Made in Vancouver: Omer Arbel

November 2, 2013

Between the ages of 18 and 24, the designer Omer Arbel lived in Mexico City, New York, Toronto, Rome, and Barcelona. Each move, he brought with him a suitcase stuffed with 40 white paper lanterns, cheap collapsible things he'd scrounged from Chinatowns. In each new city, Arbel painted his bedroom white and hung these lights around his bed at every height (some just inches from the floor). By this method he gave himself a constellation that went wherever he did. He photographed his installations obsessively and cut those photos up to make collages (à la David Hockney). There was no apparent purpose to this behaviour, except to see the thing he loved and know it better.

Today he is 37 and stands beneath chandeliers of white spheres, glass echoes of those paper lanterns. At Bocci, his design firm, these ambient lights are the moneymakers-the products that pay for a studio playground. When I climb up a strange industrial staircase at Bocci headquarters I find Arbel looking at a massive wall of white "shelving" that more resembles a bank of miniature whitewashed caves. "We stacked all these bales of hay," Arbel explains, "and shot a polyurethane foam rendered from sugar beets around it all. When the foam hardened, we took the hay away and revealed these great cavities." He feels around inside the cave/wall and I nod at the monstrosity; it's typical of the work here, which always begins with thoroughly impractical exploration.

Watching him play with sugar beet foam, it's worth remembering Arbel has become one of the most commercially successful creative minds in Canada, and certainly one of the world's great designers of lights. Sales numbers at Bocci are under strict guard, but he says that figures have doubled every year since he founded the company in 2005. And it's true that it has become difficult to pick up a home magazine where his lights aren't featured-his influence has, quite suddenly, become ubiquitous.

Yet Arbel admits to being a less-than-sober designer. ("Spaz" is a term he uses.) And when I speak with Mark Dennis, one of Arbel's onsite collaborators, he describes working there as an "amorphous" experience, full of "huge but practical dreams." Arbel's a man who smiles when he explains things, like he's always about to deliver a punch line. Staffers describe periods of quiet at the office punctuated by extreme "ADD-like" energy when Arbel arrives. In a way, he's become a success despite himself. Yes, there was intense and backbreaking labour to get here, but the key to Arbel's accomplishments lies in the dogged pursuit of what should never have paid off. He is constantly concerned with things the rest of us would find useless: a pile of hay, a suitcase full of paper lanterns. Dennis says the openness is the trick, that Arbel teaches them all to rapidly change course when things aren't working, to remain available to the possibility that a project has gone wrong.

"Let's talk about failure," I suggest, while Arbel absentmindedly turns a prototype around in his hand.

"Failure?" He smiles.

"What's your emotional response to failure?"

"Failure is a constant companion. Nine out of 10 projects end in failure-we don't reach our destination, the client's patience runs out…" He holds up the malformed piece of glass, which might be an abstract human skull. "There's great disappointment, there's mourning, and then there's the paradigm shift." 

Against his wishes, Omer Arbel has himself become a reputable product, one that is highly branded, one that is the recipient of 23 major awards and a nominee for dozens more. This spring he was invited to present work at the dearly exclusive Euroluce (part of Milan Design Week), which can be read as a serious turning point. As though to underline his new standing, in September Arbel installed a 30-metre-tall light sculpture in the grand entrance of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London-a swarm of 280 glass pendant lamps suspended by chaotic copper wires. It is unabashedly a masterpiece, a swirling alien creature that's constantly attended by visitors, who hold their phones aloft for photos. Continue reading…

I sat for a coffee with Alan Elder, curator of craft and design at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, who said, "I can't get over it. You walk by any restaurant on the street, and those are his cast-glass lights above the tables. When I go to design fairs around the world, Omer is the Canadian designer who's represented the most. He's known internationally as just Omer-you know, like Madonna or Adele."

Once you've been shown his lights, you can't stop seeing them. I suggest to Elder that installing his lights in your home has become shorthand for "I know what I'm doing" in the design world. Like buying an Eames chair or a Noguchi coffee table.

Elder coughs. "Erm… I have his lights in my home."

How did a daydreamer become so marketable? We can only really understand the product if we investigate the highly particular forces involved in creating the person.

In 1976 Jerusalem, Omer Arbel was born into a super-achieving and secular family headed by a lawyer father and an academic mother focused on ancient mysticism who eschewed classic fairy tales and read her young son The Epic of Gilgamesh as a bedtime story instead. The scent of orange blossoms was the youngest thing about Jerusalem. Everything else was millennia old-the buildings, and also the strife. The usual racial and religious tensions were prevalent, and life had a level of stress that eventually led his parents to depart for Canada in 1989.

Arbel, 13, could barely speak English. He sat in his Grade 8 class at Point Grey Mini School and, like many young immigrants, was unable to define himself. "I did feel like a social outcast," he says. "But I didn't have the angst most teenagers seem to have. Or I did have angst, but it was buried deeper than most. I suppose I wasn't very self-aware. I'm still not, actually. All my awareness has been focused outwards on other things."

