Arik Levy OSMOSIS
Leonard Koren in conversation with Arik Levy
texts by Suzanne Trocmé,
Zoe Ryan and leon milo
Swarovski is, above all, about technology. The crystal is the sparkling and poetic result of the company’s heritage, innovation and skill. If you ask them what they do, Swarovski will say that they are master stonecutters. It is that mastery which sets them apart. With Osmosis, my aim was to project a new vision, a new DNA, a new dimension onto Swarovski Crystal Palace – to take it somewhere it has never been before. Arik Levy
Arik Levy is one of the most progressive designers at work today. Honoured by his peers in disciplines ranging from furniture and interior design to lighting, hi-tech clothing and product design, Levy has also extended his practice as an artist, photographer and filmmaker.
Following previous exhibitions of his design work at the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Jerusalem Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, in April 2009 Levy installed an 80m-long exhibition of sublimely beautiful works – collectively entitled Osmosis – for Swarovski Crystal Palace at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan.
This book documents that installation, which Levy based on the ‘chaton’ form, that most emblematic of crystal cuts, abstractly transformed here in media ranging from wire-frame superstructures and 450kg marble Floor Jewels, to interactive audio-visual arenas and, of course, archetypal Swarovski crystal. Presented in the vast interior of a former railway station, Osmosis played on contrasts between the virtual and the real, solid and transparent, scale and proportion and, most importantly for this artist, presence and absence.
We are enormously grateful to Arik Levy, and his Paris studio, L design, for their tireless efforts in realizing this complex undertaking. Although Osmosis has transported Swarovski Crystal Palace into completely new conceptual territories, the work still offers collectors opportunities to acquire spectacular new pieces by a visionary designer. We are also delighted by the participation in this book of four very distinguished contributing authors: design guru Leonard Koren, who travelled from San Francisco to Paris to conduct his probing conversation with Levy; writer and designer Suzanne Trocmé, who has brilliantly described individual works and conveyed her experience of visiting the Osmosis installation; Zoe Ryan, gifted curator and academic, in turn, has provided an enlightening theoretical analysis; and composer Leon Milo, who devised the soundscape heard by visitors to the exhibition, writes specifically on the Osmosis Interactive Arena.
Swarovski Crystal Palace always strives to champion new and innovative approaches to design and technology involving crystal, alongside the techniques that we have been perfecting since the late 19th century. We hope that Osmosis by Arik Levy offers a glimpse into the endlessly creative possibilities that remain for this remarkably modern material.
LEONARD KOREN IN CONVERSATION WITH ARIK LEVY
November 2009: I first met Arik Levy in 1994, in Milan, at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the Big Momma of design and furniture fairs. I was immediately attracted by Arik’s exceptional human qualities: radiant warmth, forthrightness, and immense generosity of spirit. It was only later that I became acquainted with Arik’s design work. I didn’t attend another Salone until 2009, when, by good fortune, I received an important-looking invitation to the Swarovski Crystal Palace Osmosis opening.
Arik brings a deep thoughtfulness, married to a smart pragmatism, to all of his work. My expectations for an epiphanic experience were high — say on the order of first encountering Arik’s conceptually inventive lighting fixtures, or his exquisite techo-ethnic jewellery, or his sublime and philosophically provocative packaging. As I approached the warehouse-like venue for the exhibition, I was blinded by the setting spring sun, then knocked off balance by the gathering glitz. The well-dressed muscle at the door — not unlike what you’d encounter at a very popular and fashionable nightclub — politely ushered me through a gauntlet of black suits. Inside the door, Arik, the first face I encountered, was similarly attired, rendering him virtually indistinguishable from the guard staff.
After an exchange of bons mots, I went through the exhibition at a brisk pace, but at the end felt I had missed something vital. Then I remembered: Arik is not a ‘literal’ person; intellectually he exists on a rarified meta-poetic stratum. Okay, then what is this ‘osmosis’ metaphor really about? How does a mechanical process, albeit one that enables life as we know it to exist, relate to the super-scaled, real and abstract — and sometimes ethereal — crystal forms that I encountered in the exhibit? Winding through Osmosis, there was a specific pathway indicated by an 80m-long Arik Levy Tai Ping carpet. I made sure to follow it very slowly this time. All of the objects displayed, large and small, were beautiful and intriguing, but the transcendental connective tissue, aside from the omnipresent ‘crystal’ allusion, still eluded me.
Six months later I received a call from the editor of this book asking if I would be so kind as to leave my perch on the California coast and come to chat with Arik about Osmosis and related subjects. The following are excerpts from our illuminating conversation, which took place over two delightful Paris autumn mornings. Leonard Koren
ROCKS, MISSING DIGITS AND THE OTHER
LK Prior to Osmosis, you had been working on your long-term Rock series. There is a Rock in the Crystal Palace installation, in fact. You probably know that in English the word ‘rocks’ is slang for diamonds?
AL No, I didn’t.
LK In old movies, jewellery thieves will say things like, ‘Did you get the rocks?’
AL Oh, that’s good!
LK It downplays the importance of these precious stones. How did you get involved in your Rocks? It seems to be a visual metaphor that you are quite attached to.
AL I started about seven or eight years ago, realizing the notion of absence is very present in my work.
LK Okay, let’s define absence. Do we mean scarcity or the absence of materiality?
AL You’re right. There’s the physical, there’s the scarcity – a new word I learned today – there is the emotional, and everything has its opposite. Emotional absence can also be exile. The other is the absence of the present.
LK So it’s the antithesis of the desirable state? But it’s not; you can’t even phrase it like that. Exile sounds like you’re banished to some place because of some disagreement with the establishment.
AL It creates the absence of that space. If you’ve been deported from the US and you can’t go home anymore, your home in the US will be absent to you. One day I spoke with a collector, a psychotherapist, in 1992, and suddenly he stopped and looked at my hand and said, ‘Do you realize you are probably doing your own psychotherapy through your work?’ It hit me so strong, in a positive way. I had billions of strings hanging there and suddenly everything connected. It was one of the most beautiful moments I have lived, with self, my work and difficulties with thoughts. On the other hand he said, you’re not living in your home environment. You don’t live with your family, you don’t live in your country. The fact that you can touch the missing parts with other parts of your body makes things real for you. He asked me immediately, what happened?
LK To your hand – how did you lose your finger?
AL When it happened, with a circular saw, this part of my index finger flew off. It’s totally crazy, you’re looking for your finger. Normally it’s on your hand, and the brain sees it on your hand for the first few minutes. It doesn’t even see that it is not there.
LK There is a residual image in your brain of your finger being there.
AL That’s the best thing that happened to me in life. It brought me to see things in a different way.
LK So you were actually aware of your mind’s perceptual architecture?
AL At that moment, yes. So I looked for my finger and I found my finger on the floor a few metres away and I picked it up with my other hand. Now, when you think about it, you take something that belongs here over to here. It’s hot, it has your body temperature. You know the texture because you’ve been doing that for years. There was a moment when I was on the ‘knife’s edge’ – would I fall into being crazy or into understanding and propel that into other things.
LK Accepting what just happened.
AL It’s beyond the action. It was, would I go crazy or would I accept?
LK Crazy because you lost your finger?
AL No, because your body is not your body anymore.
LK Is it seeing the phantom finger that doesn’t exist, or the fact that you lost your finger or that you’re holding your finger that used to belong on the other hand?
