Arkitektura Assembly:  Bringing together the world of Design

DESIGN IN MIND: Omer Arbel

We sat down with Omer Arbel during his recent visit to San Francisco to speak at the Arkitektura Assembly design series. With a European philosophy, North American can do attitude and a maker’s spirit, Omer Arbel has led his design manufacturing brand, Bocci, from humble beginnings to global success. The Vancouver based Arbel and his studio epitomizes a new breed of design entrepreneur, integrating disciplines and sensibilities from industrial design, architecture, manufacturing and the tacit understanding of materials and process that comes from artisanal production.

Listen here to our conversation with Omer Arbel or subscribe to the podcast through iTunes. Take the conversation with you and keep Design In Mind.

Below is a transcription of the Design In Mind interview with Omer Arbel.


Arkitektura:
Hi Omer.

Omer Arbel:
Hi.

Arkitektura:
Its pleasure to meet you. I read a lot of interviews [on you], that’s kind of the way I do my research and, as I found out off mike, I understand that you moved from Jerusalem, it said online at the age of eight but in fact it was thirteen.

Omer:
Thirteen.

Arkitektura:
And can you just tell me a little about having been born in Jerusalem and what that experience was like to move to Canada?

Omer:
To Canada. It was a tremendous shock at first I have to say, I didn’t really understand how much of a shock until a lot later because as teenager, immediately I immersed myself in Canadian culture and very quickly became kind of a Canadian version of myself, which I continued to build on, as you do when you’re in your teens and only later did I understand that it’s, that it’s actually quite a different, quite a completely different personality than the first sort of thirteen years of my life, that developed over the first thirteen years of my life including almost different ethics and different aesthetics. And only in recent years have I started to understand that those two live together, those two kind of versions of myself are both present, not just the Canadian one.

Arkitektura:
I know it’s fascinating. I come from a similar background, I mean I was born here but I witnessed my mom, particularly my mom, move from a very different culture of Lebanon into America and in your case Canada and, you know, you straddle these two cultures within yourself and its only later do they start emerging in these different ways.

Omer:
Yes.

Arkitektura:
So, when you say the Canadian version, what was that version?

Omer:
Well, it’s kind of a typical immigrant story in a way. You feel like you have to, even in a subconscious way as a child, you feel like you have to kind of fit, you have to fit, you want friends, you want a girlfriend, you want all these things, you want to listen to the music that everyone else is listening to and this kind of stuff. And there’s a whole set of almost, as I would say, subconscious associations that you have from a different place. Even just the iconography of the world around you, and the allegories and symbols that pop into your consciousness. They remind you of different things than what they remind everyone else, you know, even just your association with color or light, the quality of light or even things like air. I remember very clearly when I first moved to Canada thinking that the people around me were not aware of air as a kind of quality. I always went into these rooms in Canada and thought all the air in here is terrible, the air is terrible, and no one seemed to even register that as a criteria for comfort, the quality of the air. And I used to gravitate to these rooms that had cross ventilation and had two windows, so that air would pass through movement, the air moved and I felt more comfortable but then I realized it’s not a really Canadian priority, partially because of the cold environment and partially because of their construction. The majorities of the buildings there are newer and have HVAC systems. But these kinds of realizations, they’re so minor in a way but on the other hand they are just enormous in terms of your perception of your environment.

Arkitektura:
It’s so true, I mean and they are not the things that you can necessarily be conscious of. Just like you said, they kind of seep into your subconscious and you find these different ways to comfort yourself like opening two windows.

Omer:
Yes.

Arkitektura:
You mentioned all these various things [in your past interviews] and I actually looked up Jerusalem glass.

Omer:
Oh yes?

Arkitektura:
Yes, because I wanted to see what kind of glass were you exposed to, since glass is something you are fascinated by and I imagine it must have been quite different from the glass that is here.

