the artist-cum-designer’s oeuvre. Chairs rock or roll, while shelves flex and sway. Together with young London designers Tom Foulsham and Valentin Vodev he has even devised special tricks for certain items, to demonstrate their range of motion.

This isn’t a show you tiptoe round in silence. Here, the Barbican has ditched its usual ‘don’t touch’ attitude. Instead you are invited to experience, recline in and play with the work. You can even compete with fellow visitors on Arad’s own stainless steel ping pong table.

Architectural projects on show include the rotating restaurant and gallery Les Diablerets in Gstaad and the freshly opened Mediacite shopping complex in Belgium. Crowning these his radical new Holon Design Museum in Israel, opening at the beginning of March, with its undulating curves of Corton steel.

The exhibition also offers an intimate sense of the London-based designer in action. Two workshop recreations display pieces part-way through production and short films show the artist crafting his pieces. There are also rarely seen before prototypes, revealing the tumultuous path from idea to final product. These, and the number of works on show, prove the aptness of the exhibition’s title – that Arad is, indeed, a man who never sits still.

Concrete Stereo, 1983. A broken record player lying on gravel.

Concrete Stereo, 1983

(Image credit: TBC)

Chair By Its Cover, 1989. A wooden chair with a black metal sheet curled around it.

Chair By Its Cover, 1989.

(Image credit: TBC)

Bad-Tempered Chair, 2002. A black leather chair with a black steel frame.

Bad-Tempered Chair, 2002.

(Image credit: TBC)

Lolita, 2004. A spiraling chandelier made from lights which make words.

Lolita, 2004. Photo by Spencer Tsai.

(Image credit: Spencer Tsai)

Ron Arad looking through a shiny metallic structure.

Ron Arad

(Image credit: TBC)

Tom Vac, 1997. A shiny metallic curved backed chair with thin legs.

Tom Vac, 1997.

(Image credit: TBC)

The Rover Chair, 1981. A brown leather chair with legs and arm rests made of curved black metal.

The Rover Chair, 1981.

(Image credit: TBC)

A red tear drop shaped object.

Gomli, 2008. Photo by Todd White Art.

(Image credit: Todd White Art)

Oh, the Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends, 2009. A map made of photographs,

Oh, the Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends, 2009

(Image credit: TBC)

Malaika Byng is an editor, writer and consultant covering everything from architecture, design and ecology to art and craft. She was online editor for Wallpaper* magazine for three years and more recently editor of Crafts magazine, until she decided to go freelance in 2022. Based in London, she now writes for the Financial Times, Metropolis, Kinfolk and The Plant, among others.