AL You become surrealist or hyperrealist.
LK You were aware of the fact that you could go insane or you could become supersane.
AL Exactly. I never said it before. [long pause]
LK You’re left handed.
AL Understanding this I felt on the edge, and I think I understood what it would be like for someone with a borderline personality. Then I went to the hospital and they put it back on. Micro-surgery, nine hours. Remember Steve Austin the TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man, the man they can rebuild?
LK What country did this happen in?
AL Here in France. So they put it back and I woke up and I had my finger back, brain to second switch. It’s there, it moves. Ten days later the thing doesn’t work.
LK Your body rejected it.
AL Yes. Wake up, go to sleep, wake up again, finger’s gone again.
LK You mean it fell off during your sleep?
AL No! [laughter] The only department in a hospital that has an integrated psychotherapist is the orthopedic department. Why? Because if you take one kidney out you don’t see it, you look in the mirror and everything is the same. You might have a scar but it’s not an indication really. When part of the body is gone, a limb or finger, it’s very complex for the brain to accept, to live with, readjust. You feel it every day. I’ve felt it every day for 17 years. That was very radical, I was having meetings with a psychotherapist whilst in bed. Afterwards she told me, Arik, you live in your own world, you don’t know the dimension of the real world. You create your own dimensions that might be very dangerous for you. She said she did not want me to react or even to see me afterwards. I told her this was the most important thing I had heard in a long time because that justifies completely what I do with love and what I do for a living. I invent new parameters. I bring them over into reality. I dream.
LK So the new psychotherapist is your collector.
AL He has put the puzzle together.
LK You told him this story?
AL Yes. It was so clear for him. When the strings got connected I started to realize how much these things are embedded in me and how I work with them.
LK What things? This view of the world?
AL Absence, surrealism, hyperrealism, being there without being there. I have a very big project I’m working on called Body Trace. Now we sit here warming up the chairs; we are wasting calories to warm up a chair. It happens because we are warm, we are warmer than the chair. When we leave, our energy that has been stocked in the chair is emitted. It’s part of osmosis. Energy will be filling this room together with our energy, creating something here that we are not really in control of. Most likely the next person coming here will sit in your chair or in my chair. I read about psychotherapy and I’m very interested in that. I started looking for surveys in that field of how our body trace affects the next action that takes place in the space where we have been.
LK Is there psychotherapeutic literature relating to the traces of our body that are left when we are no longer there? Is there literature about that?
AL It’s embedded in literature of the notion of the Other. It’s huge in psychotherapy and psychology.
LK The Other being?
AL The Other of you.
LK The Other being the opposite of you?
AL It’s not necessarily the opposite, just the other. It’s not necessarily the opposite, but it can be the opposite. You leave a trace behind on every level, physical energy, mental…
LK I hate to be so pragmatic but does this relate back to the Rock?
AL Yes. The Rock is made by taking pieces away. It’s made by subtraction.
LK Start with a rectilinear form and you subtract from that.
AL It could be any form but I find it inside. So it’s a little a bit like typology for me. The Rock form will be recognized by its exterior, by what is not there, by what puts it into contrast, by the opposite of itself. Light is very important and so are reflections. The way light falls on the facets of the Rock will describe the surface of the rock-like object. When you say ‘rocks’ many people see different rocks. This is a ‘rock’ but you don’t see a rock, you see a form.
LK This Rockformation Set from Osmosis, here in front of me, is three Rock sculptures stacked one on top of the other.
AL This is because they are similar to crystals in nature. They have a similar formation. Only it has a biological reason for its growth. For example, a hexagon crystal will grow in a hexagon section constantly, then grow another one and another one. Its DNA is a hexagon mathematical shape. Well, I don’t have that …
LK But your Rocks are faceted like a crystal, like a stone. Like proto-crystals.
AL It could be seen that way. When you put a rock indoors, it brings nature indoors. It magnetizes nature into an apartment, into a domestic environment.
LK That’s a nice metaphor. It’s a nature magnet.
AL It has its own gravity. When you put it outdoors it looks like a meteor from another civilization, from another planet. It’s still a Rock but it’s so different to these rocks where it stands.
LK So, how do the Rocks and your finger relate to each other?
AL The Rocks and the finger relate in the fact that things are taken away. What’s left here is described by what is gone, by what is taken away.
PERFUME BOTTLES & TABLESCAPES
LK You’ve said that the Osmosis installation was set up to function as a narrative as you walk through it. Do you mean a narrative in the sense that you sequenced the things that people would see and experience, so that certain kinds of information would be processed in a specific order? Or is it an abstract narrative?
AL Well, the ‘red ribbon’ in Osmosis was to give tools to people – visuals, forms, sensations, sounds, textures, words, so that when they leave the exhibition … You see, what interests me is not what happens in the exhibition. The exhibition is me talking to them, and having them go this way and having them go out. They see the light and other things that are measured to the micromillimetre. These things are looked at. But what’s important for me is the moment you step out of the exhibition. What did you take with you? And what it comes back to is, when you see a car, do you see it now in a wire frame because you’ve just understood that a wire frame holds together surfaces somehow? Or do you see the mesh of the wire fence, and does it become textile because you can understand that mesh can be soft? This question comes to you three months later when you are doing something else. I very much try to log into the notion of memory, the souvenir of the public. I’m less interested in the moment when somebody has the desire to buy it and take it home. Of course some pieces got stolen.
LK Really? Wait, some of the small gems?
AL Yes! We have the films!
LK So when you say memory and souvenir, souvenir is the physical souvenir or the mental souvenir?
AL Both. Yes, it’s a technopoetic souvenir, it’s tactile, it’s emotional, it’s physical and visual.
LK Like the Issey Miyake perfume bottles? They’re like a block of materiality, but in photographs they look like a single bottle. Physical and visual. Earlier you were talking about proportionality and packaging and I thought, well, what does he mean? Now I see that there’s no relationship. It’s almost as if you’ve taken a loaf of bread and sliced it in various ways and the perfume containers are all …
AL Like an extrusion.
LK I don’t recall ever seeing a package like this. It feels good in the hand, like a bar of soap.
AL It’s a good metaphor for that.
LK So does a person buy one or three?
AL This shallow one you travel with, this deep one you keep at home. It made a micro-revolution in the world of perfume. Non-proportional sizing. What they would normally do is make a 50cl bottle and then make a proportionally larger scale for the 100cl bottle, like a duck family. And everyone understands that shape as a bottle.
LK So the frontal view of each bottle is the same, but if you look at the size they get thicker and thicker.
AL There’s another thing. If a block of glass has a matt finish and you break it in the middle, on the insides it’s going to be crystal clear, transparent, shiny. That’s another thing that expresses the continuity, the extrusion, the longitude, no end. This will have sides in either direction. No beginning and no end. It refers only to itself. You can’t take anything away from it and you can’t add anything to it.
LK Very different from the crystals in Osmosis. In this set in front of me there are five crystals in total, three marble and opaque, and two crystal and transparent. It looks like a toy set for adults. Is that what it is?
AL It could be a toy but I call it TableScape. TableScapes are domestic surface jewellery. When you look at one on the floor, it becomes an object, a sculpture and it dresses up the floor or the carpet or the table. It creates a centre point, a certain kind of meaning, a relationship one to the other. It’s playful. You can set it the way you want and make a landscape out of it, or a tablescape or a floorscape. You will arrange them differently than I would. It is your set up, your sculpture, your relationship with the object, your relationship with the environment.
