The multidisciplinary designer Dror Benshetrit specializes in what you might call "sleight-of-hand design." With a twist of the wrist, a little audience participation, or maybe just a change of perspective, his work for clients from Levi's to Cappellini transforms right before your eyes. This year, the Tel Aviv-born Benshetrit joined the ranks of Phillippe Starck and Michael Graves as the latest creative to be corralled into the Target designer stable, with the launch of Dror for Target this month, to be featured at Dwell on Design. We called him at his studio, located on 39th Street in New York's bustling Fashion District, to ask about working with Target, how designers should look to the fashion world for inspiration, and why it's important to touch your possessions every once in awhile.
You work in everything from architecture to art direction, how do you describe what you do?
It's always been my interest to design in a completely multidisciplinary way where I can practice in products, architecture, interior design and art direction as four main categories, and from there, explore some middle ground between all of them. My biggest passion is in transformation and movement. I divide it into physical transformation and metaphorical transformation, which are the key words I use to describe my work. Some of the pieces do physically move and change and adapt to different scenarios—collapsibility for the purpose of storage, collapsibility for the purpose of dual function—or, of course, for practicality. But sometimes the transformation is really done more in a metaphorical aspect, which is evident either in the process of the creation or in the conceptual approach. For instance, the Vase of Phases for Rosenthal is probably the best way to describe it: Taking an iconic form into the worst experience a vase can have. Another example is the Peacock Chair for Cappellini. It's more about the way it's created: The movement that's in taking flat sheets of felt and holding it in place with tension using this piece that doesn't require any glue or traditional upholstery techniques, it's just the pressure of the metal frame.
You also have a long list of very diverse clients who you've worked with throughout the years. How do you decide which ones to work with?
I've been working with a range of companies, but I would say that they all are interested in innovation. They are companies that either have mass volume and capability to create a large number of products, or luxury companies that are really pushing innovation to show beauty through the research of the materials. It's an amazing time: In the same month we launched both Target and Cappellini, which to me represents the whole spectrum of the market, which I feel is very relevant to today's trends in general. We see it more and more in fashion, and I think that fashion has always been more progressive in trends than architecture or industrial design. That was also one of my reasons in moving my studio to the Fashion District. That, and, as hard as I work, they always work harder than me! But mixing a Dior jacket with H&M jeans, for instance, that ability to mix high and low allows you to create more personalization.
What's the biggest draw towards designing something that's affordable and available widely?
When I started working with Target, I realized I had been preaching something that I hadn't been practicing yet. I've been talking about well-being since I started my studio, even though I didn't have a mass-market, affordable product. But I was always talking about well-being and it's been my major motivation in design. Of course, designing for well-being doesn't always have to mean a practical solution or an affordable solution, sometimes it can be by inspiration, and not necessarily related to consumption. But for the first time, I really thought about every home. Every American home. Of course there's an age group and niche category in mind, but I think it's wider than ever. I think that's what excites me so much working with Target, also understanding that some of the manufacturing and price point challenges that we had are advantages that I can use in creativity. It can be pushed further to be more logical for manufacturing and transportation methods. I think that the transformation really played a very important role in my way of thinking for Target. What I've tried to do for some pieces, the largest pieces, was to consider the transportation and storage—from the manufacturer to the warehouse to the store to the home. The way we package things, how small we can package them, can they be assembled with no tools or effort, applies to all those things. Including the fact that we're moving around more than ever and it's easy for us to buy furniture that we can take with us and not have to leave it behind or worry that it's going to get ruined.
I like that, thinking of the shipping method first when designing. How does this idea of transformation make a product more valuable to someone?
I look at transformation as a way to enhance the relationship between human and product. The more interaction you have with a product the more care and love you'll have for it. Somebody recently told me something I'm trying to practice myself: She said, I really like to touch everything that I own and interact with it, because I don't have a lot of time to I spend in my house, and that's my only chance to lift things up and say hello to all my products. I felt the same way when I recently bought a motorcycle and I cleaned it for the first time and I really had to touch every part to really understand how it worked and what connected to what. So I also think that interaction creates that sense of learning. For example the Plastic Wall Clock comes from the store fully-assembled and open, but it opens and closes just for that reason, to really enhance the understanding of the mechanism. And the third reason, which is most important to me, is playfulness. The more playful the object and the more we find them amusing again and again, the more respect we have for them. One of my favorite pieces is a picture frame that can hold six different pictures. It displays them in a clever and fun way, horizontally or vertically, and it can also rotate and reveal different pictures at a different time. But I like that I can't at any given time display all six pictures at the same time, some of them are always on the bottom. It can be kind of a funny story—you can put the family photos on the bottom and then when the family comes, you put them on the front. Maybe you won't use it for that! Or the Flip Flop Pillows [demonstrated in the video] can change their look from graphic to iconic, and yes, it changes the look of the room, but it's also just about playing with them.
I can see you maybe really loving science in school, or maybe playing with a lot of Transformers as a kid?
Yes, physics definitely play a big role in my work. I love very simple physics. These are very simple things that give me constant gratification: gravity, balance, geometric forms. I would say that physics and poetry are the things I try to combine, which is of course, something from the left and the right brain. Sometimes products bother me because they're too technical and they're not very well-refined aesthetically, or it's the other way around, they're very aesthetically pleasing but they don't function very well. That balance is something very important to me. There's always a big motivation for me to create things that can be seen and used in a different way. Whether it's moving around in space or interacting with the space in a different way. We use our living rooms for completely different purposes at different times, with different amounts of people, or even when we're alone. All of those issues around transformation and change are the ways I look at things the most. Nothing is ever static, and we are also a portable, collapsible being. We need different things at different times.
Target has done so much to raise the awareness of design. What has been the best part of being included in their long list of designers?
Every time I think about it, it makes me feel so great, because it's been such a refreshing, incredible change in my practice. First of all, it's the most efficient, organized corporation I've ever worked with. Unbelievable. You'd think that working with a big corporation that things would fall between the cracks. But there's such a wonderful synergy between the individuals working there and the passion they have to bring good affordable design to the entire country, It's been really incredible. From the graphics to the campaign to the approach of how to bring the line into stores, all great. Now after working with them, I understanding a big part about how we consume. It works differently when you are catering to a niche market, you know, designing for designers. I've learned so much from it.
It's a lot like what's being talked about now in the design press...how the downturn will force designers to have more constraints.
I compared the launch of Cappellini and Target before but during this same time I also worked on the Nurai Island in Dubai. And the differences between those two projects is just insane. One is a project where I need to evaluate every single cent for manufacturing, and I have to get more creative because I'm 70-cents over budget and I have to bring it down. Nurai Island has no budget, no restrictions on how we're going to build things, although on my side there was an ecological aspect, which was important to me. Those units can be sold for whatever we price them at. In a way, it's every designer's dream to have a non-budget project like that. But I was so happy to understand how much more creative you need to be when you have so many constraints. It's kind of like looking at the global financial crisis as an advantage. Which I am. We're asking questions more than once, thinking through what we do, and we're much more responsible. It results in better work.
At this year's Dwell on Design, Benshetrit will be speaking at Saturday's Design Innovation forum. Or you can check out his new line at The Target Home introducing the Dror for Target Collection by Dror Benshetrit in the exhibition hall. Register at dwellondesign.com