Furniture

Great unknowns

Joyful, intelligent and deeply original, Israeli design is gaining global recognition. Nicole Swengley reports.

November 02 2011
Nicole Swengley

Even the most seasoned visitors to Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile in April were astonished by an eye-catching show held in the city’s off-piste Ventura Lambrate district. None of the designers was a big star. Few are known outside their native Israel. Yet here was clever, creative thinking at its most spine-tingling. The show’s title, Promisedesign, suggests that the Israeli design scene is a work in progress. Its co-curator, Ely Rozenberg, an Israeli designer living in Italy, says: “In Israel, the culture of contemporary design has only recently been rediscovered.” Mel Byars, a design historian, puts it even more succinctly: “Israeli design is the world’s best-kept secret.”

“There’s outstanding creativity and talent in Israel – the work is very fresh, original and independent,” confirms Janice Blackburn, a collector and curator who mounted the UK’s first selling exhibition of designs by students and graduates of Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design at Sotheby’s in May. The show piqued interest among collectors – not least because 50 sets of London-based Israeli designer Ron Arad’s Pirouette cutlery were donated and sold at the show for the first time to support the initiative.

Blackburn’s show kicked off several Israeli design events at Sotheby’s. A selling exhibition of contemporary work by young, emerging designers took place from October 23 to coincide with the opening of Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s new wing, while Sotheby’s Israeli Art Week in December in New York will, for the first time, include contemporary design. “We decided to focus on Israeli designers this year because we’ve been really struck by the work we’ve seen – it’s so fresh and talented – and we wanted to create a platform for it,” says Sonya Bekkerman, senior vice-president at Sotheby’s New York.

For collectors this might seem a new category. Yet Israel’s design roots stretch back to the 1930s when Bauhaus-trained architects emigrated and erected a number of buildings in Tel Aviv that are now on the Unesco World Heritage list. Another cultural wave was boosted by an influx of US designers in the 1950s. More recently, the emergence of new Israeli museums, including last year’s opening of Design Museum Holon, created by Ron Arad, coupled with a heritage of high-calibre design schools, including Bezalel Academy (founded in 1906), Shenkar College of Engineering and Design (1970) and Holon Institute of Technology (HIT, dating from 1969) has fostered a milieu in which design penetrates every part of life. “Israel is a technologically advanced nation, and designers are not just creating tables and lamps, but pioneering medical equipment and software too,” says Blackburn.

“Israel is historically a very mixed society,” she adds. “It’s a melting pot of people from different countries all bringing their own individual influences. And because it’s a bit isolated creatively, designers are less influenced by the market.”

London-based Israeli designer Assa Ashuach, who studied at Bezalel and London’s Royal College of Art, goes further. “It’s a young country that lacks a history of culture, and this opens up new opportunities, while the unresolved political situation generates a creative tension,” he says. “The art and design scene is very active. There’s a lot of innovation and a desire to renew things and look ahead.”

His view is confirmed by Tel Aviv-born Yael Mer of Raw-Edges, the London-based design studio she founded with fellow Israeli Shay Alkalay, whose Stack cabinet for Established & Sons (£3,360) has become a contemporary icon. “There’s a real spirit of inventiveness,” says Mer. “Israeli designers really try to come up with something completely new.”

Innovation is handled playfully by many Israeli designers. Ayala Bougay’s handmade ceramic Low-Rez vase (from $1,000) is a contemporary interpretation of a 500BC amphora developed from a low-resolution computer rendering. “It addresses the connection between matter and technology, and tests the limits of ceramic production,” says Bougay, an HIT industrial design graduate who is currently studying at Bezalel.

Just as much fun is Elad Kashi’s handmade Tableset (€5,000). The ceramic top of this circular table resembles a rumpled tablecloth and divides into three sizes of dishwasher-safe, white or black dishes from which diners eat directly. Kashi, whose designs include toys, furniture, medical devices and other high-tech products, says, “Design should contribute to people’s quality of life. This can be achieved with something playful, smart and innovative, or just very beautiful. We’re living at a time of technological breakthroughs, which is perhaps why there is a return towards craftsmanship and natural materials that create a more intimate, calmer feeling in the home.”

The impish spirit of Pini Leibovich’s Happy Material Easy chair (limited-edition in three sizes, €8,000-€15,000) inevitably provokes a smile. “I used to play with my children using balloons,” says Leibovich, an industrial designer and senior lecturer at Shenkar. “I realised that [it] activates feelings of happiness and surprise whether you are a child or an adult. As a designer, I feel privileged to be inspired by simple, everyday things and transform them into objects with an intellectual and emotional value. When deflated balloons serve as a chair’s upholstery the intellect melts and emotions come forward. Joy happens when familiar materials are used in a surprising way.”

This fascination with materials is also evident in Asa Levental’s work. Levental founded Studio Nano-Fiber in 2009, aiming to transfer skills gained with contemporary composite materials in the aviation industry to design and architectural applications. Collaborating with industrial designer Mor Shiloni, he has created the elegantly fluid New Wave chaise longue (limited edition, $7,900) from aluminium and carbon fibre. The design – for use indoors or out – was, he says, “inspired by the appearance of a drawn line”, while “composite materials offer flexibility with strength and can substitute metal, wood or plastic”.