LK It’s wonderful to feel a crystal at this scale.
AL In my installation I insisted there be people wearing gloves to hand the pieces to people to hold. It’s so central to me. Once you hold this [version in crystal], you hold that [version in wire frame]. Then you understand the absence and presence, the transparent and the opaque, the physical weight and the non-weight; the same as what happens with the marbles.
LK Why did you decide to have two crystal and three marble? The marble is like a chess piece as opposed to the crystal. You were very specific about the relationship.
AL It is the juxtaposition between marble and crystal. They are both mineral but absolutely opposite. One is transparent the other is opaque. The crystal is slightly heavier. Marble has a certain beauty by its veins and exterior, whereas crystal is about the interior. Marble swallows the light; crystal reflects. Creating that extreme was important. Also, you can’t arrange flowers by four or by six, it doesn’t work. It’s three, five, seven. It’s a similar scheme here.
LK Holding the marble and crystal in my hand they’re really quite different creatures even though they look alike.
AL Now it’s becoming morphosis. The work with Swarovski Crystal Palace is a continuity of my previous work, and a jumping board to what I’m doing now a year later. Things are connected. It’s part of my body of work. Last week in Vienna we had the Chaton Superstructure standing at the entrance to the Lichtenstein Museum, which is a beautiful 17th-century building. It was amazing for me to see for the first time the sculptures outside of their Osmosis context and in a normal environment. I was then reassured that my concept works. It brings in the shape, the crystal, without being there. It talks about technology, because this is some kind of a computer language that you don’t necessarily see. It’s there without being there. It’s transparent but it’s physically there. What struck me was that in Osmosis these were gigantic, almost abstract, superstructure frames, but next to the Lichtenstein Museum they became a chaton again because the building is so large. So these enormous objects, in the architectural landscape, become a tablescape. Like this specific set on the table in front of us. It was very nice to see how the notion of scale was important, even more important than I imagined.
THE FUTURE OF INDUSTRIAL DESIGN
LK I ran into an industrial designer on Saturday who told me how his students have no vision of the future, that they have a depressed view of the future, and he was very demoralized by this. He generalized that this was something young designers felt all over the world. I said I don’t think so.
AL It depends what you mean by the future. What did he mean by the future?
LK He is someone who likes to make products, he makes strange products. He started out by making sex toys. And you make a lot of products. Maybe is this a golden age of industrial design? Do you see it continuing like this? Or will designers become noticeable by the absence of things that they design? In other words, things begin to disappear?
AL I like the fact you started with the word absence.
LK In other words, what’s called ‘clean-tech’, which is a way of cleaning up the mess that we’ve made, which would theoretically make things disappear.
AL I think the sort of minimalism that has been created is the antithesis of what people want. It’s not what people enjoy; it’s not what people want. If I have to do an interior, it’s much easier for me to say we paint everything in white with grey stone on the floor. But if you look at buildings 50 years ago, people introduced detail, they’d zoomed in. But today it’s not done. So now, as a consequence, after 10, 15 years of contemporary minimalism, you come into these places that are boring, cold, uncomfortable. And people are going to want to get out of them. That’s the way I see it. The second thing is that I think the need for product will grow because technology is more available to smaller companies. They can now produce what they couldn’t produce 10 or 15 years ago. That means that it’s more open, that the industrial processes can help small companies develop their ideas. But if we think there are over 170,000 design graduates a year in the world and 120,000 come from China and 30,000 from Europe, maybe 20,000 from United States, the question is, where do they go? To small industry, which is the majority of industry in the world. Big industry understands the value of design, they work with designers, they already have the culture. They’ve been working with designers for the past 40, 50 years. The small companies, they don’t. First they don’t understand what we do, they don’t understand how to talk to us, they don’t understand why they have to pay us. So there’s a lot of education. The term ‘industrial design’ is very different from the term ‘design’. Twenty years ago you’d be asked, ‘What do you do?’ and you could say industrial designer and they would understand immediately that you design glasses, watches etc. Today people say ‘designer’ but you can design so many things! You have interface design, interior design, product design. The answer to your question is that the future is not totally clear, but at the same time it will be a lot more flexible than what we had. I don’t think the ‘clean-tech’ issue will take things away. On the contrary, the more tech we see, the more objects we have.
LK Are you very involved with the rhetoric, the language, that’s used to describe your end products?
LK And the functioning of it?
AL It’s necessary. For Osmosis I wrote the caption for every product, explaining it for the installation. I have a particular vocabulary, which is not always clear, but I it’s my own vocabulary.
LK It’s always poetic.
AL It takes people to another place, and I think it’s so much more simple telling somebody that it’s this-and-this metaphor and he does what he wants with it, instead of just saying ‘It’s green, it weighs 250 grams, etc.’ That’s not really the point. In this case, it was how to take the DNA of Swarovski Crystal Palace and put them together with my own genes to create a new chain that will make sense for both me, them, and the end result.
LK It was dense. There were a lot of things to look at, so many things that you were oblivious to the long walk through it.
AL That was my way of working out the installation. When you came in – and you can see it in the pictures – it looked dense and there was an overlapping of qualities and materials, a superimposed cluster of images. You’re on the carpet, the runner, but then you have the Chaton Superstructure then you walk and you have a different colour, and then you walk and you see the marble Crystal Jewels and you walk some more and you see the TableScape. But it’s true that every time you looked in the direction you were walking, you had a superimposed image of a great many things. Not to forget the composer.
LK The musical sound?
AL Yes, the sound and programming of the Interactive Arena was of major importance. To explain how it worked: at the end of the installation you walked into a darkened space where there was a video projection of wire-frame shapes based on 10 different crystal forms. And when you move into that space there was an infrared camera that captured your physical movement and sent data to a computer which applied X-amount of treatments to the crystal form being projected. In different colours, different impact and amplitude, and so on. And all these layers are interacting in a non-controlled fashion. So here, Leon Milo, the sound engineer, had to create something which has its own identity, that responds to the interactive data. The programming was like making a film, sounds with different amplitude and rhythm and sequences. So every result in space, every fraction of a second, was a result of these random things coming together. I can create new cuts through the movement of the body and the motions and the energy that one brings into the space.
LK I read that you’re dyslexic. What does that mean to you? I know one designer who says he’s dyslexic; he’s a great designer, a graphic designer, and somehow it has worked to his advantage.
AL When I was young I had trouble all through school. Constantly, all the time, which would be very difficult. With dyslexia in mathematics, for example, I can’t see the numbers as they are. Or I will not recognise the signs – multiply, divide. So the result will never be good. If I start writing your name today I would start with an ‘E’ instead of the ‘L’ and I would go to the ‘L’ and keep on writing.
LK But I noticed that you are very quick at making mathematical calculations.
AL Mentally, it works easy. One description of one type of dyslexia is that there is no coordination between the eye, the brain and the hand. The channel is not open. When everything is happening in my brain it happens in the right sphere, but the hand doesn’t follow. I can write you a letter and start writing to someone else in your letter without knowing I’m doing it.
LK This sounds vaguely similar to your phantom finger, not knowing where it is.
AL It’s all connecting! When I was in the army — of course I can’t read …
LK You can’t read?
