An Interview with Omer Arbel

March 27th, 2012

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Designer Omer Arbel runs twin enterprises from his Vancouver-based office: Omer Arbel Office (OAO) and Bocci. OAO operates as a creative laboratory, bridging the fields of building and industrial design and working closely with materials to realize its projects. Bocci is a design and manufacturing company which is renowned for its process-based approach to realizing their striking and contemporary products. This past semester, Omer taught a master class at the prestigious Parsons School for Design on form. Currently, between his dual creative personas he’s also designing two cabins set in remote West Coast landscapes, renovating a classic 1950s residence in Guilford, Connecticut, working on preliminary concepts for a 50-unit residential development in Surrey, and developing 2 new chandeliers. His office is also shortlisted for two public art competitions. Somehow, amidst all of this, he managed to find the time discuss his work and surprisingly experimental creative philosophy with us:

28 Series, photography by Gwenael Lewis

23.2 house, photography by Nic Lehoux

Here and Elsewhere: You are the Creative Director of the design firm Bocci (which is probably best known for its lighting fixtures), and the Principal of Omer Arbel Office, your own design practice. Is there a divide between the work you do in your twin enterprises or are they well-integrated – are you applying the same creative philosophy to both?

Omer Arbel: I strive to apply the same creative philosophy to both, yes, but it manifests in different ways.

I would say that at OAO, we design in a broader way then we do at Bocci, and the scope of our work ends sooner than it does at Bocci. When we design buildings or objects at OAO, we must rely on the expertise of a great number of others: builders, engineers, craftspeople, manufacturers, technicians, consultants…people who in many cases know a great deal more than us about the process or material we happen to be exploring. As such, our role is to collaborate, and direct areas of expertise that are not our own, in order to move forward. At Bocci, on the other hand, we ourselves are the technicians, engineers, craftspeople, etc. developing the work, and therefore we have a great deal more control. As a consequence, the scope of our decision making extends further, right to the scale of a fraction of a millimetre in some cases, and we are responsible for many of the more pragmatic aspects of the work. It is a more self-referential way of working, more controlled, slower and less open ended – but in many ways satisfying because the results are often subjected to less compromise.

From an organizational point of view, OAO and Bocci are structured to encourage different kinds of synergies. OAO buildings are often laboratories for experimentation…we develop specific pieces for our buildings as “one – offs”, and if they are successful, we consider placing them into production as items in the Bocci catalogue. Our ’22’ outlets are a great example of this. Conversely, OAO has at its disposal the high craft, manufacturing, and procurement resources of Bocci, which allows us to design very complex and experimental components for our buildings, which would otherwise never be possible. Finally, we have a casual relationship to prototyping, which is perhaps the most valuable synergy of all. On my way to the studio, I pass by the glass shop every day…and new ideas emerge organically.

22 Series, photography by Cory Dawson

H&E: Is there a design element or aesthetic that binds together the diverse range of objects you have created through Bocci? Your works include outlets, lights, seating and shelving – is there a common ‘style’ you are aiming for? Or is this something you are consciously avoiding by focusing on a material’s intrinsic qualities?

OA: Because we try to focus on process as a generator of form, or as a poetic engine, for each project, and because we experiment with different materials and techniques every time, there is no particular stylistic language that we can trace across the entire portfolio. Or at least, I don’t think there is. Others may disagree.

H&E: Are you a proponent of the “form follows function” principle? Would it be fair to say you are more an advocate of the idea that “form follows process”? And if this is accurate, how does this translate to your design practice?

OA: Over the past few years, we have explored the idea that form can be born from a material’s intrinsic qualities and the process of its manipulation. It means abandoning, or perhaps updating the idea of authorship. Conventionally, designers and architects conceive of form in their imaginations, and then employ resources to achieve this form in the physical world. Instead, we begin by focusing on inventing open ended procedures of making, which yield unpredictable form, and sometimes different form in each iteration of the procedure. It means we never set out to create something specific.

Instead, we rely on intuition and experiment, and inevitably stumble upon a material discovery… then we edit, focus, and curate the discovery to make it into something useful or beautiful, or both. This is interesting because it means there is a certain built-in appropriateness and efficiency in the work, but also, there is an element of messiness and unpredictability…We find the tension between these attributes interesting.

At the scale of objects, we have had more experience working in this way, and we’ve learned a great deal, so I think we are a little farther along than we’ve gone at the scale of construction. At the scale of a building, we’ve only just begun to realize projects, so we have a tremendous learning curve ahead of us. A building is a much more complex project then an object, involving greater resources, many more people with a vested interest, and a lot more time. In the current work “on the drawing boards”, we have several experiments that go beyond the conventional approach of composing from an existing catalogue of techniques, trades, products, and building technologies; instead, we are experimenting with developing new construction systems.

23.2 house, photography by Nic Lehoux

H&E: Many of your design projects seem to embrace the immediate environment of the structure you are create, almost bringing the outdoors in – is this the direct influence of living and working in Vancouver, a city that is so psychologically and culturally dominated by our spectacular landscape?

OA: It is true that the buildings we work on always have a very deliberate relationship with their sites. Working and living in Vancouver may be a sub-conscious influence, but it is not something we think about as a generator. Relationship to site is one of the ways that buildings can have a kind of meaning that objects can’t: they participate in the ecology, socioeconomics, morphology and cultural history of their sites in quite a profound way.

19 series, photography by Gwenael Lewis

H&E: Most of your work for Bocci has produced beautiful but functional objects and have included, for example seating and lighting. Your most recent design, #19, sits somewhere between decorative object and artwork. How would you describe this recent work – what would you call it? Is this a new direction for you and Bocci?

OA: I resist calling our work art, because in a fundamental way we are always responding to context, whereas the promise of conceptual art is that it need not refer and react, maybe. It is true that 19 is a different piece then the rest of our work in that the kinds of people who are interested in it are generally speaking collectors, who value the piece for what it makes them feel, or for another meaning they see in the work, rather than as a useful addition to their homes. Perhaps 19 is distributed through channels that are conventionally used for art (galleries, auctions), but I do not feel comfortable calling it art. I can only think of it as a kind of thesis statement – encapsulating in a very clear and pure way our idea about design and our way of working. It is an epilogue to our other projects.

23.2 house, photography by Nic Lehoux

H&E: We like the idea of OAO buildings being “laboratories for experimentation” and the way you describe working with open-ended procedures. Can this way of working be tricky when working with clients of OAO who might have specific design elements they want achieved or a specific ‘look’ they want created?

OA: Indeed. More and more these days, clients approach us who are already aware of our interests, and are open to new ideas – they commission work because they are interested in the way we design. This is wonderful because then the relationship is collaborative in a very healthy way, and there is a kind of shorthand that develops to describe advancements and developments as we work together. Previously, and often still, our clients like what we’ve done in the past, but are not aware of the rationale behind the form making. They hire us because they want us to explore the same forms for them (from our point of view, this is difficult because we begin with a completely different set of circumstance, which should, by our logic, yield new form). In these cases, our role is often to first educate about our way of working, and then explore how it might develop within the new client’s context. Sometimes this is successful, and yields very good relationships, other times less so. The open ended aspect of our methodology makes it difficult to predict results in advance, and requires our clients to remain open for a great deal of the process, longer then they might be used to. Designers usually make renderings or other representations of what they propose early in the process, so clients know well in advance of construction (or manufacturing) what they are getting into. We prepare this kind of material as well, but because we rely so heavily on experimentation with material and process, some aspects of our work remain unpredictable until the actual moment of fabrication.

H&E: Thanks, Omer, for sharing these thoughts on your work!


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