Spaces etc. / An exercise in utility

Spaces etc. / An exercise in utility

Phenomenological perspectives

As the title suggests, Ron Gilad’s latest body of work, Spaces Etc./An Exercise in Utility, encompasses objects that question our relationship with the architectural environments that define our immediate surroundings. So, it seems fitting therefore that we meet in Gilad’s studio in Brooklyn, framed by his immediate surroundings — a spectacular view across the East River to the Manhattan skyline — to discuss his most recent output. Excited to chat about these new pieces, Gilad breaks into a monologue about the driving forces behind the vast production of pieces that he has generated for his first exhibition at Wright. A quick scan of his studio makes clear, however, that all is not as it appears and that the title of the show is too narrow a summary for the more than eighty pieces amassed under this compact rubric. Lamps fashioned from slender white pedestals covered with silk lamp-shades guard over a set of silver ashtrays that resemble modernist houses in miniature. Mirrors in the shape of painted brushstrokes frame the walls. But all of these pieces are overshadowed by the strangest object in the room, a disembodied pair of legs dressed in suit trousers and shiny black shoes, topped by a long piece of wood. Part of Gilad’s Butlers series, the piece introduces an element of the macabre to the room. But what is going on? Are these props from a Dada-esque stage performance? My mind wanders momentarily as I try to make sense of this extraordinary display. I am brought back into focus by Gilad who is drawing to a conclusion: “Having been without a home base for three and a half months, I think this work is my way of trying to understand the important role our homes play in our lives,” he states, as if that explains everything!

Born in Tel Aviv in 1972, Gilad trained as an industrial designer at the prestigious Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. In 2001, he relocated to New York City where he established his studio Designfenzider. Gilad takes a cerebral approach to design. Primarily working on furniture, products, and tabletop objects, he has become recognized for an autonomous design language based on a willingness to explore the expressive qualities of objects through a rigorous conceptual and intellectual approach aimed at opening up dialogue and provoking debate.

Gilad refuses to be pigeonholed and is not interested in distinctions. Instead he moves with ease between disciplines and materials. Borrowing from the history of art and design, he draws references from the work of artists such as René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, and Marcel Duchamp, as well as a later generation of designers such as the Italian masters Enzo Mari, Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, and Ettore Sottsass. Links can also be made to more recent innovators, especially the work of Jurgen Bey and Richard Hutten for Droog in the Netherlands. Like them he takes an intuitive, rather than a rationalist, approach to his practice imbuing his works with a diverse range of ideas that seek to radically alter the evaluation of an object beyond its utility.

Take for example his Run Over by Car vase produced in 2002 and inspired by the events of September 11, 2001. Wanting to create a work of design based on fate, he placed a 10-inch-high brass tube with a slit cut into its side in the passage of a car’s tires. Having been run over, the resulting bent form is unique. The slit becomes the opening of the vase. Gilad’s approach of “design through destruction,” a term he has used in the past, not only relates to the process of buckling the otherwise smooth form of the brass cylinder, as in the case of the vase, but also to the idea of destroying or challenging preconceptions about objects. This idea can also be illustrated with a more recent piece titled Dear Ingo, a lighting fixture made in 2005. The inspired design, homage to famed German lighting designer Ingo Maurer, is composed of 16 individual task lamps that together generate a slightly unsettling hybrid object that reinterprets traditional chandelier designs. Gilad is adept at taking ordinary forms but using them in unorthodox ways. His work, laced with humor and irony, and at times dark undertones, ultimately invite enquiry; he prompts the user to rethink our quotidian rituals and the ubiquitous objects and environments that frame our everyday lives.

Just as Duchamp placed a urinal in a gallery in 1917 and called it art, encouraging new thinking about this utilitarian object, so the Castiglioni brothers, from mid-century on, created furniture and lighting from bicycle and tractor seats and car head lamps introducing new typologies of form and function. Similar themes are at play in Gilad’s intriguing new body of work for Wright. As in his earlier production he seeks relevance to contemporary life through an exploration of the world around us.

“Spaces” are those works that deal most directly with architecture. A series of coffee tables, for example, resemble line drawings of houses in three dimensions. Based on plans found online, each is made from a brass frame painted black. Some outline an entire house while others are only segments of spaces with openings marking the placement of doors. All are fitted with a pane of glass or supple leather upholstery that functions as the tabletop. An altogether different example, but along the same theme, is a table made from wood painted white, whose outline traces that of a building. Like a Rachel Whiteread sculpture, the volume is the ghost of an architectural space, outfitted with a silver-plated door with columns and pediments to match. Unlike Whiteread’s artworks, however, coffee cups are meant to be placed on top of Gilad’s editions.

Another version made from lacquered wood is altogether more personal. Inlaid with brass details that allude to walls and doors, the form of the table is based on plans of Gilad’s childhood home. The seed for this series of works was planted during a period of three-and-a-half-months when Gilad moved between countless sublets before returning to his current studio. This experience left an indelible mark on Gilad and inspired his subsequent investigations into the importance of home as the physical and conceptual hub from which all our daily experiences extend.

This idea is carried through into a group of works labeled “Etc.” that deal with the methods used by galleries and museums to call attention to art through its presentation and display. The framed pieces, hung on the wall, depict line drawings of fragments of interiors shown in section. In one, a narrow room is fitted with mirrors in ornate gilded frames, made to scale and in perspective. Images of the viewer, captured in the mirrors, as well as the surrounding environment become part of the work. In another, a series of ornate blued steel clock hands adorn the walls like flying duck ornaments popular in the 1950s. A more complex but no less intriguing example features a partial replica of Magritte’s infamous painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe (1928–29). Set along the left hand side of the frame, only the tip of the pipe is visible, with the word “pipe” below it. At the right hand side of the work is a framed section of a mirror. Both are set against a blue and white striped backdrop reminiscent of the exuberant wallpaper designs favored by interior designer Dorothy Draper. This incongruous composition is made even more so by the double entendre of the word “pipe,” which is French for blowjob, a sexual innuendo that is further implied by the tip of the pipe. With a nod to Magritte, Gilad delights in mischief making, readily assuming the role of design’s own court jester in an effort to incite a critical response.

Other works are equally as captivating. Playing again with museological methods of display, Gilad’s Soldiers are made from slim, human-sized white pedestals that are capped with bulbs protected by antique-inspired lampshades with silk fringes and crowned by custom-made replicas of the finials found on soldiers’ helmets. As Gilad explains, “The process of translating ideas into three dimensional functional objects is something that has always intrigued me. I am not inventing anything new.

I’m basing my thinking, research, and creative process on what I see, know, and what already exists. Almost naively I ask the question, why is it like this?”

As his works attest, Gilad is a determined creator. Scanning the globe for the most talented crafts people, as well as producing much of his output by hand in his studio, he consistently creates notable work of the highest quality. A perfectionist, he works within a minimalist framework, paring his work down to its essential elements in an effort to examine how an object should look and function, and its inherent relationship to the user.

“I don’t have a fixed recipe,” notes Gilad, “but always have a certain goal in mind: to reduce my cooking stock to the purest broth possible.” Ultimately he strives to create works that prompt an emotional and intellectual response from the user.

On returning to Chicago I receive an email from Gilad, which reads: “You British are brilliant!” He was referring to the beautifully detailed blued steel hands he had received for his clock pieces, produced by an antique clock restorer located in southern England near where I grew up. I felt oddly proud but had done nothing. It was Gilad’s perseverance that had paid off.

Zoë Ryan Neville Bryan Curator of Design,
The Art Institute of Chicago