As an outlier Arbel eventually found the game was not that difficult. He decided he could make himself popular: he began listening to the Pixies and alt-rock; he got a weird haircut; he hung out with a newly won girlfriend and "fringe" friends while silently maintaining a 4.0 GPA. (Today, there are a couple faint scars on his left ear where he once wore earrings.)

Popularity, though, was a boring problem to solve. And he was never that committed to high-school culture anyhow: he simultaneously nurtured a miniature career in fencing, which allowed him to travel at a young age to most European capitals-at one point Arbel ranked in the top 20 at the Junior World Championship. (He still fences some Wednesdays, out at the Dynamo Fencing Club in Richmond.) Duelling abandoned ("I was good but it wasn't bred into me"), there were many career options. He wanted to be a historian. He wanted to be a translator. (Arbel speaks Hebrew, English, and Spanish fluently, with a working understanding of Italian and French.) He also wanted to be a stage actor and was a theatre nerd for a brief stint.

In the end he settled on architecture, a field that combines history, translation, and theatrics. After taking his degree at the University of Waterloo ("the best we could afford") Arbel secured an apprenticeship with legendary Spaniard Enric Miralles in 1998. Elena Rocchi, who worked with Arbel then, was impressed by the young man's talent: "He was the youngest student we've ever had, I can promise you. He had, I remember, an incredible knowledge of architecture in one so young. When you saw him working with models, or on a project, he was so obsessed. He was the first one arriving, the last leaving. Always in a nice shirt, smiling."

He might have stayed but for Miralles's death in 2000. But after the great architect succumbed to a brain tumour, Arbel returned to Vancouver, taking work at Patkau Architects, where he learned to draw, to work the details, in their monastic environment, a workspace he ultimately couldn't fit into. ("I'm a spaz, remember.") From Patkau, he swung to Busby & Associates, a livelier, if more corporate, firm. And it was only then-after years of studying other creators-that the real production of Omer Arbel began. Continue reading…

First came the prototypes. Projects he tackled before and after his day job. Rather than name them, Arbel gave them all numbers-a practice he maintains to this day. These were tentative, commercially neutered forays compared to Bocci's current output, but they gained a measure of critical approval. And a process began to emerge. A way of working.

A designer like Frank Gehry begins with a startling form for a building (derived from a crumpled piece of paper, say) then fits amenities inside that form like afterthoughts. Anyone who has visited the Pritzker winner's amorphous Experience Music Project in Seattle will be familiar with the sensation of walking inside somebody else's ego; outsize, glossy walls swoop and dodge above interior rooms that seem to apologize for their humble utility. The enormous success of Gehry's work is, arguably, indicative of the larger culture's fascination with surfaces and-by extension-our lack of interest in the interior life. Arbel's approach is the reverse: he lets the final form present itself. Any material-glass, steel, wood, light-knows what it wants to do, he presumes. We just need to get out of its way. (One day, while Arbel is driving me around in his beat-up Mitsubishi Delica, he starts talking about how weird concrete walls are. "Why are they flat, you know? Concrete is fluid: it flows, it pours. It doesn't want to be flat.")

Obedience of material laws became extreme with Project 2.4, an impossible, beautiful, nobody-else-would-bother sort of creation. Arbel imagined a chair built entirely from 50 vertical stripes of resin-50 soft colours, layered in a translucent series of bands. Here's the rub: each pour of resin could only be added during a 15-minute window that came up every 3.5 hours. (Otherwise, the new resin layer would either not adhere or crack.) Fifty pours of resin, one per 3.5 hours-that's 175 straight hours per chair. (He could only afford the one mould, which he built himself.) The work dominated: he'd race home midday from Busby's offices to pour. His sleep, too, was parcelled into 3.5-hour segments. Arbel was living, at the time, in the Lee Building at Main and Broadway, and the building's manager let him use a rooftop space as a studio, since he'd double as a scarecrow, shooing away the heroin addicts climbing up there to get high. "I was getting headaches the whole time," he says. "Maybe because I wasn't wearing any safety gear. And it was totally unsustainable. Looking back, I've no idea where I got that sort of energy. It was a personal disaster." And a critical triumph. 2.4 garnered masses of media attention and swiftly became a collector's piece. But each sale (the chair went for $2,400) didn't even cover the cost of creation.

Then, in 2005, after years of obscure labour, a sudden and unforeseeable confluence: Arbel was showing five prototypes at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York while an entrepreneur named Randy Bishop was attending a candy convention on the floor above. Bishop knew Arbel because he'd hired him to design his penthouse back in Vancouver; so when he got bored of candy, he hung out in Arbel's booth at the back of the lower hall. The two were chatting when a third man came charging down the convention aisle in meticulous black, trailing assistants.

