Omer Arbel

Omer Arbel

By Bradford Shellhammer
Omer Arbel is a Vancouver–based architect and designer who creates spaces and objects in equal measure.

Most recently he designed both the the medals for the 2010 Winter Olympics and and the interior of Ping's Cafe, a Japanese restaurant in Vancouver. He's also the Creative Director of the furniture/lighting manufacturing house Bocci. Omer answered some questions about his Olympics design, his design process, and why he catalogs his projects with a series of numbers rather than with names.

Your designs for the Vancouver Olympics medals are unique. You took something very traditional, a medal, and made something entirely new. What was that process like?

Our working process is something we try to always be keenly aware of. It is easy to fall into a subconscious acceptance of the patterns of working and making. Instead, in all our projects, we try to investigate process and break through predictable patterns of methodology.  By focusing on the process, rather than on an end result, we often stumble upon great discoveries, and often these discoveries become the foundation around which we build a project.

"Our winning design proposal for the 2010 Olympic Medals began with an iconographic jewelry archetype, the locket," says Omer Arbel. "In this first iteration of the design, the medal was comprised of two halves which housed an internal cavity into which the athlete could insert a sentimental object such as a photograph or lucky charm. We developed a manufacturing technique so that each medal had a cavity of differing shape and proportion, so that every single medal was completely unique."

"Due to manufacturing constraints, conservatism, and budget concerns, the design was addressed and re-purposed several times," says Omer Arbel. "The final production version has an undulating surface that evokes Vancouver’s landscape. Individual medals were laser etched with a unique ‘crop’ of Corrine Hunt’s master artwork so that each remains a unique piece of a larger composition."

You reference Russian nesting dolls in your design brief. Have you thought about designing toys?

I've thought about designing just about everything! Including toys. I often observe the way that children react to objects. There is an ease, a directness, or purity which grownups also have, perhaps, but find difficult to access.

"The 28 series is the result of a glass-blowing technique I developed whereby air is intermittently blown in and then sucked out of an intermittently heated and then cooled glass matrix," says Omer Arbel. "This technique produces a distorted spherical shape with a composed collection of inner shapes, one of which houses a low voltage lamp."

"Conventional upholstery is based on a simple principle—foam is encased in fabric to provide comfort," says Omer Arbel. "For the 25.0 bench, we eliminated foam from the equation and compensated by providing a vast excess of fabric which is allowed to fold and pleat haphazardly to create a comfortable seat and back. The randomly folded pleats shift as they conform to the human body to create interesting organic patterns over time."

Is there one discipline you love more than the others? Furniture, objects, buildings, interiors?

The goal of the practice is to collapse the traditional distinctions between these disciplines. We are devoted to an exploration of the relationship between spaces and objects, and to building holistic environments where objects are considered spatial, and where space is objectified. So, it's very difficult to answer this question without undermining the basic premise of our methodology.

"The 21 was inspired by the sporadic and often discordant arrangements that barnacles form on a rock surface," says Omer Arbel. "Each pendant is made of thin sheets of raw white porcelain wrapped around frosted blown borosilicate glass cones of varying sizes. The result is a gentle contrast between diffused light passing through the translucent white porcelain skin and sharp, crisp light passing through the frosted Borosilicate glass trumpet shape on the interior of the pendant. Traditionally, porcelain is cast or sculpted into very specific forms. Our goal for the 21 Series was to design a process which yields different forms in every iteration. We let the material bend and fold according to its own intrinsic logic so every piece is completely unique."

The 14 Series pendants are a family of low voltage lighting products designed for the Vancouver-based manufacturer Bocci. The pendants are articulated, seamed cast glass spheres with frosted cylindrical voids, into which a halogen light fixture is inserted. Unlike most contemporary lighting, the pendants are designed to be clustered in groups—suggesting tiny candles encased in floating spheres of water. The light interacts with the bubbles and imperfections of the cast glass to produce a rich halo of light.

You were born in Jerusalem and live in Vancouver. Do either of those cities influence your work?

I don't like thinking of my work as regional. Yes—I've spent time in Vancouver and Jerusalem, but I've also lived for extended periods in Barcelona, Rome, New York, and Mexico City...Of course every place you visit influences you in many ways, some conscious, some unconscious—but on a basic level I'd like to believe that the motivations for our work are simply what they are; and not any kind of response to region.

Arbel: "28 pendants are designed to cluster in hexagonal shapes that nestle into each other to create patterns as dictated by the needs of the interior. They may also be clustered or composed in an ambient manner similar to their distant cousin, the 14 series."

Arbel: "The 8.0 is the first in a collection of outdoor furniture developed in collaboration with the concrete manufacturer Lafarge. This chair is fabricated using the new, ultra strong concrete product, Ductal, which has only been used previously in infrastructural applications. The design emphasizes the material’s tremendous strength and achieves an extremely thin profile with a shocking cantilever for the seat of the chair."

I am thrilled that you catalogue all your work with sequence numbers. What made you decide to do this?

It's a great tool for self-reflection. Rather than inventing names for our pieces, it seemed interesting to catalogue them in chronological order. We are thus able to remain more conscious, see the patterns, motivations and obsessions in the work, focus on them and refine them. Also, the numbering system helps break down the separation in scale that is traditionally attributed to the traditionally defined fields of architecture or industrial design. A project is simply a project for us—it gets a number—and we approach it in the same way we approach our other projects, whether it be an object or a space.

You're Creative Director of Bocci and principal of OAO, your architecture and design practice. How do you have time to do both? In what ways do the roles overlap?

At OAO we design spaces and objects, but other people make them.  So, it's a higher level sort of involvement and we must learn to rely on many individuals who have more expertise than we do in their respective fields.  We direct them, learn from them, teach them, all in the service of what we hope is an interesting approach. At bocci on the other hand, we are also the ones who make the work.  So my involvement as creative director reaches far deeper into the project. We end up making decisions about fractions of a millimeter.  Its very exhilarating but slower going then at OAO. There are synergies between the two companies—sometimes Bocci manufactures components for OAO buildings, for example—or pieces developed as part of OAO projects end up in the bocci collection, that sort of thing. As for time...hard question to answer. I have great collaborators who help. And I like my work so its not a burden to work a lot.

Arbel: "The 22 is a complete suite of electrical wall accessories which challenge the traditional, tired and ubiquitous cover plate concept. We designed a system whereby switches and power receptacles can finally be flush with the surface of the wall and, therefore, more visually subtle than ever before."

Have many objects you've created for architectural projects become mass produced? Are there any that you wish would have made it into production?

Yes—this is a "built in" synergy in our methodology. There is a sort of natural selection that occurs. The best ideas make it to production, one way or another. Generally speaking, the ones that don't make it to production are not strong enough, or too specific to a particular set of circumstances, or not rigorous enough.

What projects are you currently working on? 

We are photographing our first freestanding house this week—a relief as we've been working on it for three years. We have a high end contemporary furniture shop (B&B Italia, etc.) called Kiosk under construction at the moment in Toronto. We've just sent off a set of flatware to a manufacturer for consideration (I'll have to keep the name of the manufacturer confidential for the time being). We're working on two different luxury getaway cabins in remote and quite beautiful locations. And, we are just starting work on a desk lamp design for bocci.

Lastly, what is your favorite building in the world?Why?

I have so many buildings that would qualify, at one point or another in my life, as my favorite building. It's difficult to choose and I'm sure if I do I'll end up changing my mind tomorrow. Over the past months I've been obsessed with Adolf Loos' American Bar in Vienna. Everything these is just as it should be, like a well organized travel case.


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