Omer:
I never even came across any glass in my childhood, not that I remember in any particular way. I don’t even remember a single instance of seeing a glass blower in my childhood.

Arkitektura:
I didn’t see a glass blower until, gosh, maybe three years ago. So, I definitely didn’t see any in my childhood either. That’s a unique thing to see.

Omer:
True.

Arkitektura:
It’s a magical thing to see.

Omer:
Agreed.

Arkitektura:
What was that first experience for you when you saw a glass blower? Do you remember?

Omer:
Glass blower! Yes, and it was actually relatively recent. Up until maybe two or three years ago, very close to our studio, there was a sort of artisanal art glass studio very close to us and I biked by there everyday and its very interesting and in the summer time they open the garage door because its so hot and the kilns make so much heat and I would just look and just lurk, basically lurk, lurk [behind] these glass blowers and it was, I had a kind of double feeling. First of all, I loved it because it’s such a seductive material, its syrupy, kind of honey like quality…

Arkitektura:
Sensuous in a way…

Omer:
Extremely. And it’s a glowing orange, in this warm orange beautiful color, and also the fact that it’s very clearly affected by physical phenomena in a very direct way, like the direction of air flow, the rate of air flow or temperature can change its color as it cools, all these things. These were observations I made as I looked at these people working. But also there was an element of intimidation, I have to say, because it’s such an ancient craft and because people have been doing it for so long and because my focus and obsession is always kind of to turn craft on its head or manipulate craft in service of other goals. And so I really became quite intimidated, almost to the point of paralyses, when I first saw glass blowing because I thought how will I ever innovate in this environment where these people have been doing this for thousands and thousands of years in these various specific ways. How will I ever invent a technique because I always strive to invent new techniques or new ways of working with a material? So that was like a really paralyzing, sort of intimidating, moment when I first saw them.

Arkitektura:
Which for creative people is probably exciting too.

Omer:
Oh yes. It was kind of a challenge.

Arkitektura:
I love all this problem solving that happens with creative people, you know, they say, how am I going to achieve this thing that I want? It’s really scientific, I mean if you don’t have an aesthetic tendency you can end up becoming a scientist.

Omer:
Yes, often I think that could have been a different path for my life, yes.

Arkitektura:
Being a scientist?

Omer:
Yes, a chemist or a biologist.

Arkitektura:
Yes. Because it’s all about the sort of exploring: how does this work and how can it be done differently? How can you do something new? How can you discover something? When people are doing their PhDs, it’s all about doing something different than anyone else has done, which is a challenge.

Omer:
Yes.

Arkitektura:
But you did do something?

Omer:
Well, I don’t know, I don’t know. Now, I don’t have an extensive enough knowledge of the craft to evaluate how new it is relative to things that other people have done over the years and also the history of glass blowing, as I say, is thousands of years old so I don’t actually know but it feels new and it definitely was. It required a tremendous amount of collaboration with the glass people to develop the technique that we invented. That I think we invented. I mean it was born out of a very naïve question, which is born out of an observation which is [this]: Most of glass blowing, 90% of things that people do with glass, involves the pushing of air into a glass matrix and then manipulating it in various ways. The question that I had looking at these glass blowers was what happens if we just do the opposite, if we pull air out of the piece? That’s just a pure reversal, like a kind of almost on the level of a kind of childish thought I would even say. It’s like what if we do the opposite, almost like a kind of rebellious kind of thing like, ‘oh, you guys are pushing air and what if we pull it out?’.

