Master of Scale and Minimalism

Designer Ron Gilad discusses his recent diminutive exhibit and his imaginative perceptions.

Furniture fairs are typically fueled by big gestures. At this year’s New York Design Week, though, Ron Gilad meditated on minuscule objects in an exhibition appropriately called XSmall: Old Ideas/New Objects. The New York–based Israeli designer and co-founder of Designfenzider describes the exhibition, staged at the shop at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, as “a short poem constructed of mundane objects: a plate, a clock, a mirror, or a light, scaled down and stripped naked.” He adds, “XSmall was an opportunity for me to produce some kind of intimacy that allows the viewer to get closer, to explore and not feel intimidated.”

Tiny things surface throughout Gilad’s oeuvre, but so do other motifs. There’s the moving of parts: On display at the Cooper-Hewitt, for example, were Vase Makers, tiny urns that cap drinking glasses, transforming them into vessels for flowers; his Floor/Table Lamp, not at the show, inserts a lampshade through a beech side table. Gilad also heartily partakes in appropriation. XSmall presented a miniature George Nelson Coconut Chair reconceived as an ashtray. These were produced by the same mind that made the Dear Ingo chandelier, an homage featuring a ring of 16 banal metal task lamps, for Moooi.

While Dear Ingo won Gilad a good share of media attention when it was released in 2005, his work doesn’t collect trends. Indeed, one of the strongest recurrences in Gilad’s work is a severe, conceptual minimalism. Things, like his series of fruit bowls (or the cage-like vases shown at XSmall) are reduced to three-dimensional line drawings—ideas with pure function, no florid patterns or cheeky historical allusions. Here, Gilad reflects on the exhibition and how it provides a window into his wider-reaching ambitions as a designer.

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Would you say that XSmall is a culmination of your design inquiry?
The exhibition is a reflection of my work process. Time and newness are fluid.

My mother, who studies the Kabala and views the world through spiritual eyes, keeps reminding me that we are not inventing anything new but merely uncovering and revealing that which already exists. It is wise for me to have the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. Good ideas don’t come with expiration dates.

Literally speaking, the Torch [featured in XSmall] was produced ten years ago. However, the exhibition dives further into the past. The Rotunda Table by Mario Bellini, the Coconut Chair by George Nelson, or even a classic chandelier from the 18th century all served as points of departure.

Was there an overarching idea that drove this exhbition?
The whole exhibition was an exercise in creating intimacy. The physical characteristics of the space—Andrew Carnegie’s office, a small warm room clad in wood and shuttered from the outside world—versus my sharp “skeletaled” object allowed me to dovetail disparate elements.

Was this inquiry specific to the small exhibition environment?
Given a larger exhibition space, I might have created the exact same pieces. Scale is one of many tools I use to explore and question the everyday. In a sort of retarded way, I reduce the physical world to lines and surface. This helps me to shape my questions like a broth reduction is to a whole pot of soup.

Why is it important to become intimate with objects?
We wake up in the morning after being intimate with our bedding all night. We slather our bodies with soap in the shower; we “hug” our warm mugs of coffee while our bottoms rest comfortably on a seat. My point being that we expect our “everyday partners” to be loyal, beautiful and to serve our needs.

After a while our intimate partners are in need of reconditioning. So we are either replacing them with a newer version or sending them out for repairs. And let’s not forget the concept of disposable partners.

When were you first aware the practice existed and knew it was something you wanted to pursue?
I grew up in a minimalist environment. By necessity and not design I learned to appreciate objects as tools that know how to multi-function; a chair on a table is a ladder, two suitcases equal a coffee table, etc. So for me, the future was written in the past.

How does childhood imagination translate to grown-up pursuits?
From a child’s point of view, these are two suitcases. From a mature designer’s point of view, these are two volumes. The designer shapes his ideas using abstract forms while the hidden child sometimes comes out to play.

Where did those early interests take you?
I went on to study architecture in high school but quickly discovered that my impatient nature would not wait years to see my first live “object,” so I thought that studying industrial design would give me some immediate gratification. What seemed like a compromise then revealed itself to become an ideal vehicle for me as an artist and a person.

Does nationality somehow figure into your perceptions and missions as a designer?
Yes and no.

This question opens Pandora’s Box. I find it difficult yet intriguing to answer. It can lead us to a discussion about everything in our contemporary life. During World War II, the Nazi Party commissioned IBM to create a system for sorting people to organize them for transport to labor and death camps. So I ask myself, was the nationality of the designers visible in these systems?

Let’s jump ahead to fine arts, Hirst for example. Can we tell his nationality through his work? We can philosophize for hours about the meaning of his dissected cow and that’s what’s brilliant about it. It’s not the answers; it’s the questions that the work raises.

To define nationality in order to fit a creative effort into its profile is to limit the creative power. If one’s concept is to deal with national identity through his work then it’s fine. If not, to use nationality as a filter to define one’s work is a path to World War III. Since Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, design was no longer a geographic matter but a cultural one.

Culturally, we can define “tribes”—Eastern, Western, etc. For example, we can easily define traditional Japanese design objects, but in contemporary design movements, cultural differences are much less obvious. In the ’90s Western minimalism could be mistaken for modern Japanese design. Today, my work is loaded with the same concepts that my colleagues from around the world are dealing with. We can see cultural influences but more and more they are blurring.

I think it brings us to a deeper understanding of my first answer: yes and no.

XSmall/New Objects Old Ideas has been extended and will be on view at the
Cooper-Hewitt until the end of August.

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