Profile: Omer Arbel

Here is a shape-shifter and experimentalist equally at home in the studio or the workshop. Laura Snoad talks to the mercurial founder of Omer Arbel Office and creative director of contemporary design and manufacturing house Bocci

Whether as part of his own studio or as creative director of product design and manufacturing company Bocci, Vancouver-based Omer Arbel’s approach can be more about intense curiosity and alchemist-like experimentation than ’design’.

’We always begin with the principle of how a material behaves when it is processed in a certain way,’ says Arbel. ’We heat, cool, crush, drill, spin, find the weird loopholes in how to manipulate materials. It means we see things in procedures that others miss.’

Arbel’s 2010 work, the globular chandelier called 28, is a luminous cluster of two-tone, hand-blown orbs created by introducing and removing air from a glass matrix. In the process, a distorted sphere of glass is blown and allowed to cool for 70 seconds, after which a small patch is heated with a blowtorch and a blob of contrasting glass attached. As the air is sucked from the sphere, the only thing that can react – the hot glass – is pulled into the vacuum, creating an inner chamber of unpredictable shape.

Tending to make a feature of the burrs and by-products of manufacture that other designers might polish away, Omer Arbel Office is currently developing copper bowl 19, created using a sand-casting technique in which the contrast between the polished copper and the rough overspill from the pouring is a key part of the design.

Arbel often doesn’t know what product he’ll end up with when he begins. Although with professional success the amount of experimentation has decreased, Arbel estimates that about 30 to 40 per cent of his designs still originate in this way – producing a vault full of misshapen outcasts along the way. ’There’s a running joke in the office that goes, “that one’s good for the vault,” ’ he laughs.

Having found he had a gift for model-making during his studies at University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture in Ontario, Arbel began developing models as objects in their own right, rather than as representations of actual buildings. He says, ’I could only understand architecture if I explored the concept through model-making.’

After graduating in 2000, Arbel was apprenticed to architect Enric Miralles Benedetta Tagliabue. The practice’s philosophy had a profound effect on him. He says, ’It taught an openness to contingency, to chance and to random events, which I found very compelling.’ During this time, Arbel ran ’an alchemist’s lab’ roof studio, where, filled with the energy of his early 20s, he’d work late into the night on prototype objects and go to work bleary-eyed the next morning.

Many of these early pieces, such as his 2.4 cast resin chair or the concrete 8.0 chair, with its apparently unfeasible cantilevered seat, built on Arbel’s architectural background and experimental energy, and were successful both in terms of award wins and press attention.

When in 2005 Arbel was offered an architectural commission big enough to quit his day job, he set up his own studio, Omer Arbel Office, designing small-scale architectural works, limited-edition objects and one-off commissions. The six-strong studio still functions in a similar way, seamlessly moving between architectural projects and product and industrial design, occasionally taking on much larger commissions such as the medals for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games.

Working in what Arbel calls the ’design vacuum’ of Vancouver has had the drawbacks of a lack of supportive community or local market. However, it forced him to think unconventionally about resources and the structure of his business.

Since 2005 Arbel has also been creative director of Bocci, which is based in the same building as OAO. There is a synergistic relationship between the two companies, which share space, resources and sometimes staff. OAO is currently working on designs for a dramatic cliff-top retreat, which will feature glass components manufactured by Bocci. It is this kind of fluid symbiosis that Arbel wants to hone in the future.

Arbel says, ’I always thought to redefine the practice of architecture. I wanted to invent a practice that obliterated the boundaries of different fields.’

To read more about Arbel’s Olympics work, visit www.designweek.co.uk/features

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