Cover Multidisciplinary artist and designer Omer Arbel (Photography: Fahim Kassam)

Multidisciplinary artist and designer Omer Arbel shares with us how experimenting with materials is the core of his design process, as well as collections that have piqued his interest recently

Unlike other designers who might prefer starting their projects with an initial vision or a sketch and a prototype, Vancouver-based multidisciplinary artist and designer Omer Arbel prefers to dive right in and start directly from what he deems the core of the craft: experimenting with materials. “Generally, we begin (the design process) with a certain physical, mechanical or chemical property of whatever material we are working with,” Arbel explains.

“We try to invent new ways of working with these material properties such that they yield new, unpredictable forms. This process usually leads to what I call a ‘discovery’, a form that we find compelling, mysterious, and worthwhile. During this initial phase, we are like prospectors sifting for new forms. After that our process is conventional; we essentially try to rope our discovery into the real world with the conventional tools at our disposal.”

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The interdisciplinary designer is also the co-founder and creative director of Bocci, a Canadian lighting company that he co-founded; in Singapore, the lighting pieces retail at Space Furniture

In 2005, the company debuted with 14, a collection of pendant lights with frosted glass spheres that create a soft and mesmerising glow. The intricate lighting pieces instantly became a design hit and is still one of Bocci’s bestsellers to this day.

We try to invent new ways of working with these material properties such that they yield new, unpredictable forms.
Omer Arbel

Arbel himself prefers the 87, a unique statement lighting piece with a taffy-like form; he cites it as his favourite lighting piece that he’s created for Bocci. The folding technique used to craft the decorative lighting piece was chanced upon as part of a residency at Pilchuck glass school in Washington State.

“We developed the technique into a vertical folding motion using as much glass as could be confidently handled by one glassblower, and entrained the glass with numerous air bubbles using soda water, increasing the intensity of the gossamer effect,” he explains. “The form of each loop is a direct result of the folding motion of the glassblowers. Introducing light on one end of the piece meant that it could travel within the glass filigree, creating a gradient across the length of the piece.”

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The design powerhouse also leads his eponymous practice, Omer Arbel Office, where he boasts an impressive oeuvre. Besides creating sculptural work and exhibiting his work in museums around the world, he has also designed several commercial and residential projects.

One highlight is Project 75.9, an experimental home constructed on a hay farm, won a prize at the World Architecture Festival in 2019. Arbel also co-designed the winning medals for the 2010 Winter Olympics that was held in Canada, alongside Aboriginal artist Corrine Hunt.

Proving that his creativity knows no limits, the multi-hyphenate continues to realise diverse creative endeavours; in June 2021, he released his first monograph. Published by Phaidon, Omer Arbel, seeks to give readers a peek into the renowned designer’s ethos and process through 22 varied projects that range from lighting collections for Bocci to furniture designs and standalone homes.

“The nature of a monograph is to offer a survey that covers the entire output of the practice, and to invite the reader into our ecosystem of ideas,” says Arbel, commenting on the new book. “It means we could not delve in as deeply into specific projects as we might have wanted to, but it also offers some pretty interesting opportunities.”

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Here, we get the award-winning designer and artist to share his experience working on the book as well as his favourite projects; he also picks out the decorative pieces that have caught his eye recently.

What was it like working on your first monograph? What are some highlights readers can expect?    

Omer Arbel (OA) Our graphic designer Derek Barnett proposed to print the book on transparent paper, so that one is always aware of other images and texts, several layers deep. This felt true to our process, in which ideas are always ‘infecting’ other ideas in the studio. Our editor Stephanie Rebick curated a collection of excerpts from cultural history to position the work in different ways, sometimes contradictory, that also felt true to the reality of the studio. Together these strategies offer a scrapbook quality to the book, at odds with the formality of the monograph trope, which I like.

Do you have a favourite project from the works featured in the monograph?

