Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Rough Ideas: New Design from Israel

“Rough Ideas: New Design from Israel,” (excerpt), essay by Ellen Lupton, published in New Design from Israel. New York: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2006. Published in conjunction with the exhibition Solos: New Design from Israel, 2006.

The objects presented in Solos: New Design from Israel are the result of philosophical inquiries made by their designers about what things are and how they are made. Through their creations, the designers speak in a frank, direct way, avoiding metaphor, symbolism, iconography, and even irony. In the ways in which they construct and put together their pieces, and through the materials they use, they aspire to beauty, perfection, and finality; perhaps paradoxically, they also seek a rigorous plainness, and offer transitional solutions to vexing problems. The makers’ voices are at once hopeful and hesitant, assertive and melancholy . The objects are not merely anonymous objects that disappear into the transparency of function; they are, by and large, objects about ideas.

The designers in Solos: New Design from Israel all were either born in or immigrated to, and now live and work in, Israel—a small country at the center of a world discourse. Israel is a place with a rough terrain and contested borders. It is also a place defined by thinking, as well as by an incessant process of learning and debate. Its inhabitants look constantly inward at the country’s own struggles as they reach outward at the global context in which the future must unfold.

Israeli industry has a dual character. On the one hand, the country supports high-tech industries that produce advanced equipment for world markets. On the other hand, the country has few businesses that manufacture furniture and domestic goods—the objects at the core of the design field’s ongoing discourse on modern living. This dichotomy pushes designers to work for high-tech industries while, at the same time, creating one-off or small-batch pieces that foster reflections on the discipline of design. These experimental objects are primarily made in the designers’ own workshops, out of commonly available materials and using simple or improvised manufacturing techniques.

The Solos: New Design from Israel exhibition and book focus on this studio-based practice. Design from Israel is not a local or nationalistic dialect, but rather a voice which participates at the highest level of the global design discourse. By presenting their work in New York City, in a museum like the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, which serves as a commentator on the international design world, these Israeli designers take their place at the head of the table, where their objects can speak with clarity and directness to a broad audience.

The land occupied by modern Israel has been engaged with the surrounding world for millennia. Known across history as Israel, Judea, Palestine, and by other names, the country that made its center in Jerusalem was controlled and conquered by the Ptolemaic Greeks and the Roman Empire as well by numerous kingdoms of the Middle East. There remains today a sense that classical ideas of beauty belong to foreign peninsulas of the Mediterranean, an inland sea whose waters have long fostered the circulation of ideas and the migration of peoples. Israeli identity is lodged between East and West, between the reunited travelers of the Jewish diaspora and the traditional inhabitants of the Middle East. Containing sites that are sacred to three world religions, Israel is a pilgrim’s destination as well as a place to live and work.1

Blunt Instruments

A major concern across the history of design and the decorative arts has been the attempt to ease the transition between opposing forms and materials: the seat and leg of a chair, the handle and bowl of a cup, the cushions and armature of a couch, the skin and guts of a mechanical device. In the objects shown here, the frontiers between opposing structures and substances are often starkly revealed. In lieu of hidden joints and seamless surfaces, elements come together in abrupt and obvious ways. The works refuse to be subtle.

Traditional upholstery conceals a fixed armature beneath a stuffed skin. Such standards are countered by designers such as Zivia, who has created a series of furnishings entitled Zit Up which reference the nomadic life of the Bedouins, Arab dwellers of the Arabian, Syrian, or North African deserts . Some pieces use strips of fabric to weave together flat panels of wood into tables and chairs, while another consists of long skewers of wood threaded through rolled-up textiles that become cushions and chair backs. As for a collection of lamps and stools designed by Raviv Lifshitz, each piece encloses an inflated beach ball inside a wire cage. The upholstered volume bulges out from inside its naked skeleton.

A radio receiver by Assaf Warshavsky rejects another norm, that of the modern industrial appliance. Whereas the working parts of a radio are usually enclosed within a box, with controls parked on the exterior, this object consists of a thin, perforated plane with knobs on one side and the mechanical system on the other, creating a direct, transparent—and equal— relationship between the inside and the outside.

Addressing the properties of industrial materials and techniques is at the heart of much of these works. Raviv Lifshitz’s Official Channels lamp is made by sanding down areas along a length of PVC pipe; as the material thins, it becomes translucent. The Bin Seat chair by Ami Drach and Dov Ganchrow is made from a mass-produced plastic garbage bin, its walls sliced and bent into a new form. Vili Mizrachi has used plastic—a material associated with lightness, cheapness, and mass production—to create handmade bowls that are heavy and thick. “In industry, machines work perfectly,” says Mizrachi. “My machine doesn’t work right.”