Nasir Kassamali, owner of the American design store Luminaire, is plainly credited with bringing design to North America. Among a certain set he is a legend-enigmatic, capable of making stars from nobodies. He paused just long enough to raise an eyebrow at one of the prototypes. A member of the retinue leaned in and handed Arbel a card.
Project 14.0-a deceptively simple lighting series composed of glass spheres-almost hadn't come to the show at all. Arbel only picked up the improvised prototype as an afterthought on his way to the airport. Less than a decade after Kassamali raised his eyebrow, the light has become one of the most coveted pieces of industrial design to emerge from Canada. "I can't remember exactly what happened," Arbel says today. "I have such a vague memory of this pivotal moment. Randy and I spoke a little, and we came back and we started the company." Project 14.0 and an expanding range of Bocci products are now sold in more than 40 countries. Demand is reportedly at a point where they can only just keep up.

Bishop has silently managed the phenomenal growth that followed, always refusing interviews. After multiple requests, though, he finally told me about an elevator ride he once took with Arbel and Nancy Bendtsen (of Inform Interiors). "There was a piece of construction garbage hanging on the wall, protecting the elevator. Omer saw this pattern in it and started passionately describing to Nancy and me how amazing it was. To me, that's his genius: he sees beauty where others don't."

He can also see fault where others can't. When Arbel takes me out to see his first completed house-a glorious space (now featured in dozens of magazines) built of century-old timbers and accordion glass walls on a rural acreage in White Rock-he says, "Of course, there are three mistakes I made with this house."

"What are they?" I ask.

He smiles. "Can't you see?" Continue reading…

It's a cold, bright day. As I walk from downtown over the Burrard Street Bridge, I can see the tree on top of Arbel's studio, a weird hit of life in the midst of an industrial patch. Five storeys below, there's a glass-blowing studio the size of a two-car garage where three shifts of workers labour almost around the clock to fabricate Bocci lights. The furnace never shuts off.

When I arrive at his West First offices it takes a minute to figure out which glass wall is the front door. Young folk work quietly at their computers; behind them another line is packing lights into snug Bocci boxes. A nice woman sees I'm lost and guides me through, rolling her eyes and smiling.

And I'm back in fantasyland. Arbel grumbles for a bit about the Canada Council for the Arts, which is blocking his attempt to demolish the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (long story). We move on to Project 53.0, in which Arbel describes a plan to drown parts of Vancouver's False Creek and bury both Pacific and Expo boulevards. I stop him.

"How sincere are you being right now?"

"Good question, good question…" He lets his head roll from side to side and finally decides. "I would go all the way if they'd let me. Why let developers be the only engine? I mean, this city is like a beautiful girl that keeps accepting dates from ugly deadbeats, you know?"

Then he's talking about a cloud he wants to build.

"It's made of glass foam," he says, reaching for a piece.

"Sorry, I don't know what glass foam is."

"That's because it never existed before." All foam is made by the injection of air bubbles into a material; Arbel's glass foam does the same, creating a tumourous blob that's deeply satisfying to behold. At Milan's Design Week he nested these blobs of glass together to construct a pair of flat clouds-one white, one black-each covering about 40 square feet.

The project seems long on fantasy, short on pragmatism. But his flights of fancy do have a way of descending into the real world. Project 57.0 (the glass clouds) has become the solution to a problem with 37.0 (a cabin he's designing). Arbel didn't want to give the home classic panorama windows ("Giant windows, like on glass towers, have a pornographic sense of view"); he searched for something obscuring instead, a filter for the light. Now, years after beginning the cabin project, he can mimic the effects of dappled forest light with walls of glass foam.

Alan Elder feels there's something distinctly Canadian about this fascination with light. "Maybe because we spend so much of our time needing light. This idea of capturing it, of holding the light, I think that's the through-line in Omer's work." Even Arbel's new forays into architecture are not so different from his light fixtures. "Every room, every house," he says, "is just a vessel for light." Indeed, the few homes he's designed so far can be read as brilliant lanterns in which to live.

From those years he lugged a suitcase full of paper lanterns around the globe to his rapid mastery of the design world, Arbel hasn't changed in his essentials: he still doesn't know where his experimentations are headed (31 projects are in progress); and light, the ultimate and ever-changing material, remains his obsession. He laughs out loud when he sees an October sunset: "This is the only place in the world that gets this kind of light, you know." We're driving through farmland, out near Langley. "This horizontal, surreal light. It's yellow, a cold white-yellow. All the edges of things go crisp."

I tell him I guess I don't see so well, and he confesses that though his right eye is exceptionally powerful his left is disastrously weak. He used to wear one contact lens to even his vision out but found that it wrecked "the volumetric nature of space. Or something." So he leaves the error there, lets his body conduct its own weird experiment. "Anyway, it feels more right to see this way-my way."

 

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