Award-winning Designer Omer Arbel on the Importance of Craftsmanship
Omer Arbel inside the 23.2 house he designed using reclaimed century-old Douglas fir.
Award-winning designer and innovator Omer Arbel is known for challenging conventional notions of design
Arbel’s 14.0 series cast-glass pendants (pictured below) and 28.0 series blown-glass pendants watch how 28.0 was made, below) manufactured by Bocci in Vancouver, adorn homes and high-end boutiques worldwide. He’s designed interiors and furniture, re-envisioned the ubiquitous—and ugly—electrical outlet, and collaborated with Corinne Hunt to design the medals for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Arbel gives BC Living some insight into his design sensibilities.
BCL: You believe that architectural design and object design are the same, and both are always incorporated in all of your projects. Why is that important?
Arbel: We live in a society where craft is not a priority; we’ve abandoned craftsmanship for invisible offshore production, so we no longer connect with objects in our home. As a result, we are surrounded by objects for which we can have little meaningful interaction.
We consume objects that casually move in and out of our lives. Our company [Omer Arbel Office] attempts to bring back craft by manufacturing everything in Vancouver. We launched in 2005, and have 30 people working in design and manufacturing.
BCL: You’ve won awards for the 15.2 Vancouver penthouse, which was the first interior you designed. Can you describe its four "pod rooms"?
Arbel: Four rooms in the 8,000-square-foot penthouse are clad in translucent white glass onyx so when they are lit, they glow like gigantic Japanese lanterns. Inside these rooms—bathrooms, office and kitchen—there is complete privacy and introspection because no one can see into them, but outside of them in the open living areas of the penthouse, you feel like an exhibitionist within a glamorous environment of lit glass, surrounded by windows facing the city view. Outside the building, the pods are visible as light sculptures to the entire downtown core.
BCL: You made a prototype chair out of concrete, which looked impossible.
Arbel: The chair used ultra strong Ductal concrete, which allowed it to be extremely thin with a tenuous-looking cantilever seat. Its production was complicated, so although we custom-made several, we aren’t manufacturing it.
We’re carefully planning two experimental house designs made out of concrete, on Mayne Island and in the U.S. Concrete is fascinating—there are tremendous opportunities for it to be manipulated in unusual ways.
BCL: You don’t just create; you liberate materials. What do you like to use?
Arbel: Glass, ceramics, concrete, cast brass, wood, upholstery.
BCL: Why are you making wall lighting controls, dimmer switches, and telephone connections?
Arbel: They came from a pet peeve. I find traditional electrical outlets to be visual noise that distracts. Ours are mounted flush with the wall’s surface and have no cover, just the electrical plug holes required, so are visually subtle. For one hundred years, we have had the same ugly outlet covers so we’ve become blind to them. To consider that a detail is not as it should be, and find ways to change it, you must first be able to see it.
BCL: Your 22.0 outlets take forethought.
Arbel: They require more labour than a conventional outlet, installed with an experienced craftsperson, and they’re approximately $80 each.
BCL: How do you keep up the pace, continually innovating?
Arbel: How could I not continue to do it?
BCL: You’ve won 30 awards in 10 years. Which do you cherish?
Arbel: I was proud to win the 2010 Ronald Thom Award for Early Design Achievement for our entire portfolio to date—the highest award that I could win as a young architect or designer in Canada. I was honoured to be short-listed for a 2010 World Architectural Festival Award in Barcelona. Fifteen examples of what is thought to be the most important work in the world in each category are chosen, and 23.2 was short-listed.
BCL: Why are all of your projects numbered in sequence?
Arbel: It’s a tool that allows for a lot of self-reflection. It helps me to look back and discover how my ideas are evolving. The designs number 47 now, and include three buildings, three interiors, dozens of furniture designs and electrical components, a garden and a bridge.
BCL: What does your future hold?
Arbel: More, more, more.
Pick up the October issue of BC Home magazine to read the complete Omer Arbel interview.