AL It’s very, very difficult for me to read. Books. I will have several books in my bedroom and I will open them anywhere and read as much as I can. Three pages, four pages. I read very little in my life. I invent the beginning and the end of everything that I read. Because I cannot connect to those parts of the book, I can’t remember. Some times I turn the page and I don’t know what I read before. When I was a kid, they’d send me for psychological tests, intelligence tests, and everything was great. So the doctors would come and say, ‘There is nothing wrong with your kid, he’s just lazy.’ I was a lazy guy. I didn’t want to pay attention to the signs, so I didn’t make it in math or grammar, history, geography. You have to read. And remember: it’s not about understanding, you have to know when people were born and what they did. It’s impossible for me. Dates are out. So I’m there in the army and reading the weekend newspaper about a psychologist who went to America and lived there for 10 years and studied the problem of dyslexia. And she came back to Israel and described all the things she went through. In Israel we did not know about this. It was very developed in England and America, but in other countries … She described symptoms of different people she had met, and here I am reading about myself. It was sensational. I ran to the telephone, called my parents, and said, ‘It’s great, I’m dyslexic!’
LK It feels so comfortable when you have a label for your…
AL Yes! I could sum up my 12 years of school into one word! And say at the end that I am OK.
LK Is it actually a benefit, do you think?
AL It’s a great benefit. Nature pays you back by other means … The brain compensates with other skills, like a blind person has a great audible sensibility. So when I see a form in my head, I see it in 3D. It’s easy for me to draw what I see, it’s floating here. In the creative environments, between 25 and 30 per cent of people are dyslexic. Because we are blessed with a visual memory – I remember images very well, locations. At the same time, because I can’t write or read well, I have to invent my own systems. The computer has changed my life. I don’t know how to write the word, I only remember how to type it. So if you ask me to spell, I don’t know how to because I have to type it to do it.
LK So you have a sort of body memory?
AL Yes. Even before I lost a finger it didn’t make any sense when I was typing, and afterwards I was missing a letter in almost every word! I had to re-teach my body and itself how to compensate for the index finger.
DOUBT & ARTISTIC VALUES
LK We’re going to talk about another D-word that I read about: doubt.
LK I think that either you or your business partner, Pippo Leoni, said that doubt was an indispensible design tool. Can you describe a little bit about how doubt functioned in the Swarovski project?
AL When you work a lot from gut feeling, and it’s intuitive and a mixture of the way I see it as a combination of sculpture and product design, you constantly have doubts. The exhibition was so abstract that it only really became visual, or understandable, for all the other people who took part in it when they visited the actual finished space. But for me it was there all the time. I had to deal with their doubts, and with my doubts. And a doubt is a little bit like the trash can. When I have a doubt, I investigate it thoroughly. I don’t leave the doubt open. I don’t leave open ends in that respect.
LK Do you have a separate approach to sculpture and product design?
AL No. It’s the same approach, but you take other parameters into consideration.
LK What are those other parameters?
AL A product has to satisfy a certain need, or has to have justification for the many things you do in the process of making it. The way it’s made, the cost. Whereas sculpture, on the other hand, well it just is what it is.
LK So what are the criteria for sculpture? Are the Floor Jewels in Osmosis a sculpture?
AL An expression was born to me, and then I shared it. My work is about techno-poetry. Whether it’s sculpture, a video or a product.
AL I also do emotional ergonomics.
LK Emotional ergonomics. OK, techno-poetry is easy enough to understand. Emotional ergonomics?
AL It works on emotion and it emotionally works. Some emotions have parameters, which we can turn if you find the key. And some are predetermined and some are not. I can’t see many differences between the dental anaesthesia tools that I designed and the Swarovski Chaton Superstructure. There are fundamental differences.
LK What’s the difference between techno-poetry and industrial art?
AL Industrial art is making an industrial product into art, with parameters of art or being perceived as art, and vice versa. Making art by industrial means. Techno-poetry is where I use technology to make poetry. When I propose a chair or a lamp, I can say this is a light sculpture, or a sculpture with a light.
LK When it’s finished, then do you say it’s a sculpture or a product? Do you have the recognition that they’re two different categories?
AL When it’s finished I don’t think it’s separate. I think it has characteristics of which some are stronger than others. If I create a vase, I would design it in design parameters and I then charge it with the artistic parameters. The design parameters – let’s call them visibility, long-lasting, price point, answering the client’s questions, problem solving – at the same time, I would charge it …
LK You mean imbue it?
AL Give it artistic values. When the product is finished, the vase, it’s called ‘vase’. ‘Vase by__.’ And this vase is maybe to hold one flower or 200 flowers or whatever, and this is the design part. But when it’s there in the shop what I want people to think about is not the specification. I want them to say ‘Wow,’ to want to have it, to fall in love with it without reason. What I like to think is that people buy my products because they can’t resist them, fall in love with them. They want them at an obsessive level. I don’t leave out any industrial design parameters in my work, and I will invest everything I can to make a vase not only a vase. The sculptural qualities matter.
LK My favourite vases are the ones that I prefer without flowers. The potentiality of the flower exists in the idea of the empty vase, which helps complete it.
AL I always say that my products should have people thinking about something else, should project them into their own imagination, their own emotional ergonomics, and into their own souvenirs and memories. Then it works.
June 2009: Arik Levy sashays his way towards me along a dark corridor, soon to open as his Osmosis show. I say show, not exhibition, since it clearly promises to be more akin to a spectacle, an experience, than anything we usually see during Milan’s Salone del Mobile, the week-long granddaddy of all design fairs.
It has been only six years since Levy’s designs hit the public consciousness on an international level through his tabletop pieces for the Turkish firm Gaia & Gino, yet he has already amassed enough achievements for a lifetime’s work – this year he was presented with the Legion of Honour by the French government for his contributions to the arts. From perfume bottles for Issey Miyake to the award-winning Workit office system for Vitra and customising the Fiat 500, Levy works in every territory. His remit can be whatever you want it to be, so long as he has the time. He is a designer of furniture for a plethora of manufacturers (Molteni & C, Zanotta, Ligne Roset, to name a few), examples of which honour permanent collections in the world’s edgiest museums, from MoMA to the Pompidou. His custom pieces – Fractal Cloud, a system of lights, and the Rock series, highly polished, faceted table groupings – appear at the most prestigious auction houses and demand art prices. Teacher, philosopher, marketing guru and technician, his body of work includes filmmaking, photography and clothing design too (where, advancing previous technical limitations, he achieves fused seams as opposed to stitched). Levy’s skills are broad indeed and passions run deep, yet his philosophies retain a grounded innocence. Although best known for his furniture design, he nevertheless feels that the world is ‘about people, not tables and chairs’. His own life has played out in a system of dualities. ‘Life is a system of signs and symbols,’ he says, ‘where nothing is quite as it seems.’ Osmosis, his solo exhibition for Swarovski Crystal Palace, nevertheless proves, without question, that Levy is even greater than the sum of his parts.
