The Matt and Ron Show

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Hi. I’ve just read Matt and Rons book. Here’s the plot, nicely documented in a photo story running through the book: top art critic Matt Collings goes to Chalk Farm, shakes 80s design superstar Ron Arads hand, sits down, chats, has a cup of coffee, stands up to look at something. Ron gets up and gesticulates. The sun shines. The tape rolls. Someone brings another drink. Matt leaves.

The book is a transcript of their conversations which chronologically cover Rons career. But its not just another book about Ron. Its also about Matt. He tries to get to the heart of art critic type issues.

Rons answers are terrible. But that’s OK. Ron is just too excited about his own story to engage with anything else. Or even to get his own story straight. Everything was fantastically interesting and amazingly exciting. His mother thought he was a genius at drawing! Peter Cook, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhass thought he was a brilliant student! His final project at the AA was great! etc.

The only thing missing are shots to camera of Matt arching an eyebrow while Ron gets angry and shakes his fist. What makes the book unusual is the clash of cultures: Ron (the design guy) doesn’t seem to have much time for ideas, which is exactly what (the art guy) Matt is looking for. In the same way, Israeli born Ron dismisses the French art critics who interpreted his concrete turntable as a reference to the rubble of Beirut or the Gaza Strip.

My guess is that Rons not telling the whole story. That the interesting bits have all been edited out. Which is a shame, because that’s what we want from autobigraphing celebs. My Furniture Fair Hell! Blown Aluminium Saved My Marriage! Chair Design Shame – the full story! Maybe Rons been lucky. My own experience as a designer is littered with disappointment, angst, fear, loathing, failure, incompetence, bad luck, bitterness, jealousy and waste.

The book is beautifully designed by GTF. Clear, sharp, and clean. Which suits Matts honest-but-a-little-confused schtick. Ron looks as comfortable as a Pope in Francis Bacons headlights. For the front cover, GTF made a squirmy piece of type that morphs Matts signature into Rons. Maybe it symbolises the rope that Ron is given to hang himself with. Or maybe its the distance between the two men.

The book revolves around asking what design is, and how its different from art.
For Ron – and most other designers, art is something that ended in about 1964. If art is a sculpture, it’s curvy and sculpted like a Hepworth or a Moore. If art is a painting, it’s splattered in an Abstract Expressionist kind of way. He’s not alone though. Most designers would agree. Terms like ‘sculptural form’ are used to describe design and architecture in a way that would puzzle the contemporary art world. Design darlings like Ghery, Hadid, and FOA make things that look like 1950s art with a streak of 1960s sci fi. Things that if made by an artist could only avoid ridicule by claiming the asylum of irony.

Ron thinks of art as something made by a kind of heroic Picasso/Pollack figure. A crazy self obsessed ego, whose genius spills from his hands in the marks he makes. Hence lots of ‘Arty’ sketches, (ie messy and freehand). Art is a affectation, like Tony Hancock in The Rebel . Being an artist means wearing a funny hat.

Design is strangely purposeless for something so interested in function. Maybe because the idea of use is justification enough for existing. Artists need to invent that reason. And that invention means that art isn’t just decoratively visual, its an idea too. Because design doesn’t need this, it don’t need to articulate why its here. It just is. Like rocks or trees. That doesn’t mean that it can’t or shouldn’t, its just that most designers choose not to. And it doesn’t mean that it cant tell us about the world, it can. But maybe indirectly, in an anthropological way – like an artefact from a distant land.

Despite its mythologising of function, design is nothing to do with use. It has everything to do with feeling. Its like a special bit of the world that has been made different. At its best, its a kind of narcotic. It empties your mind and fills it up with a sensation.

The only guy who gets a rough ride is Phillipe Stark. Dubbed ‘a stylist’ which is about as redundant as describing Thierry Henry as a man who often wears shorts or David Bowie as a man who uses a microphone. Of course he’s a stylist, but its styling that’s been taken into something that style isn’t supposed to do – something incredible, something beautiful, something profound. He’s also great at talking about it too. His ridiculous French accent spouting non-sequeters, making funny sounds, showing off his fat belly and generally acting the fool. Artists make serious work but act like twats, designers make twatty work and talk about it in the most depressingly faux serious way.

Matts tries to ask about meaning. But of course he should have realised that there is no room for meaning in contemporary design. Matt the art critic asks about the meaning of all those curves. Ron: ‘I don’t really think about curved lines much. Its just that you’re forcing me to analyse them now’.

Matt remarks that all Rons curves look like they’d like to go back to being ‘a flamboyant thick pencil-mark line-curve’. Maybe they’d really like to go back to be a movement of Rons hand. Perhaps furniture is just a way to multiply his gesture – to make it solid and real outside of his body. Chairs are way of reproducing himself or at least a little bit of himself. The bit of Ron that his mum loved and cooed over when he was small. Maybe each chair is really a plea from his inner child: ‘Mum, I love you! Do you still love me?’

Poor Ron has hardly spent any time thinking about why he does what he does. He’s spent a long time figuring out what you can do with various materials, how to work the industry – from limited edition studio pieces to mass produced factory products – all of which shouldn’t be underated.

‘I don’t have to refer to anything. I don’t have to place myself in history, or to carefully align myself with anything’ is a typically vapid baby boomer statement. The book starts with Matt claiming to know nothing about design. But actually, its Ron that knows nothing: he’s just a guy that makes funny shaped chairs. And there is nothing wrong with that.

First published in Modern Painters

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