That’s how it started and then from there on it just became a technical challenge that I had to work through in collaboration with these really excellent crafts people because it takes a lifetime to know glass and I don’t have a lifetime to devote to glass so I had to really rely on very, very excellent and very experienced crafts people to work on what that means: How can you pull air out of glass and have that be the form giving attribute of the work? So, in other words, in order to do that of course you have to first push air in. That’s the first thing and then because glass is responsive to heat, you can manipulate its responsiveness by how long you keep it out of the kiln. So, we blow a bubble conventionally and we let it cool and as it cools it becomes inert formally. So, imagine instead of being a syrupy thing that’s kind of flopping around it becomes actually a bubble. Now there’s a window of time that past which it’ll crack. If you leave it out for too long, it breaks. But in that window of time, what we do is we apply heat locally to patches on the outside of the piece. So, imagine a completely cold sphere with red hot patches that drop colorful glass into the patches, really, really hot glass, and then reverse the direction of the air flow. So, then the first glass blower starts by pulling the air out of the piece, thus creating a vacuum inside of the original sphere produced. The only glass that can react to the vacuum is the hot glass so there’s an implosion, like hot glass implodes basically inwards, and that’s how we came up with the form and that each one is completely unique, you can’t repeat the process. It’s basically like a frozen moment in a process of implosion and then we quickly put them in the oven so that they anneal and could catch it.

Arkitektura:
Like magic, it’s like magic.

Omer:
It feels like that –

Arkitektura:
And yet, very technical, it’s both.

Omer:
It’s a technique, it’s a technique of making and if we are successful I think that’s what we have to contribute. And we don’t even design. In a way, we are not even designers. All we do is kind of develop techniques of making.

Arkitektura:
Experimenters.

Omer:
Yes. We experiment with materials and we develope ways of manipulating them that are in service of what we consider important aesthetic intentions and then the technique just makes the form. You know, it almost like it’s not us anymore, it’s just the technique.

Arkitektura:
It’s fascinating, it’s fascinating. And you have a cut on your finger, did that happen from glass?

Omer:
This happened from cooking.

Arkitektura:
Which is also experimentation.

Omer:
Which is like a condensed version of the same thing.

Arkitektura:
You know, what’s interesting is that, this is a connection that I am making, I don’t know if you’ll make the same one but [what’s interesting is] to use this ancient medium of glass and to bring something very contemporary to it. It’s kind of like you are coming from this ancient culture, I mean Jerusalem.

Omer:
Yes.

Arkitektura:
Ancient.

Omer:
Yes.

Arkitektura:
And then to have transitioned into something very contemporary, like Vancouver. That transition that you made in your life kind of mirrors the way you’re experimenting with this ancient form.

Omer:
Yes, I never even thought of it but I could see it.

Arkitektura:
It’s interesting.

Omer:
No it’s true. Vancouver is 128 years old.

Arkitektura:
How’s old is Jerusalem?

Omer:
About thousands and thousands of years old.

Arkitektura:
It’s incredible.

Omer:
I have never thought about that but that’s an interesting point.

Arkitektura:
Particularly for cultures that move to this part of the world [from one] that [has] a lot of history, it’s a dramatic shift.

Omer:
Yes.

Arkitektura:
And how do you bring that history back into your life in some ways is, I think, the question that exists for people in that circumstance. So let’s go back to your childhood: You came here when you were thirteen and sister was eleven.

Omer:
Yes.

Arkitektura:
And is she creative?

Omer:
No.

Arkitektura:
No, she’s scientific maybe?

Omer:
She’s a…

Arkitektura:
A lawyer.

Omer:
Yes! She’s a legal academic.

Arkitektura:
And, how about your parents?

Omer:
My father is a lawyer also, practiced in Jerusalem and now he’s turned into a sound engineer so he gets to play around with these kinds of big microphones I was speaking into. In Canada he does post-production sound for movies and TV.

Tania:
Wow, that’s a huge change.

Omer:
A huge transition, yes, in life.

Tania:
Was that like he had dreamt of being a person that worked in film or sound but he felt like he should become a lawyer?

Omer:
No, it was circumstantial, I would even say. We came to Canada, he had this the right the combination of a situation that just presented itself and he fell into this role and there’s almost, what appears almost like kind of fateful in a way. And my mother teaches, she’s a professor at UBC, which is the University of British Columbia, the local university that we have here and she’s a — here area of expertise is ancient Mesopotamian Mythology and Mysticism.

