Studio Visit
Ron Gilad, Designer

One of the turning points in Ron Gilad’s career came late on a Sunday evening in January 2008, one of the coldest nights of the year. That’s when the designer, along with nearly 200 other artistically minded tenants, was evicted from his live/work loft building in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn — the result, the New York Fire Department claimed, of an illegal matzo operation being run out of the basement by the building’s landlord. No matter that the Tel Aviv–born designer was out of the country at the time. “I extended my trip a week, but then I came back to nowhere. For three and a half months, I was homeless. And that’s when I started really playing with the idea of spaces and homes, and what, for me, a home really is.”

Gilad, whose studio goes by the name Designfenzider, eventually moved back in to his newly up-to-code digs, and when I visited last week, visual manifestations of those preoccupations were everywhere, most notably in a series of three-dimensional outlines of houses that stood along the length of Gilad’s massive Prince Ping-Pong table. (The designer is known in New York design circles as something of a table-tennis guru, though he claims he’s terrible at the game.) The abstracted homes are part of Gilad’s most recent project, called 20 Houses for 20 Friends. “The idea was to create 20 abstract houses in the form of sculptures that I slowly sold to friends from around the world. I wanted to create a fake neighborhood that wouldn’t exist in reality: It’s a perfect circle with no hierarchy. There’s no entrance, and no exit, and though some of the pieces were more complicated than others to produce, the prices were all the same.”

The series is both meant for an upcoming gallery show and the result of a previous one. Soon after the matzo debacle, Gilad was approached by the pioneering Chicago auctioneer Richard Wright, for whom he produced the 80-piece 2009 solo exhibition “Spaces Etc. / An Exercise in Utility.” He created objects that dealt with our relationship to the home, from a series of coffee tables inspired by architectural blueprints to the three-dimensional line drawings that eventually became the 20 Houses for 20 Friends series. Gilad approached the pieces the way he does most every project. He first researches a subject in order to know what’s come before and how those iterations have affected specific aspects of culture and economy. He then attempts to forget everything he’s just learned in order to come at each piece from a naïve perspective. This process is perhaps best understood through one of Gilad’s most famous works, a series of fruit bowls distilled into geometric, modernist lines: “It’s very easy for a 3-year-old to accept an architectural structure when his mother is telling him it’s a fruit bowl,” explains Gilad. “That’s the only fruit bowl he’s ever seen, so he accepts it, and suddenly a bowl is not something round. For us it’s absurd.”

Gilad has long skirted what he calls this “fat, delicious line between the abstract and the functional,” but while he seems less and less interested in the trappings of traditional industrial design, he won’t yet commit to pinning his work with the label of “art.” “I’d rather not waste energy defining things,” he says. “It’s easier for me as someone who creates to send it out there and let people work it out in their brains themselves.”

dear ingo

Besides the 14-foot windows that overlook Manhattan’s skyline, a prototype of Gilad’s 2005 Dear Ingo chandelier for Moooi is the centerpiece of his 8th-floor studio. “My first studio was just above Ingo Maurer’s Soho shop, on Grand and Greene. I couldn’t not see his work every morning going down for coffee, and I decided to create an homage to what he was doing over there. At the time, lots of his chandeliers were combined from parts he’d found on Canal Street. I was looking for a very simple fragment that I could reproduce to create a larger piece, and I found it in a task light at Ikea.” In the rear are shelves lined with Designfenzider’s other best-known works, including red and yellow Fruit Bowls, Clipped Cubes, and Ran Over By Car vases.


The 20 Houses for 20 Friends sculptures sit atop Gilad’s Ping-Pong table. The designer is currently documenting them for a catalog before they're shipped off to buyers around the world, from Italy to Switzerland. “I wanted to play with the idea of space without any limitations, and without any goal for it to be produced or reproduced,” he says.


“The project started with a basic drawing of a gingerbread house,” says Gilad. “It slowly evolved to incorporate different iconic shapes.” Each piece is made from enameled brass and assembled using a process similar to jewelry-making, in which each meeting point is silver soldered. “Although the translation from paper to reality is complicated, the idea is for them to look like my drawings have come to life without any adjustments or interpretation,” Gilad says.


