Omer Arbel creates poems that can be read in any language, only the words are molten grains of sand, and the paper is the tension that guides them as they harden and cool.
There is nothing lost in translation from what the creative director of Bocci imagines, to what he is now surrounded by, sitting in the light-filled fifth floor of the companys head office in Vancouvers Armoury District.
I actually kind of despise the word design, in a way, he begins, almost by way of introduction. It hurts me to have to refer to myself as a designer. I think that design implies a separation from the object. It implies abstraction. And a kind of over simplification that comes from regarding something from a removed position.
As he relaxes into his black blazer and three oclock shadow, his gestures come alive.
I feel much more comfortable with the idea of making things myself. My design studio and the design and manufacturing company is built on the idea that thats the only way of really achieving interesting work. Novel work. Or at least the only way open to us. So we make stuff, we dive in, we rarely draw things.
Mid-sentence he lunges forward to grab a glass bottle of water.
We dont use parametric modelling technology, he continues, turning the bottle with his fingertips. These days computers are very sophisticated and you can make models of things youre interested and its such a temptation, but, because its so quick, its the opposite of our interests.
On a computer screen, there is no distinction between one material and another.
Arbel instead draws inspiration from the material itself. He puts down my beverage and jumps up to replace it with a 28 series sphere from among the many breakables lying strewn across the table.
Like these pieces, right? His salt-and-pepper eyebrows rise as he lifts the clear light fixture up to his face. The reason that these are shaped the way they are is not because we thought of a sphere inside another sphere, its because we investigated the technique of glassblowing and discovered that glass interacts in different ways when its at different temperatures.
And then they kept asking questions.
People have been glass blowing for thousands of years but in all that time most of the focus has been on blowing air into a glass matrix and then manipulating it in some way. And it occurred to us what happens if you do the opposite; what happens if you pull the air out of that piece of glass?
And the result is as sensually confusing as catching a fairy in a mason jar a part of you wants to free the beauty trapped inside, but the savage in you is satisfied that it is yours to display.
Born in Jerusalem, Arbel moved to Vancouver at a young age. His background is in architecture but, even as a student, he noticed he obsessed over the way light enters space, going so far as to turn his student housing into living light experiments that were impossible to move around in.
Over time, Arbels tactile approach to design evolved an unmistakable outlier aesthetic. Its just not the way things are done, or have been done.
And he names his pieces chronologically, currently working the 63rd chapter in the unconventional story.
At first the real focus for me was furniture and objects much more so than it was lighting. The first piece of lighting I ever did was 14 . Every one before that wasnt even close to being lighting. It just so happens thats the piece that became very successful. And thats the way the world works; as soon as you do something thats successful, people assume youre an expert at it and they just keep requesting more and more.
Fresh off a presentation at UBC on art and education, he starts pulling demo pieces out of a cardboard box to illustrate how his knowledge of glass has built upon itself through experimentation.
The 14 was a transitional piece, an idea about a spherical light made of cast glass. He knew nothing about the materials, and initially assumed it amounted to making a mold and pouring the glass in. But you cant make a sphere with an open-faced mold, so then he planned to make two hemispheres and glue them together.
But when he poured the first cast, nature revealed her provocative curves.
I noticed that because glass is liquid, it cools as its curing and makes this very beautiful meniscus here at the edge and a bit of a crater in the middle of the piece. When you take two of these and put them together, you get a 14. And two things happen: you get this very distinctive seam that people seem to respond to, and secondly, and more importantly, when you light it, the glass has this watery quality because the craters create a void in the middle of the piece. We discovered that totally by accident.
Those seductive lessons about temperature then breathed life into 28.
But its the 57 that actually takes all breath away. With the 57 the piece they are launching at Euroluce in Milan in April, the lovemaking gets rough, dark, familiar.
White and clear glass of different temperatures is fused together and dipped in a thick coating of seemingly opaque, black glass. Air is then pushed into the piece, finding its way through the hot spots, where the glass is the most vulnerable. The end result is a menacing storm cloud that only lifts its curtain to reveal an enchanting hidden universe when lit.
Its an appropriately bold piece to accompany Boccis odds-defying début at Euroluce (see story). Its a date even Arbel thought would never come.
Weve had to build our own niche in a hostile environment. Its still a miracle to me that things have gone so well. I always saw myself as an outsider to the system.
That system rejected us very early on, and quite aggressively. So to be showing there this year, among the industry leaders, is not only a coup from a business perspective, a respect perspective, a credibility point of view, but also personally its very gratifying.
As for what makes the pieces so successful, Arbel prefers to leave that as a mystery even to himself.
It leads a designer to a place of stagnation to analyze too much why? I think its paralyzing. I dont look at magazines or blogs for the same reason. I think those things limit you. Too much context.
Its actually one of the reasons I like working in Vancouver. Because it is the periphery of the design scene, theres less subconscious influence here on my work than there would be somewhere with a richer design culture like New York, or London or Milan or Tokyo.
Here is kind of a vacuum. A wasteland. Liketumbleweeds.
His booming laugh bounces off the racks, stacked to the rafters with objects of his imagination intangible beauties nestled in tidy white boxes all around us.