Tania:
Interesting, wow. Are you interested in those sorts of things too?

Omer:
Of course yes, sure.

Tania:
So how do you …what do you like?

Omer:
First things ever written is fascinating, very archetypical stories, very very archetypical stories about what it means to be human, you know, the struggle towards immortality and these kinds of big themes, how do we that.

Tania:
It’s fascinating.

Omer:
Gilgamesh is one-third God, two-thirds human. How is that? Just thirds? That doesn’t make any sense! Quarters make sense!

Tania:
Yes.

Omer: So it’s like how can you be a third of something, it doesn’t make sense! So his story is kind of a struggle towards immortality, which ultimately completely fails and then he has reconcile himself to what it means to be a person.

Tania:
Do you think that you, being a creative person, the things that you do creatively, do you think they strive for the same of sort of thing, the sense of immortality?

Omer:
I wonder about that, I have asked myself about that. I don’t know if that’s ever really a conscious thing that I strive for. I definitely think it would be great. I’ve always wanted to do one or two really great works. I thought that would be great way to sort of spend your life as to do something great, at least one great thing, and I don’t know, I don’t know. When I was young, I thought that would be a building. I still think they might end up being buildings. My background is architecture. I come into design circuitously. So what does that mean? Is that some sort of, I don’t know, is that sort of a reach towards immortality? I don’t know. Why do people make things? It’s a big question. Especially things that have no or little usefulness.

Tania:
Or sometimes people don’t make things but then they put their names onto things for immortality.

Omer:
Right.

Tania:
You know, like buildings.

Omer:
Sure.

Tania:
Benches.

Omer:
Yes. Things like that, yes, that’s right. I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Tania:
So you don’t feel like you…

Omer:
Need to live forever! (laughter)

Tania:
No, no, well everyone feels that. I mean I hope so. I don’t know…Some people probably don’t want to live forever. I bet you a lot of people don’t but actually when you feel like life is pleasurable you do.

Omer:
Yes.

Tania:
No. Do you feel like you haven’t done that yet?

Omer:
Umm.

Tania:
Made something [important]?

Omer:
There are a few things but no, no they are okay, they are okay, they’regood, they’re good.

Tania:
What about that incredible house where your limitations were it being one floor and having to use the recycled wood?

Omer:
I think that’s a wonderful house. I love that house very much, however I also believe that it came a little bit too early, that the magnitude of the opportunity was so enormous and it came a bit too early in my career. I think a lot of these realizations I have now about how to work with materials, what my interest in the material world is and the sophistication I’ve gained over the last five years in manipulating and knowing how to structure experiments with materials, those things were all in their infancy when I got the opportunity to work on that house. And so the house is actually fairly conventional from that prospective. It’s complex architecturally but from the prospective of material exploration, which is I believe where my talent lies or my interest lies, it’s not, it does not actually push any envelopes. So if I had that opportunity again or a client as open as that client was, with a budget that supportive…

Tania:
Yes.

Omer:
Which are hard things to come by…

Tania:
Yes, I am sure.

Omer:
I think I would focus a lot in the same way that we work, when I described working with glass just now. I would try to apply lessons learned to other materials, to construction materials. For example, concrete. I think concrete is a fascinating material and I think it’s completely misunderstood in contemporary construction because we always force it to go into these rectilinear forms, which is a completely crazy thing to do. When you think about it, it’s liquid.

Tania:
It’s fascinating how both glass and concrete are such seemingly, when you see them in their final form, they are so not malleable. I mean unless you shattered the glass. But they are so firm and strong and yet some of the most malleable things.