Each house has a name meant to evoke its distinguishing characteristic. In the foreground is a house called The Hamlet, which is actually composed of four reconfigurable pieces. “It’s like a small village inside the neighborhood,” Gilad says. Another, in which the façade is stretched to a tiny point, is called The Vanishing House. Having grown up in a Bauhaus apartment in Tel Aviv, Gilad says his ideal home would be something with a red tiled roof. “But I don’t live in the neighborhood,” he laughs.

Coffee Table No. 2

One of the pieces for the show at Wright was in fact a coffee table based on the architectural plan for Gilad's childhood apartment.


A couple from Wayne, New Jersey, recently commissioned Gilad to create a similar table, based on their house's plan.

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There are plenty of ways to define Gilad’s work — conceptual minimalism, postmodern reduction — but no matter what you call it, there’s clearly a streak of Dada in it. For Wright, Gilad created a series of three valets called Butlers No. 1, 2, and 3. The other two are more abstract and coat rack–like, but for the third, Gilad took the idea of a servant waiting to take your jacket to the extreme. “I’m very intrigued by investigating the absurd,” Gilad says.


Another macabre touch: A decapitated teddy bear a neighbor tossed into the garbage after the dog ate its head.


This odd tableau — Gilad calls it “Balanced Vandalism” — is one of the first things that greets visitors who enter Designfenzider. Incidentally, the studio's name is a play on his family’s original surname. “My father’s last name was Seifenzider (ZIGH-fen-ZEE-der). Old Jewish surnames were based on your profession, and Seifenzider was something like soapmaker. When my grandparents came to Israel, the Jews who had non-Jewish-sounding names were forced to change them to something more Israeli. actually still exists — it’s a soap factory in Germany.”


The negative cast of a 3-D printing from one of Gilad's other projects. “I realized that it looked like the Tower of Babel, so I slowly carved it more and more. But I don’t know yet what it will be.”


“I think I’m slowly ditching function for the completely abstract,” was the first thing Gilad said during our studio visit. The exception? He's been working with the Italian lighting manufacturer Flos on several projects, many of which are in production or on their way. These lights, based on historical lampshade archetypes, are the first three in a series Gilad plans to expand every year. Each bears a plaque with the name and period of its shade. From left: Renaissance Cupola, Ottoman Tulip, and Victorian Grandeur.


At the Milan Furniture Fair this year, Gilad introduced several concepts for Flos’s Soft Architecture program, which aims to turn lighting from a consumer product into something that’s integrated into the initial design of a space. Shown here is Lucernario, like the others “a mix between a kind of moldable plaster — much lighter but more durable than drywall — and high-tech light sources that don’t need to be replaced.”


The big board in Gilad’s office. “It’s my attempt to try and be a little more organized, but I’m completely not, as you can see. It’s a huge mess. All of the text was from last year, and then I came back from two months in Europe and Israel in May and said, 'Ok, I need to have a list of things I’m working on right now.' I cleaned and made a circle and wrote this, but I never turn around in order to see what’s going on there, so it’s completely irrelevant.”


He prefers to the think in 3-D. He can’t design on the computer, and he calls this his three-dimensional sketchbook: the leftovers of many projects and the inspiration for new ones.


A detail of the sketchbook.


Another undeniable part of Gilad's creative process: cigarettes. Makeshift ashtrays abound in the studio, like a wine goblet with its top smashed, the ashes gathering in a shallow pool above the stem. Gilad created this one, a silver-plated miniature replica of George Nelson's Coconut Chair, for a 2006 show at the Cooper-Hewitt called "XSmall: Old Ideas, New Objects."


Says Gilad of his current state: "I think design is a profession that’s meant to serve the public and the minute you start to limit your design to elite clients it becomes something else, and I’m not sure that’s where I want to be. So I’m just playing in the studio with no specific goals."