At the Ex Magazzini di Porta Genova, a light-industrial Milanese space, painted metal-frame structures flank the entrance to the lengthy room (Levy calls it ‘a journey’, delineated by an 80m-long carpet manufactured by Tai Ping specifically for the show). The vast forms, shaped to mimic a chatoncut stone, are followed a little further along by Levy’s signature Rock tables, lightly dusted with sparkle. Further into the labyrinthine space, oversized log tables support miniature Rock magnetic sculptures, tablescapes intended for manipulation; and eventually, as a finale, an interactive sound-and-light installation that takes on the personality of its witness when animated. There is something for every one of the senses, it appears, with acute attention paid to scale. Levy’s insouciance is already readable from afar; a broad smile beams across his face as he approaches, and his alert eyes speak before he does. ‘We are not born in a vacuum, but the products of everything that has come before,’ he says, as if mid-flow. ‘We are the only real products here.’ Although a delightful sentiment, this is, thankfully, not entirely accurate: there are a few products on view – in these less heady times, it helps to recoup some of the expenditure invested in these projects, which thrill the masses attending the fair year after year. No mean feat.
Until recently, Crystal Palace in Milan (roving, not always occupying the same space) showed diverse offerings by the most influential and talented designers and architects of our times. It was originally created as a PR vehicle for the firm, but has become a more commercial enterprise of late, with most custom pieces selling immediately (Zaha Hadid’s to private collectors), if not at auction later (the Campana brothers’ at Phillips de Pury), and many translating into marketable products. Admittedly, Ross Lovegrove designed a ‘helluva’ car a few years back, but the majority of designers, throughout the years, created the more classic form of pendant chandelier. Architects Diller Scofidio’s offering had been very minimal; milliner Philip Treacy’s, unsurprisingly, not so. Each year, a dozen or more designs would be commissioned, the custom pieces then collated, and a glittering menagerie would emerge.
Then, two years ago, an epiphany. It was time to move on since, inevitably, the world was catching on, if not catching up, and the consensus was to commission specific pieces of furniture from select creatives, leaving the ostentation of chandeliers behind (at least for now). The recession looming, it made commercial sense too, since tables and chairs undoubtedly make a better impression in these leaner times than ceiling-hung lights and lustres. Fredrikson Stallard, who had already stunned audiences with their expanding Pandora chandelier (which morphed from its initial classical shape using computer-controlled gearing), joined the throng once more, this time producing floor-standing items, benches and tables; another disparate but highly successful grouping came about in the form of room sets.
The show of 2008 became a transition point for Swarovski Crystal Palace in Milan. Would it be feasible to create an entire crystal landscape? The team pondered and a few friends were consulted (I was privileged to be in the loop). Some key opinion formers in the design field encouraged the idea, thinking it would be ‘interesting’ and ‘appropriate’. Would it be risky to stage a one-man show? Of course it would, but what is there but risk in 2009? Meanwhile, and unwittingly, Israeli-born Arik Levy (who resides in Paris) was already making overtures to Swarovski. He had just had great success with his first one-man show, Absent Nature at Richard Wright’s Chicago gallery. (Incidentally, absence as a concept fascinates Levy, since he is missing various things – his country of birth, his family back home and a forefinger, from a circular-saw accident.) Everything – including audios of Arik cutting wood with an axe – had sold on the opening night. He was newly represented by transatlantic art dealer Kenny Schachter, who had shown more of Levy’s studio work in Miami to resounding plaudits. Wanting to explore the realms of natural form and the elements, the artist wished to turn his hand to crystal. Or so he thought.
In fact, what marks out Osmosis from other Crystal Palace exhibitions (this is the eighth year) is the abject lack of crystal. But in a way this comes as little surprise from Levy. ‘I like to subvert, which you can do in many different ways. Subverting is not reversal, it is more compounded,’ he explains. ‘I took the most recognisable form for a diamond, a stone, the chaton’ (indisputably the most classic stone cut – a round stone with eight facets around an octagonal table) ‘and replicated, that is all. I took the DNA of crystal and through the chaton cut made it subliminal, embedded in the conscience of everyone who sees the exhibition. It is a marketing exercise as well as emotional.’ Levy’s voice has mellow undertones and, like a true polyglot (he speaks too many languages to register), his accent is disarming and unrecognisable. His eyes do most of the talking as they dart around the room, pausing to rest on mine, accidentally, for just a little too long at times. His next sentence qualifies my thoughts: ‘Every morning I wake up and there are muscles I can control and muscles I cannot,’ he smiles, unashamedly. ‘Design is an uncontrolled muscle. I just cannot help myself.’ Caught, hook, line and sinker, I am fully engaged by the physical (perhaps the chemical) presence of the man, and feel I need to know more.
An archetypical design background does not really exist, since most creative geniuses find their way in a manner just as creative. So, in a way, Arik Levy conforms to type. Born in Tel Aviv in 1963, he aspired to surf, and surf he did, sandwiching it between his obligatory military service.
He presided over his own surf shop, where his artistry was evident from his customised board paintings as well as his action in the water. (He remains an avid surfer, taking two months out each summer.) Pragmatism eventually won him over and he enrolled as a mature student at Art Center Europe in Switzerland, where he gained a distinction in Industrial Design in 1991. Levy found his first international success winning the Seiko Epson Inc design competition, jettisoning him into the public consciousness as (by his own admission) a ‘thinking’ designer. After a stint in Japan, where Levy consolidated his ideas producing one-off pieces for exhibition, he returned to Europe where he contributed his talents to another field – contemporary dance and opera by way of set design (his then partner, and the mother of his first child, his son Reem, is a dancer – the mother of his second, his daughter Ava, is an artist).
Levy, now a ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ designer, currently works out of Paris, a stone’s throw from Père-Lachaise cemetery. Here, a 20-strong team of designers and graphic artists make up L design: ‘The creation of the firm L design,’ explains Arik, ‘meant a foray back to my initial industrial-design interest, but acted as a springboard for further interest.’ The firm also produces brand identities under the vision of Levy’s associate, Pippo Lionni, son of the great Leo Lionni, an illustrator who held positions as graphicdesign consultant to Olivetti and MoMA in Manhattan as well as professor of design at the Cooper Union (just for the symmetry, Leo’s father was a diamond-cutter, too). Pippo’s pedigree and graphic talents have made for a happy union with Arik’s understanding of materials, form and space. For Pippo symbols are literal, for Arik, figurative, metaphoric. Together they strive to make sense of the world.
We are sitting together before embarking upon the Osmosis journey, and Levy takes out a journal written during installation. The ink is only just dry. He says I am the only one to see it, and I believe him. Levy is quite dyslexic, which is why he says he did not do too well at school proper, but his (corrected) written words are an insight into his process: ‘Installation third day – It is the most delicate moment of the installation for me, where I have to place the pieces and create the experience. It is a hard match between the last four months of imagining it and making the reality. The space is apparently 40cm narrower. That changes the proportions of the entire installation in my mind…’ The clinician is in the house, it seems. Then, suddenly: ‘but it feels like the Swarovski Crystal Palace lab, super-confidential development centre where projects take place and new genetic compositions come to life … like the Q labs in the James Bond films’.
Are these the ramblings of a tired man at the end of the creative tunnel, or incisive stuff? Who knows? What impresses me most is his humility, that he lays himself bare so readily. It is very endearing. I understand why the entire industry wishes to keep his company.
As we begin to walk through his garden, his eyes settle as he recounts his own journey since the initial visit to Swarovski in Wattens. ‘I said to Nadja that she had to take me to HQ and we had to look at the machines and the methods of cutting together. She had to show me everything that would be possible.’ This was the departure point for both, since the trip to Austria meant they could visit the firm’s development lab and talk to the engineers. Together they explored the history. ‘I saw the first cutting machine and the innovations that can come from being a master cutter, and I realised it was the process, not the product, that fascinated me the most. If we were in Carrara it would have been marble, but still it was my aim to explain and represent the precision of the process, the technical side.’ As it happens, many of the pieces in Osmosis have been cut from marble.
