The Israeli Designer Who Will Have You Questioning Everything You Think You Know

Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar
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Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar

There is a security guard sitting on a chair at the entrance to the Tel Aviv Museum's one-man show of the work of Ron Gilad, one of the most successful and highly-regarded Israeli designers in the world today. That shouldn't have come as a surprise, but the guard is sitting on one of the items on display in the show, called "Chair No. 1." It's a black chair on a white platform with a miniature version of the chair next to it. At the other end of the gallery, there is another guard sitting on a chair and he, too, is part of the exhibition. In addition to the chair, that second work, "Guard No. 2," features arc-shaped lighting that diffuses white light above the guard's head, making it appear like he has a halo.

Is Gilad seeking to make fun of the guards, or is he perhaps laughing with them? Is he trying to draw the attention of the visitors to the guards' presence? The answer may be found in the rest of the items in the show, which opened last month. It may also be found particularly in the title of the exhibition, "The Logical, the Ironic and the Absurd." There are about 80 works in the show, and they can be described as intelligent, minimalistic, humoristic, poetic and philosophical. They also all reveal Gilad's unique signature. The vast majority of them were also only designed in the past several months.

Gilad, who is 41, studied in the industrial design department of Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. He lived for about 10 years in New York, until about a year ago, but now divides his time between Tel Aviv and Milan. His style was already identifiable in his first one-man show, "Neopost," at Tel Aviv's Periscope gallery in 1999. In recent years, his work has found its way to several important design museums.

In 2009, he had a one-artist show at the Wright auction house in Chicago, which was followed by an exhibition at Milan's highly-regarded Dilmos gallery, which is one of the sponsors of the current Tel Aviv show, along with Wallpaper magazine and Italian designers including Molteni & C.

Between ‘cool’ and intelligent
Similar to Gilad's commercial designs, the items in the Tel Aviv Museum show range between “cool" and intelligent, between entertaining and brilliant. He wants us to cast doubt on the ordinary and the familiar, but in the process takes the risk that we will also approach his artistic motivation with skepticism. And although it doesn't happen a lot in the exhibition, sometimes the show prompts one to question whether all 80 pieces were really necessary. And at what stage in the visit does the show turn from the ironic to the absurd?

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From Gilad’s 'The Logical, the Ironic and the Absurd': Taking a familiar object and changing an element.Credit: Uri Grun
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From Gilad’s 'The Logical, the Ironic and the Absurd': Taking a familiar object and changing an element. Credit: Uri Grun
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From Gilad’s 'The Logical, the Ironic and the Absurd': Taking a familiar object and changing an element. Credit: Uri Uri Grun

Nonetheless, the works in the exhibition do carefully create an inviting, tempting, surprising and enjoyable space, which despite its dominant, sterile white color and minimalism of form, it is not off-putting. It is enough to hear the expressions of astonishment and the smiles of the visitors every time they take in the next piece to see the extent to which Gilad gains adherents among the visitors - without compromising his artistic vision. In the process, the exhibit has the potential to build a following for design and show it in a new light. (In this respect, Gilad's show, together with those of the winners of the Andy Prize for Israeli decorative arts, textile artist Gali Cnaani and ceramic designer Maya Muchawsky Parnas, present a surprising, fresh and up-to-date look at the field.)

Most of the items in Gilad's show are lacking in purely functional purpose. Nevertheless the starting point for each object always appears to be a design relating to function, whether the creative process results in a museum space or goes on to one of the Italian furniture manufacturers with which Gilad works. In the Tel Aviv show, he declares that he is not beholden to the consumer or to a company, and that to convey an idea, he can bend the rules and the materials. And he indeed accomplishes this in a number of his works, including two white wooden doors that face one another. Their upper portions are bent and together they form an arch that one can walk under. Then there is the black leather sofa that is bent in the middle, creating a diagonal form, the use for which is not clear.

These pieces are characteristic of the designer. He takes familiar objects and changes one of their elements - turning them over, duplicating them, omitting something, changing our perspective on them, altering their scale and creating new objects or situations. Gilad takes the familiar and turns it into something else. For example, the end of a key protruding from a lock, but it is not the end with the handle. And there's the blade of a knife sticking out of a wall, but the handle cannot be seen. And the electrical appliance with cords plugged into two separate outlets on a wall.

The motif that recurs more than any other is the concept of the house - in the interior, for example, with doors and sofas. And when it relates to form, it is the design outlines. One of the most impressive pieces, which is displayed over the entire length of a gallery, is "The Birth of a Chair." It includes 20 black, chrome-coated steel structures that are transformed from flat squares into a chair. Another piece is a line made of enamel-coated brass, creating the outlines of two attached houses. There is also an effort to escape the home, in a work titled "I'm not here." It consists of a small wooden window about two meters high on a wall. Protruding from it is white fabric similar to sheets that prisoners might tie together to escape from jail.

‘Investigating our perspectives’

Gilad's autobiographic references are also intriguing, even though the show works even without familiarity with the artist. "I'm never really in the place where I am located," Gilad said, quoted in the show's catalog, which was written by the curator of the exhibition, Meira Yagid-Haimovici.

In a 2010 interview with Haaretz, Gilad said: "My work deals with the relationship between the object and its purpose. I use objects to investigate our perspectives. We know day-to-day objects from the day we were born. They are planted in our subconscious to such an extent that we are almost unaware of their presence. I try to refresh our perception and appraisal of them. Metaphorically speaking, I relate to myself as a kind of linguist who creates his own language, learns the origin of the words and looks for new synonyms. My objects are suggestions, not solutions. I want them to remain open-ended and hope they engender doubt."

From this standpoint, the language that Gilad creates has its own syntax and punctuation. It includes a lot of question marks at a time when people are expecting exclamation marks. This is not a classic design show, but it's also not an art exhibition. Perhaps the objects presented are familiar to us, but not entirely. The sense of the show is both familiar and foreign. And so are the motivations of the artist: comprehensible, but not always so. Clear, but not completely. And even if everything is not always understood, one can always select one's own personal point from which to relate to Gilad and the objects he presents - ranging among "the logical, the ironic and the absurd."

From Gilad’s 'The Logical, the Ironic and the Absurd': Taking a familiar object and changing an element.Credit: Uri Grun