OA 75.9 is a house on a hay farm in the Canadian Pacific Northwest. The project makes use of a technique of pouring concrete into fabric formwork deployed within plywood rib structures, yielding walls and columnar roof forms. A deliberately slow, continuous pour and special concrete mix are employed to fabricate each element, in some cases approaching 10m tall. The intention is for the concrete to continuously cure throughout the duration of the pour, thus reducing hydro-static pressure at the stem and avoiding horizontal cold joints.

The hayfield is treated as if it were a carpet, draped over the volumes of the residence in a series of beams, allowing the entire building roof to be traversed from the exterior and contributing to the archaeological reading.

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Why did you choose to name your works in consecutive numerical order?

OA It began as a simple convenience, allowing me to skip over the task of naming the projects. Over time, it has become a great tool for introspection. I can see the evolution of ideas and obsessions in the portfolio. Now the numbering system has become a self-referential taxonomy for our studio.

You’re a multi-disciplinary designer, architect as well as a sculptor. What are your top tips for success and getting it all together?

OA Build good relationships. I work with a wonderful team of collaborators and partners. I like to tell young people that it is a waste of time taking advice from people like me, or from protagonists in history they are interested in or admire. Every human being has a completely different combination of skills and talents, and each one operates in a completely different context. My advice would be to tailor your output and ambitions not to what you perceive to be good by the standards of your peers or of history, but rather based on a careful analysis of the self.

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My advice would be to tailor your output and ambitions not to what you perceive to be good by the standards of your peers or of history, but rather based on a careful analysis of the self.
Omer Arbel

You’ve experimented with so many materials across the years. Can you tell us about your most memorable experiment and the project that resulted from it?

OA Project 71. The experiments that led to 71 began with an observation during a visit to an electroplating facility. Conventionally electroplated metal parts are suspended within an electroplating solution containing molecules of a different metal using hooks. An electrical current is passed through the hook and part into the solution, which causes an electromagnetic field to form around the metal part, in turn causing molecules of the metal inside the solution to coat the suspended metal part.

We observed that over many years of use, small “blooms” of metal with distinctive form accrete on the tips of these hooks. We found these shapes interesting and began a set of experiments meant to encourage and accelerate the process of accretion. The first set of 71’s was dipped in many plating solutions, each with different metals in it, with little documentation, and thus have a “tree ring” quality when cut.

What are some collections that have caught your eye recently?

1. Every Ting by Richard Meitner

OA These lovely strange awkward glass works by American sculptor Richard Meitner make me happy.

2. Polyhedra Chandelier by Carlo Scarpa for Venini

OA I can never get enough of Italian architect Carlo Scarpa. Particularly I find myself returning to this polyhedral chandelier he designed for Venini.

3. Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier by West 8

OA I have been looking at early works of the landscape architecture studio West 8 (a multinational firm co-founded by Dutch landscape architect Adriaan Geuze), particularly the geometrical treatment of white and black shells along the Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier. There are white and black birds living here, and I found it lovely that the white ones like to land on the white shells, and the black ones on the black.

4. 113 by Omer Arbel

OA 113 is a result of an ongoing series of experiments exploring the relationship between copper alloys and glass. Here, the characteristics of both materials have been manipulated to create significant discrepancies in their respective coefficients of expansion. A glass form is blown conventionally, then a liquid alloy (predominantly copper) is poured in.

Due to the discrepancy, the glass shatters off as the piece cools, leaving a metallic shadow of itself. The metal, when hot, does not come in contact with Oxygen on the glass side of the form, leaving an iridescent finish, contrasting with a coarse oxidized finish on the inside surface.

5. 64 by Omer Arbel

OA 64 is one of several experiments conducted at the studio with hot beeswax and water of different temperatures, after reading Rudolf Steiner’s Nine Lectures on Bees. It is a celebration of a long ritual of transformation, beginning with the bees making the wax and ending with lighting the candle. Even the transportation of the object is part of the ritual.

An exhibition proposal was created for a theoretical New York gallery space, which would open its doors in the coldest month of winter for the duration of the exhibition, producing the 64’s in a ceremonial manner in the cold air within. Recently we made an NFT of this candle because it seemed like another way for a good idea to travel (and it does) not require transportation of a giant ice cube!

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