‘It had to be seen in the most contemporary way, the process of cutting being so advanced in itself, so we had to produce a collection of symbols that would give understanding to the process. They could be 2D, 3D or 4D, but all would stem from the DNA of crystal – and our comment would be about the expression of the cut.’ Levy further explains how, on seeing the transformation of stone to cut stone during the process, he desired to transform the perception of Crystal Palace in Milan. ‘I wanted to talk about evolution, not crystals, and the greatest power of Swarovski is its innovation.’ So ironically, the superior cutting techniques, having been the starting point of the thought process, had little to do with the end product. Things had most definitely moved on.
We walk past two hefty marble chaton forms positioned with grace on the Lurex-inflected carpet. The space between each form is so evidently considered, the scale midway between the small hand-held pieces adorning the logs and the superstructures at entry and the comfort zone, where visitors can actually climb inside a padded-felt version of a cut stone (not chaton form this time, but faceted nonetheless). ‘The large pieces are of a scale where they seem to look at you,’ Levy ponders. ‘Stones are usually scrutinised since they are miniature, but now they are monoliths.’
Sceptics might say the lack of crystal was the only way to produce such an enormous array of objects and structures at a single sitting, both from a financial and a practical standpoint. But it is clear that the show stems from a contemporary translation of the material in the hands of highly skilled technicians, and it marks a welcome move from the literal to the metaphorical. I have always adhered to the notion that architects and designers strive for a solution to a problem. What is refreshing here is that there seems to have been nothing to solve, just an empty space (handselected by Arik, of course, on one of numerous reconnaissance trips), an honest approach, a sound thought process and carte blanche.
Levy admits the aim was to stay close to nature but to exhibit the macro with the micro, the primitive alongside technology, the raw with the purified, and ‘space translated to outer space’. Fashion designer Neil Barratt, who attended the opening night, would certainly agree, having described the experience as ‘Very Gattaca, very Star Wars.’ Fredrikson Stallard also visited the show on the opening night; Ian Stallard insisted ‘it is important Crystal Palace keeps evolving’, while Patrick Fredrikson pointed out that ‘the only interesting point of design remaining today is to explore materials,’ adding, ‘after all, great design is about ideas, not things’.
It is clear we have entered into a new era for Crystal Palace through the virtual crystal world created by Levy and his collaborators. In the face of such unbridled expansion, Levy’s desire to maintain strict values typifies his intuitive and intelligent approach. His conceptually rigorous work is highly regarded by the cognoscenti, and it was a delight to see many of them show up to bear witness. I have my own five minutes with the star on opening night and suggest, as an afterthought over a canapé, biomimicry, an ancient concept recently returning to scientific thought that examines nature – its models, systems, processes and elements – and emulates them to solve human problems sustainably (biomimetics being the process of understanding and applying biological principles to human designs). We are certainly not alone now, but his attention is right there and Levy’s oft-relaxed brow looks quizzical as the inner polyglot takes over; ‘That is exactly what it is,’ he says. ‘Bios – life, and mimesis – imitate.’
Frankly, I no longer know if I am conversing with a scientist, an artist or a linguist, although I can say he is a decent kinda fella. ‘I am a unique combination from 46 million genetic possibilities,’ he clarifies.
Well, so be it.
This article was first published in Rocks Swarovski Design Biannual, Autumn-Winter 2009.
October 2009: The first time I witnessed Arik Levy address an audience was in New York, a few years back. Seated in the auditorium, my reaction was just the same as the responses of those around me, a mass response Arik had successfully manufactured. A few minutes into the talk, having shown slides of the things he loves, including his nonagenarian grandmother’s lined face and the corner of his parent’s wholly undesigned sitting room in Tel Aviv, he wooed around 200 of us into closing our eyes and asked us to (mentally) describe the chairs we sat upon. Not even the design aficionados grouped for this event had noticed anything but its ‘colour’ (actually black), but suddenly we were feeling the chair, since we did not have the option to use the other senses. The chair, previously unnoticed and essentially comfortable – and therefore successful, in my book – took on a new persona, giving great unease as we guiltily moved backwards and forwards, sensing its girth and its pitch. Arik had eliminated the one sense we tend to use to judge a product, forcing us towards another, and had rendered the chair uncomfortable with a single verbal suggestion. It was the audience, however, that was uncomfortable, not the chairs themselves. He had made us more aware of our surroundings, not only for that moment, but from then on (this slice of time certainly had resonance in my life). Levy’s own life, I know now, is a series of eliminations; his inherent sense of lacking has forced the artist to express himself using alternative senses and a different and varied visual vocabulary.
The writer John Berger talks about ‘ways of seeing’, that seeing comes before words (a child sees and recognises before speaking – a simple example being a violinist at the Suzuki school playing Vivaldi by ear) and that what we see is influenced by a series of assumptions. In the above case, sight was eliminated too, and the physical and sensory process was instigated by words. It was interesting.
Arik Levy is playful with his process of elimination; what he reveals through Osmosis is his desire to encourage (in some cases, to insist) that his audience sees/feels/hears things differently. He carefully dismantles the comfort zone; the Chaton Superstructures are vast but empty, skeletal and awkwardly light – by contrast the marble ‘stones’ seem immovable, heavy, permanent. Osmosis is a journey, not entirely settling or familiar, but one you wish to complete – with fascinations along the way.
Journeys are curious, since they span space and time and take different paths (Candide’s brought him to his garden, his opinions and actions almost entirely determined by the influence of outside factions; Cervantes just kept going) and Osmosis is characteristic of man’s most fundamental journey, the journey towards light. Man is phototropic: he seeks light literally as well as metaphorically as he desires to make sense of the world around him. Through a single idea, a symbol – the most familiar cut of stone – Levy has managed to introduce myriad ways of looking at our world. The chaton is his device, through contrasting materials, weights and sizes (he even encloses and insulates us within one). There could be no simpler and more effective visual vocabulary. It is true that what we see and what we know is never settled, but ultimately what we see is affected by what we know, what we believe, and what we have – or have not. Suzanne Trocmé
Crystals as concepts and playing with our notion of mass: beyond human scale, the Chaton Superstructures are open baskets, ‘but baskets containing nothing but an idea, empty space’, according to Levy. When a crystal cut becomes a monument, it takes on an otherworldly persona. Positioned as larger-than-life guards to Osmosis, their presence is daunting as these spatial basket sculptures explore the relationship between architecture, space and object, where the abstract expression of the crystal-cut chaton transforms into a structure either viewed as a whole, as a piece of architecture, or peered into and then beyond; ‘an inside/ outside space is thus created, expressing the 3D data of the cut graphically’. Superstructures can become any size and expand in volume with the addition of more arms and joints, not dissimilar to Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, and as installation pieces adapt to different scale – the French government plans to install a significant version in a public space in central Paris, since, like many elements of Paris, the Chaton Superstructures embrace our perception of both ancient and modern ideals.
