Sometimes a function looks for a material; sometimes, a material looks for function; sometimes, a seminal piece looks for another adventure; sometimes, another adventure looks for a seminal piece. Bottom line: The “Big Easy” by London based designer and architect Ron Arad makes its Big Comeback, and the message is clear: “Don’t F**k With The Mouse.”
The “Big Easy” is a specific chair originally designed in the late 80s that was later developed in polyester gelcoat for what was called “New Orleans” series. At the time, the “Big Easy” chair was nicknamed the “Mickey” as it reminded people of the Disney character Mickey Mouse. Over the last 20 years, the”Big Easy” experienced and witnessed a series of metamorphosis — among them are special editions for museums, the colorful smooth lacquered versions of the early 90s; a number in rotationally molded recyclable colored polyethylene—suitable for outdoor use; and the “Big E” edition inviting plush upholstery. Solidity and strength, a harmonious co-existence between construction and deconstruction, experimentation synonym to anarchy, questioning, and an atypic exploration with raw materials, industrial methods, and complex abstraction, all expressed in a single sheet metal which is cut and pressed into its bulging form of convex and concave contours.
During the lockdown, a new way to communicate things, projects, processes, and ideas that got disrupted, prevailed. Ron Arad teamed up with Dezeen’s Virtual Design Festival (*Dezeen is a media partner of MDFF Greece-Athens) for the video launch of a new series of sculptural chairs — another form of reincarnation for the designer’s iconic “Big Easy” chair, aka “Mickey.”
In this audiovisual narrative of 7’53,” Ron Arad travels us through the stimulative process that led to the development of this new series of chairs. One new chair each week, to be precise, initially destined for an exhibition at the OTI Gallery in Los Angeles, till the Covid-19 hit the ground and turned everything upside down, and the show got canceled. The new series, named “Don’t F**k With The Mouse,” otherwise known as D.F.W.T.M, are also made using polyester gelcoat that makes a more direct reference to Mickey Mouse, that this year celebrates its 90th birthday. So while they are different shares, they share the common links of Mickey Mouse and the gelcoat.
The D.F.W.T.M. chairs return to the roots through brush and paint, just as Arad did in the early days when he first made the “Big Easy.” They are chairs expressing the here and now. The designer brought forth a ritual of making a new chair every Friday, establishing what he was going to do the night before. They are all carriers of a message of sorts, exemplifying an intention. For instance, one of them features a moment in time when Arad believed that it was worth to freeze: the day, Friday 31 January 2020, when Brexit was a reality, as the UK left the EU. An event personified in a chair composed by newspapers of the day verifies that the world entailed in the word design, amongst other things, is a means to carry on the attitudes, thoughts, reflections, and emotions of social issues, as well as changes and aspirations.
“If you take the Big Easy chair – which by the way was nicknamed Mickey in the studio because it reminded people of Mickey Mouse – it started with drawings or the piece of paper. And then the quality of our welding those days was very poor. So it was very sketchy at the beginning. But that’s what we loved about it.
“Then it got better. And then it had lots of different takes on this Big Easy or the nicknamed Mickey chair. One of the takes of it was a series called New Orleans that was gelcoats, painting back to front in a mould, seeing what you did when you take it off the mould, and lots of nice surprises – mostly. This is the early days I’m talking about before computers started invading our creative lives and before, from a workshop where we did everything ourselves, we moved to make stuff in Italy by really, really good artisans and fantastic metalworkers.
“And not to talk about early rapid prototyping where we could model and print everything, not to talk about five-axis milling machines that model your handwriting, and a computerized woodpecker carves it. And yeah, the more sophisticated the machines get, the less machine-like the product is. We loved all that. Very exciting. But there’s always the making things by hand, the pen on paper, and the brushes and the colours, the other stuff that was really the beginning. The reason I find myself in this world is all to do with a 6B pencil and brush and wet paint.“So this last series of Don’t F**k With The Mouse is a real treat to go back to all these things that I love as much as I love the new technology; maybe more. In the last period, we started the routine of doing a Mickey chair. Every Friday, Michael and me drive to the studio in Wembley to make a chair of the series called Don’t F**k With The Mouse. The chair is done to celebrate Mickey Mouse’s 90th birthday. It’s an art take on it. It’s not a product or anything. It is a handmade piece. I’ll explain the handmade-ness of it, but it is clearly about Mickey.“I knew I couldn’t call it Mickey Mouse. I called our IP lawyer and asked him: I can’t call it Mickey Mouse, but can we call it ‘Topolino’, which is Mickey Mouse in Italian, and he said, strictly speaking, you can. But in my profession, there’s a saying: ‘Don’t f**k with the mouse’. I thought: that’s a much better name for the series!
“Every Friday we go to Wembley and there’s a mould. There’s fiberglass and polyester and polyester gelcoat. You draw on the mould; on the parts in the mould. Everything you draw is going to come out a mirror image and also the order of the layers is back to front because you start with the first layer, then you cover it with another layer and another layer, another layer. And in the process, you cover the first layers. You can only really see what you did when you take it off the mould. “So what happens on Fridays? We go to the studio. There’s the chair that we did the week before. Michael takes fantastic photographs of last week’s work and then records and helps with the doing of this week’s chair. Every Thursday night I have to think: what am I going to do tomorrow? I come up with different ideas that yes, they’ll be followed to a degree. Like one chair that we did was called Love Song: writing the word “song” that in a mirror image looks like “love” so the two ears of the chair spelt together “Love Song” and that totally identical but a mirror image. “One day we did print something and embedded it in the polyester and gelcoat. And it says “A picture’s worth 1000 words” on both sides of the ears symmetrically. It’s really open but what is the same is the mould. What is exciting is that you spend time drawing with brushes and mixed colors and try things. It reminds me of the old days when everything started with drawing and sketches.
“Now it seems very difficult to remember — not so long ago we were having a big disaster. Friday happened to be the 31st of January, which was our last day in Europe. On the way to the studio, we stopped at the petrol station and bought all the newspapers of that day. All the papers were full of Brexit. Some of them were mourning, some of them were celebrating. It was a day we thought that will stain our lives forever. “So we took all the newspapers to the studio and started to rip them and collage them and embed them in the polyester. And we did something that froze the day. I always like it when you do some things and you get surprised. You always imagined how is it going to look? How’s it going to look? And my favorite sentence: you always get better than you deserve, because there’s your will and then what really happens. And there’s sort of combinations and things that in reality, I have much better than what I could draw if I had more control.
“Anyway, this is a confession: I could only see one side of the newspaper but when it’s embedded in the liquid polyester, the page of the newspaper becomes transparent. There’s the image on the other side that appears as well. Two days later, when it was taken out of the mould, I looked at something I couldn’t have done better myself. We kept the newspapers to the back side, and the front was all black with ‘What now?’ When we did it, we thought it was a day to be remembered forever. Little did we know that something else was about to happen that made us almost forget about Brexit.”_Ron Arad’s words in the video
Film and Photography by Michael Castellana