Tal Gur has adapted the industrial technique of rotation molding— in which a liquid material is rotated inside a mold to gradually build up the wall of a hollow object —to the production of small-batch products. This low-tech process is used for making everything from chocolate bunnies and plastic buckets to the ceramic jars seen along the road to Jericho. The tooling required for rotation molding is less expensive than for other methods of producing plastics. Gur’s rotation-molded Eash lamps look up toward the future. “Industrial materials,” says Gur, “can be used in a post-industrial way.” Eash refers to a small or ordinary man. In another innovative project, Gur has made a chair and ottoman out of thousands of plastic drinking straws. To make these objects, he created a plywood mold in the profile of the each piece, open on either side, and lined it with aluminum. When the mold is heated, the straws melt together, creating a sturdy object.

Designer Yuval Tal has altered a set of mass-produced ceramic mugs to describe a state of rupture and discontinuity. When manufactured in a factory, a cup or mug typically is assembled out of two components, a vessel and handle, joined together under a common glaze. Tal has broken off the handles from a set of ordinary mugs, replacing or reattaching them via blatantly mechanical means, and thus asserting the mug’s inherent dichotomy of forms. Alon Meron, disclosing a break of another kind, has made a series of cups, bowls, and saucers out of opposing materials—opaque, white ceramic and translucent, deeply colored rubber—that are joined together along their sharply drawn, interlocking borders. Broken crockery is the stuff of archaeological digs, where shards of pottery are carefully gathered, labeled, and documented. These pieces offer an archaeology of the present that acknowledges breaks and flaws as facts of modern life.

The Philosopher at the Table

If broken pottery is the primal stuff of archaeology, the table is the primal scene of philosophy, the place where the writer sits down to work. Karl Marx used a table as an exemplary commodity in his world-changing 1867 book Capital . A commodity, he wrote, is an object whose primary purpose is not to fulfill a useful function in people’s lives, but rather to be exchanged in the marketplace for economic gain. The commodity embodies a surplus value that is made possible by the worker’s sale of his labor to the capitalist, who owns the means of production. Like Alon Meron’s broken and healed dishes, a table designed by Vili Mizrachi consists of disparate parts pieced together. Two L-shaped planes are stitched to one another around a fence of nails on either side of their shared border. The divided parts do not merge into a harmonious whole, but nor are they opponents beyond reconcile. The piece speaks of compromise and conversation, of an awkward but attainable union. This is no mere table, then, but also an inquiry about what tables are and how they reflect the complexities of contemporary life.

Sometimes a work of design exists neither chiefly as an object of use nor as an object of exchange, but rather as a tool for thought. Pini Leibovich, a designer with a successful career working for Israeli industries, described his decision to make experimental works as a desire “to be thinking through objects.” Leibovich has created a series of tables and benches out of long strips of bendable plywood, constrained at certain points. The final object results from the conflict between these decisive points of control and the independent behavior of the material. Sharon Shechter has covered a table with red Formica, a thin, flexible material designed to look fixed and rigid. By cutting a flap into the sheet of Formica before gluing it down, the designer has exploited the material’s hidden tendencies and given the table a new function.

Although many of the works in the exhibition are unique or made in small numbers, a few have gone into industrial production. Ezri Tarazi’s New Baghdad table is made from lengths of factory-made extruded aluminum cut into sections and assembled together to create a broad flat plane. Working with these sections in his studio, Tarazi saw that the pieces could fit together like parts of a city; their pattern is structured and constrained around geographic landmarks, yet it is also organic and aggregate. First made by hand in his own studio, the table was developed for production by the Italian furniture maker Edra in 2005.

Philosophical inquiry lends itself to objects in a series. Yaacov Kaufman is a senior figure in Israel’s design community whose body of work includes numerous light fixtures and other pieces in industrial production as well as experimental endeavors. In one project, Kaufman has taken a generic aluminum container and subjected it to a battery of physical operations: cutting, bending, crushing, piercing. As the anonymous industrial thing gives itself up to these violent acts, it can abandon its function or gain new ones. Making things is paradoxically a destructive process which imposes form onto existing materials.

A series of wall-mounted drawers entitled Plans for/of a Drawer by Ami Drach and Dov Ganchrow contemplate the relationship between drawers and handles. Can the thing inside the drawer become the handle? Can the handle hide itself inside the drawer? Can the handle occupy the space between the drawers? Can the drawer become a flexible space between a fixed ceiling and floor? A prototypical object of modern dwelling becomes the subject of systematic study.

Many Israeli designers have turned their attention to another generic furniture type: the bookshelf, the architectural repository of learning. Chanan de Lange has created shelving systems of exceptional magnitude, including Mandu A, B, and C , which assembles standard strips of perforated metal into an armature conjoined at odd angles. “Shelves that slant a little bit,” he explains, “are more comfortable for the books.” Such shelves also look temporary, raw, and unfinished. They do nothing to hide their industrial character or their means of construction. They are open, blunt, and inquisitive.

1. See Vanni Pasca and Ely Rozenberg, Promisedesign: New Design from Israel (Berlin: SOG_visuelle Kommunikation), Milan Triennale, 2005. See also Nadav Safran, Israel: The Embattled Ally (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978).

---