Created from standard aluminium tubes, the aluminium joints, however, are cast specifically for each installation. The grey structures are epoxy painted and the bright red coated in three layers of fluorescent paint. The dimensions of the Osmosis Superstructures span 5 metres in diameter and 3 metres in height, taking a construction team 5 hours to install; they have an expandable capability of up to 20 metres in diameter, thus creating massive internal volume. Levy anticipates witnessing an expanded version noting that the expanded mass will dwarf the current version. Laws of physics, biological pattern and chemical formulae are all considerations within the artist’s work. In contrast to, and to juxtapose the weightlessness of the Chaton Superstructures, alongside, huge master-cut marble chaton forms are positioned ‘as floor-scattered fragments of some vast marble necklace’. ST
CRYSTAL CUT STONE RUGS
Continuing the signature chaton motif, as well as a few geometric departures, Crystal Cut Stone Rugs serve to ‘travel between art and technology, design and engineering, reflection and light’ and glisten with metallic fibre incorporated into the carpet constructions. Innovative yarns mesh with silk, wool and cotton to create a hybrid of age-old techniques and newer technology, with the crystal element represented by graphic patterns either woven into the carpet or cut into the pile.
An element serving to ground the series of installations and a result of Levy’s multi-disciplinary approach – a continuing collaboration between the firm Tai Ping and Arik Levy – Crystal Cut Stone Rugs have evolved following the same creative principles applied to the artist’s work with Swarovski Crystal Palace. They combine hand-tufted patterns, where designs are hand-carved into the rugs, as well as woven Axminster designs woven by the yard.
Originally designed to delineate the exhibition space in Milan at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the carpets can adapt for residential and commercial use. The main walkway of Osmosis takes an 80m-long Axminster path as its runner, using a repeating pattern, while other gems, the smaller, irregularly shaped custom rugs of the collection, serve as islands to support other crystal-inspired sculptures. A considered collection of master-crafted rugs, each delivers a single stone cut motif. In their design, the transition between the twodimensional and three-dimensional is made possible using handmade and machine-crafted processes.
The expression of the crystal cut is transformed to geometric patterns via yarn and fibre evoking the trompe l’oeil effect. Levy’s optical play with the carpets gives further depth to the fabric of the installation whilst the textures bring a visual softness as well as sound proofing qualities – the use of fabric within the RockChamber and the carpets help dampen any sound that might have tried to ricochet: ‘The installation manipulates all senses,’ says Levy. ST
Osmosis is punctuated by numerous objects along its path, elements creating diversion from the principal anchor points: ‘Moving from wire frame to plain micro textures of the same shape is like working as a researcher unraveling genetic codes,’ says Levy, as he moves from the majestic to the minutiae. Displayed upon vast log tables created from trees felled by the artist himself, accessories adorn the scene including a tempting series entitled Rockformation Set which Levy imagines as ‘meteorites transported through the atmosphere, crashing on earth, charged with a magical magnetic force.’ Hand-sized, when manipulated to mould sculptural forms, a modern-day executive toy, ‘the interaction and numerous compositions generate emotional attachment,’ according to the artist.
A sycamore-lined wooden box with contrasting black lacquer finish contains the nickel-plated polymer and iron composite ‘Earth’ magnets that make up the composition. The Rockformation Set (2009) has been designed in three sizes, small, medium and large.
The TableScape Jewellery (2009) cut from marble in chaton form, is also presented in a sycamore-lined wooden box with black lacquer finish. Hand-polished, the 5-axis milled Carrara marble pieces measure 9 cm in diameter. In addition, TableScape Jewellery exists in Swarovski crystal with copper and silver-shade coating, internally laser-etched with Swarovski logo. Here, the relationship between the opacity of the marble and the transparency of the crystal creates a dynamic tension between the pieces. Intended as direct antithesis of each other, the marble and crystal TableScape pieces are nevertheless ‘both representative of mineral’.
In order to further reduce the sense of density, ‘to empty an element of the composition’, Levy also created TableScape Jewellery in wire frame, presented similarly, but where the wire frame has been made using 3D stereolithography rapid prototyping, electrically finished with copper and nickel.
As dramatic table-top centrepoint, CrystalDiamond Fusion embodies Levy’s message with regards to genetic manipulation; the most contemporary apparition, crystal’s DNA has been engineered to create a chemist’s crystalline structure of the chaton form – a modern sculpture in composite, created using sintering processes. ‘By forming a bridge between technology and craft, nature and man-made processes are fused together.’ ST
CHATON WIRE-FRAME LIGHT
‘Carbonised’ skeletal structures in wire become suspended lights. Arik Levy explains: ‘Light emits from the inside. When viewed from the outside, the light source, the bulb, is not obliterated but positioned as a detonator – it represents a raw crystal that has been injected into the virtual form.’
Traditional lights have shades, modern versions skins of some sort. The Chaton Wire-frame Light offers a subtle suggestion of a volume of a pendant light itself, but it is laid bare, stripped of all extraneous detail, a bare bulb its only humanity.
As suspended sculpture, the mass of pendant lights together creates a depth of vision above head-height as they are hung in a highly considered manner, appearing to float. As individual forms, although empty, the lights create a median as products within the macrocosm of Levy’s world where Chaton Superstructures represent the oversized and TableScape Jewellery, the miniature. Chaton Wire-frame Lights act to visually enhance the density of the floor-bound marble pieces, as well as the smaller pieces made from crystal, composite and marble.
When playing with scale it is not the size that matters, necessarily, but the combination of sizes, the quantity of pieces, and the relationship between the volumes of form. A mathematical puzzle, Levy has found a visual balance between all of the masses within Osmosis, whether vacant or dense, that nevertheless manages to represent abnormality.
Abnormality exists in Osmosis in the notion of vacancy in general, in the notion of the missing crystal, specifically. ST
RockChamber is symbolic of Arik Levy’s cosmology, and an attempt to enclose his audience, to make order out of their own, possibly uneasy (the sense of scale) or at least eventful, experience within Osmosis; to rationalize, to help give comfort when other elements around might appear chaotic or at least uncontrollable. RockChamber is a place in which to ponder.
Seeing it as a ‘meteor in the form of a raw crystal, carbonized … just appearing on Earth’ and as ‘a retreat into a man-made contemporary cave’, the artist envelops his audience within a crystal form, itself an ancient natural shape, although contemporarily chiseled.
A double-skinned faceted structure, the exterior, charcoal painted wood, the interior padded, in felt fabric (by Kvadrat), RockChamber measures 9 x 3.7 metres. ST
‘The best source of inspiration is in the observation and experience of nature,’ says Arik Levy. ‘It is a great starting point for rethinking the conceptual framework and process of design.’ Nature – its forms, structures and organising principles – has been a constant resource for designers bent on transforming our built environment. In recent years, however, the interest in nature has intensified within all fields of architecture and design, as more ambitious modelling software and digital tools afford a greater range of possibilities to explore the relationship between mankind and the environment. Designers are harnessing biotechnology, bionics and biomimicry in a search for innovative new design methods that help us understand and engage with the world around us.