Omer:
Yes. And so I think that it behooves us to work with a material, a plastic material, concrete. So things we’re experimenting with now, hopefully we will get to build them, are pouring into different kinds of systems. Why do we have to pour [the concrete] into the plywood form or rectilinear plywood form. We can pour it into fabric for example, something that could respond to the slump and weight of this liquid and as it cures it, it will express its intrinsic formal quality, these kinds of things. Or what about, you know, so there is a technique called shotcrete which people used for inexpensive shoring of parquet walls or excavations, just basically to fire concrete through cannon or a gun at vertical surface. It’s just a cheap way of shoring up an excavation. You see it on the side of the excavations they do for parquets and these kinds of things. It’s kind of almost like a pillowy concrete surface and…

Tania:
Yes, I know exactly.

Omer:
Spraying it through a gun basically. What a fascinating technique, you know, so for an example that house on the edge of the cliff that we were discussing earlier, one idea for that house is to completely spray the entire outside or inside of the house with concrete and then burn it so that there’s a relief of the existing old house set into this otherwise completely organic concrete cave if you follow.

Tania:
Yes, it reminds me little bit of Rachel Whiteread.

Omer:
Yes, exactly, it’s very similar to Rachel’s. Rachel filled houses with concrete. That’s even more exciting but of course in my case you won’t be able to inhabit those structures.

Tania:
Yes.

Omer:
So for us, we were kind of experimenting with just the idea of starting from the perspective of concrete again. Why do we need to build formwork for concrete? It is formwork everywhere. We just have to spray it onto stuff. Or we have another project where we spray it onto hay bales. We just construct, we make mountains of hay bales and spray it onto hay bales or even things like beach. That’s how we should be working with concrete. That’s how people should be working with concrete, not forcing it into plywood formwork.

Tania:
But, you know, when you describe it, it really does sound so mischievous.

Omer:
Yes?

Tania:
Like you’re [saying], ‘what if we did this and then we fired it up and who knows what could happen!’ There is a real innocence to it. So were you very mischievous as a kid? Did you follow up with what your parents asked you to do?

Omer:
Yes, I listened what they said.

Tania:
Really?!

Omer:
Yes, I wasn’t very rebellious, I never, yes, no, I wasn’t, no.

Tania:
And I guess becoming a creative person wasn’t that rebellious either because you father ended up…

Omer:
Yes, and I was supported throughout. So they never thought I was crazy or anything like that. They were always very supportive.

Tania:
Do you remember when you first kind of realized, ‘Oh wow! I kind of see the world differently!’ Were you still living in Jerusalem?

Omer:
I always I knew I was going to be an architect that was never a question. So there was never like a moment of epiphany where I realized this is my calling or this is what I am going to do. It’s always been very clearly what I was supposed to do. It’s almost like all the stuff that I am involved in now is almost…I love it, I love making objects, but it still seems like some sort of circuitous path towards architecture, eventually.

Tania:
Really, so I was going to ask you how does architecture find itself in smaller things?

Omer:
Yes, it’s limited in a way. There’s only so much you can do. The objects inflect space inevitably and I can consider how they do that and I can build in ways for them to interact with space in certain ways, just in the way that I design them, but in the end they are the thing that occupies a void, not the container of the void if you follow. When you’re working on a building, you’re designing a kind of container of space or containers of light or containers of air. This series of containers and your artistry lies in the qualities of these containers and their relationship between them. But as a designer of objects, you are really making singular, very particular things that reside within those volumes. It’s like almost a complete reversal.

Tania:
Yes, that’s why I was wondering, how do they feed each other? Or do they not?

Omer:
I don’t know, yes, it’s a question for later in life, I think.

Tania:
Yes, its one of those things that you discover.

Omer:
I think so. Well, my only access towards either of those disciplines is through material experimentation and so it’s just the only way that I can manipulate space or materials, just by thinking of it almost a sculpture. So I don’t know yet, I haven’t had enough opportunity at the scale of a building to really prove that it’s a successful approach. I think that on the scale of an object, over the last few years, we have proven that it’s an interesting area of investigation at least. I don’t know if it’s worthwhile or important but it’s definitely interesting. At the scale of a building, we haven’t proven it yet and so I don’t know if I can talk about the relationship between the two until I’ve had more built.