An adventurous mix of materials – wood, polypropylene, aluminium, felt – are combined in the Zaza chair (€1,250) designed by Omri Barzeev, a Shankar graduate who creates furniture and lighting at his Tel Aviv studio. Meanwhile, the cast-aluminium Dov stool and side table (both price on request) designed by HIT graduates Naama Steinbock and Idan Freidman of Reddish Studio incorporate the accidental characteristics of their initial polystyrene forms. “We wanted to explore the beauty of polystyrene and combine it with production methods that allow us to create one-off pieces,” says Steinbock. “Polystyrene is generally used for technical purposes, but we think it has wonderful features that deserve to be highlighted. Each stool is unique, with the material having a distinct say in the design.”

Material experimentation similarly intrigues Shir Atar whose Non-Woven stools collection (from €220) received the Green Good Design 2011 award from the Chicago Athenaeum and European Centre for Architecture, Art, Design & Urban Studies. Non-woven yarns from the carpet industry are shredded and transformed into felt-like textiles to create the pieces. The recycled material’s raw texture is highlighted in the Pile chair, stool and pouffe (from €300), while the exposed yarn gives the Elevation stools (from €300) their shaggy appeal. “I’m interested in finding ways to rethink what has become familiar, and enjoy working on objects that people can react to emotionally,” says Atar.

“The Pile designs emerged from pieces of textile that fell in the production process and that looked like autumn leaves,” he adds. “The Elevation designs were inspired by rolling hills. Reintroducing the raw yarn, sewn as if sprouting from the recycled textile’s edge, brings a sense of nature indoors. People can ‘grow’ hills and form their own landscapes using these designs.”

Plants also inspired the shapes of Aviad Petel’s 1in Collection of lamps (99in pendant, €2,250; 99in floor lamp, €2,700; 33in table lamp, €720; 33in wall sconce, €720). These are made from inch-wide strips of natural wood veneer (either 99 or 33 strips) individually stitched within a metal structure. When illuminated, a warm light filters between the veneer fibres. HIT graduate Petel set up his studio in 2008 to turn wood veneers into visually interesting and technically ingenious objects. “My initial interest in veneers – their texture, flexibility, colours and richness – turned into a genuine passion,” he says.

Nature and recycling converge in Gal Ben Arav’s Bamboo bench (price on request) created for his Bezalel graduation project. “I chose to use bamboo in its raw form to minimise the processing and invested energy,” he says. “Bamboo is not a characteristic species of the Middle East, although today it is grown in a controlled manner in Israel, but can be totally recycled and brings a micro-wild, natural environment into urban locations.”

Indoor-outdoor furniture is also created by Yaacov Kaufman, a Bezalel professor, who launched design brand Gaga and Design in 2009, with Avi Burla. Kaufman’s Rocking Stool (€276) has a teak seat and base joined by steel rods. Seen from above, the pod-like shapes look like stepping stones. “The rocking movement allows the body to take up free and easy postures on the ergonomic seat,” he says. “But I also wanted to create an object that would have a real presence in a room.”

The stool’s craft overtones are echoed in Gad Charny’s Sticks chair (€1,000). Charny, who studied at the RCA before setting up his Tel Aviv studio, says the chair takes just three hours to build from spot-welded, 3mm steel rods. “I wanted to explore the potential of industrial technology for freehand batch-making of a designed object, and to look at maintaining the tension between a premeditated plan and the whims and accidents of making,” he explains.

Handwork also defines Tal Gur’s Daily chair (€3,000). The metal structure, whose papier-mâché coating is made from recycled newspapers, developed, says Gur, “into an image of a spider’s web that became the screen-like back of the chair.” A new version was shown at the Sotheby’s Dream Objects selling exhibition in Tel Aviv last month. The design contrasts with Gur’s earlier work in rotation-moulded polyethylene (mainly lighting) and his use of mould-heated, plastic drinking straws to create the functional, cheerful Sturdy Straws chair ($2,650) made from 15,000 coloured straws.

Meanwhile Asaf Weinbroom marries a craft approach with fashion detailing. The shades of his cone-like WAF lamps (€240) are handmade from laminated ash and white oak veneer, folded and buttoned together like a dress. “Light fixtures commonly incorporate metal, glass and plastic, which makes them look mass-produced,” he says. “To avoid this I used wood – a renewable resource – to create a natural sense of warmth and emphasise the high-end, handmade craftsmanship.”

Designer Ayala Serfaty is known for combining hand-crafted work with contemporary technology at the lighting and furniture atelier Aqua Creations, which she founded with her husband, Albi. Her latest designs include the Apaya lamp collection made from hand-felted merino and mohair wool (limited-edition Taltal floor lamp, from €3,500) and a one-off, felt-upholstered bench (€17,000) developed in collaboration with felt artist Irit Dulman.

Aqua Creations is one of the few Israeli design studios with a worldwide distribution network. And herein lies a conundrum: the creative isolation sparking Israel’s design talent runs parallel with a lack of international distribution channels.

“Many young designers have found it difficult to establish a relationship with industry because of the current economic crisis, and the lack of a tradition of industries working with educated, qualified designers,” says Ely Rozenberg. “Now, however, many young designers are moving towards independent production to satisfy their ambitions.”

Still, many graduates fail to break into the international arena because financial imperatives hamper further studies. “Last year, 17 BA students from Bezalel Academy were offered places on MA programmes at the Royal College of Art – the highest percentage of successful applications from any overseas design university,” says Paul Thompson, the RCA’s rector. “Unfortunately, for financial reasons, only two applicants were able to take up their offers, one with a scholarship from the Clore Israel Foundation. Given its population size, Israel has a disproportionately high level of talent,” he observes. So it is to collectors and homeowners that the country’s dynamic designers are turning to realise their energetic creativity.