For Levy, nature is the starting point for both an ideological and a theoretical approach to creation. Levy harnesses state-of-the-art and more low-tech production methods to develop unique designs, marked by a personal visual language that evokes nature but is made through industrial means. He subverts convention, producing work that is extremely familiar and yet strangely unfamiliar, thereby prompting investigation. In the Black Honey fruit bowl created for MGX Materialise, for example, Levy borrows the intricate structure of a honeycomb to create a striking piece of tableware. Made from epoxy resin, the design has the translucency and tactile qualities of a honeycomb, giving the illusion that the bowl is quite fragile when it is in fact a robust construction made using stereolithography – a rapid-prototyping technology. No less imaginative in design, although made using a more traditional method, Levy’s ceramic Tribe Collection vases for the Italian company Bitossi also suggest natural forms, calling to mind the branches of trees. And yet, they could equally allude to the plastic tubing that removes waste water from buildings. This is exactly Levy’s point. By borrowing visual and tactile cues that elicit memories of other things – both natural and man-made – Levy challenges assumptions about industrial production and questions the cultural and social signifiers that define the objects that frame our daily lives. Levy is unequivocal in his desire to find contemporary references for his work in an effort to ensure his output speaks to the time in which it was made.
Driven by an intuitive approach, Levy perceives industrial design as a creative and cultural endeavour, rather than merely problem-solving. This belief aligns him with such designers as Ettore Sottsass, whose vibrant output from the 1970s and 1980s strove to evoke an emotional and intellectual response in the user. However, Levy’s minimalist agenda has more in common with artists such as Donald Judd, for whom the selection of colour, materials, construction methods and the arrangement of forms was an empirical process – a study in the perception of the work based on its relationship to the viewer and the space in which it is placed. This line of enquiry has become a constant for Levy, who enjoys experimenting with work – from table-top creations to objects at an architectural scale – whose multiple layers of meaning are only apparent when juxtaposed with the spaces, objects and people around them.
Unlike designers who favour industrial production over limited editions, Levy is happy to play against the rules, developing work that sits on the threshold of art and design. He avoids such distinctions, based on what he perceives as outmoded definitions of design, and works on both client commissions and self-initiated projects for companies globally. His diverse range of projects includes tableware for Gaia & Gino in Turkey, furniture for Ligne Roset and Molteni & C, glassware for Baccarat in France, office interiors for Vitra in Switzerland and a perfume bottle for Issey Miyake in Japan. Distinguished by its intellectual and technical rigour, coupled with a high degree of craftsmanship, Levy’s diverse output confirms his position as one of the most interesting practitioners of his generation.
The natural world is also the motivation behind Levy’s most ambitious commission to date, a series of works created for Swarovski Crystal Palace titled Osmosis. Levy – a surfer dude hailing from Israel, now based in Paris – dons a daily uniform of high-performance gear of his own design, which appears better suited to the French Alps than the charmed world of expensive gemstones. However, he has adapted to this new terrain with ease. Swarovski has even proven to be the kind of patron that Levy thrives on. Working to commission, he has been able to establish a laboratory-like situation in which he can experiment without the constraints of industry to challenge traditional design criteria and ways of making.
It isn’t the glamour factor of working with crystals or their sparkly characteristics that appeals to Levy. Although their familiar formal qualities, mesmeric to most, have provided a rich source of reference in his work, it is the larger narrative implied by crystals – their place in the social and cultural make-up of contemporary life, as well as their visual references to forms found in nature – that he is most interested in exploiting. Invited by Swarovski to explore the essential properties of crystals, Levy confounded expectations by showing everything but a crystal. Instead he developed a series of unique compositions of different sizes that alluded to crystals or rock formations but were in fact made from wood, resin, stainless steel, aluminium wire and LEDs. ‘The chaton-cut or diamond-shaped crystal is a form that everyone understands,’ he says. ‘By using this form in a new context, I wanted to provoke people to see it anew and understand the significance of our relationships with objects.’ Levy also achieved what would have been impossible with actual crystals – work at an architectural scale – with some pieces spanning 5 metres. The pieces pose a new set of relationships between the object and the viewer. The faceted planes of rock-like stainless-steel seating elements seem to dissolve into the space by virtue of their reflective surfaces, which assume the character of the surroundings and reflect the movement of people. Crystals fabricated from metal wire look like the first stage of a three-dimensional digital rendering, in which the form is stripped down to its basic outline. ‘I have long been interested in creating work that on the one hand is very present, and on the other hand has an immaterial quality that encourages the user to use their own imagination to complete the story,’ says Levy. ‘It is almost more important what you don’t see, rather than what you do,’ he asserts. The elemental quality of these objects is confirmed by the unfinished appearance of a wire frame or the intangible materiality of a reflective surface. Only when viewers engage with the objects do they fully understand their structural integrity.
Building on an earlier series of works entitled Absent Nature – commissioned by Wright auction house in Chicago and exhibited there in 2008 – this new series of rocks affirms Levy’s interest in creating work that has an elusive quality. He encourages a fundamental re-examination of the objects we come across daily and their relationship to the user, underscoring the work’s semantic content and removing it from previously assigned ideas of how it should look and function. By blowing up crystals and rock-like structures to a human scale, rather than simply something to be examined between thumb and forefinger, Levy focuses our attention on the formal character of these works – their sculptural qualities, reflective surfaces and material properties – and in doing so questions their cultural significance. As Levy concludes, ‘I am interested in finding a generic code for my work which people connect to immediately.’ The result is a potent portfolio of projects.
Having completed the sound design and programming for Arik Levy’s Osmosis exhibition, I am thinking about the choices that we made. The choice of sounds, their qualities and their origins. The density of textures and how they fill a space. The way in which the transformation of these sounds might enhance a viewer’s perception of an object, and the ways to accompany an image that reacts to one’s every move.
Osmosis is the latest in a series of installations with Levy, starting more than a decade ago, in which we explore and play with the relationships between art, design, sound and space. But this installation was different. Unique in its enormity and unique in its amplitude. Unique in the variety of objects, as well as in their variations of form, texture, colour and function. My part in this 800sqm exhibit was to create an interactive sound world to accompany an interactive, floating, 3D image of a multi-faceted crystal. These same sounds would also become the audio environment for the entire exhibit.
Walking through the installation, we come into a space made especially for interactive video, in constant transition. A geometry formed and reformed, exploded and reconfigured by the presence and movement of people. A model of transition, from one state to another, and a game allowing us to take part in the creativity and transformation of elements. I often think of objects (and spaces) as being resonant, tending towards a certain type of sonic ambience. When conceiving a sound environment for an exhibition such as this – imagining ways to help viewers feel a physical and emotional link with their experiences – I let intuition be my guide. I imagine sound, textures or sonic spaces driven by a feeling or an abstract idea. It may be a suggestive shape, an ambience or simply a quality of light. The sounds give the impression that the objects themselves are in vibration – as if the molecule’s movements were being scanned by a giant sonic microscope.
The original sounds for Osmosis came mostly from samples of glass, resonant crystal, ice, rock, earth movement and various bowed metal instruments recorded in my studio. At first extremely quiet and subtle, the sounds become huge when modified by two harmoniser software treatments, changing the pitch, length, sound quality and frequencies by way of movements captured by a video camera. Completely fluid, these sounds become super versions of what they were originally, as if changing from cold to hot, brittle to flexible, liquid to solid.
Eight stereo sound banks play back the treated audio at different speeds, with four-channel panning, volume and the mix of pure and treated sounds depending on the number of people and level of movement in the viewing area. As the public moves and plays with the image, the sound follows with different intensities and varying qualities. This sound is audible in the distance on either side throughout the exhibition, giving us a preview of what is to come. When visitors finally make their way through the path of Levy’s larger-than-life creation, they find themselves confronted with – but in control of – this huge shape in space.