Tania:
I was looking at the architecture of Jerusalem, you know, I just looked at some pictures and the first things you noticed are dome structures and that’s very old world. We don’t have that here. You look at the architecture of Vancouver you don’t see domes. It’s angular structures. So, was your inclination towards architecture an enchantment with the beauty of the architecture of Jerusalem and what you saw around you or how did you know? For instance, I always knew as a teenager that I would be a journalist because I like asking questions so it was a given that’s probably what I would do, just spend my life asking people questions, which I love to do. And so that I can take anywhere with me, it’s not something that inspired my environment. So what do you think inspired you?

Omer:
That’s a good question, the truth is it crystallized when I was really young. I guess I was eight, this is probably the confusion from before. When I was eight, we moved to New York for a year and went back to Jerusalem and so I was confronted with Manhattan after living in Jerusalem and I think that’s probably when it crystallized. So my enchantment with the idea of constructing buildings was first this idea of a skyscraper, building skyscrapers, I really wanted to build skyscrapers. I used to make what now I realize are sort of early architectural models. When I was a kid, I used make it out of cardboard or mostly out of cardboard but also wood sometimes and they were always skyscrapers or towers, in the beginning, and I think that’s may be…I don’t think that I was conscious of the architecture or the nature of the built environment in Jerusalem. It’s just was where I was from but as soon as I left the contrast to these new very tall optimistic buildings in New York, it was very, very powerful and an impetuous for me and I think that’s when I probably decided to be an architect. And then probably going back was, I don’t know, I can’t remember, but I imagine going back to Jerusalem after that experience was a very strong aesthetic experience as well because then I could probably see all these things that I had assumed were just my background condition.

Tania:
It make a lot of sense to me because my dad moved here from Lebanon and he has this fascination with skyscrapers and, ‘they are so amazing!’. I mean he’s been here for most of his life now but he still loves the skyscrapers and since I grew up with them, being American, they don’t strike me in that way but when you grow up in a culture, in a place where the architecture is so different, to see something sort of magnificent like that or really, you know, awesome in the true sense of the word, just a sense of awe, ‘wow, how do they construct that?’, that’s incredible. I can understand that sort of fascination that happens and thinking — I want to do that.

Omer:
Yes.

Tania:
So you’ve never used Legos to construct things?

Omer:
All the time, also, yes.

Tania:
Yes, now because, you know, Lego has come out with this thing for architects.

Omer:
I know, but it’s very prescriptive. It’s like you get to build falling water or whatever by Frank Lloyd Wright. I don’t know, I think that’s almost opposite – it’s wrong almost.

Tania:
The Guardian (UK) reviewed it this summer. The [article] were saying architects will play with it but it’s not a tool that they’ll use.

Omer:
No.

Tania:
So that transition to Canada, was that painful at all?

Omer:
I think, yes, it was very difficult at first. I couldn’t speak English and, you know, you can imagine high school. High school is horrible at the best of times so, yes it wasn’t easy at first.

Tania:
You were speaking Hebrew?

Omer:
Yes, and there’s also Arabic in my family.

Tania:
And where were your parents born?

Omer:
My father was born in Ba’adra in Iraq and my mother in Jerusalem.

Tania:
How did they meet?

Omer:
They met in Jerusalem in this kind of super romantic way. Super romantic.

Tania:
That must be inspiring.

Omer:
Yes, it was really great.

Tania:
What was the movement towards making objects or was it just luck?

Omer:
Well, so I went to architecture school and in architecture school, I became almost obsessed, I guess increasingly obsessed, with making architectural models physically, physical architectural models and that was my way of approaching architecture, the generative aspects of architecture. So, traditionally students of architecture make models to express as a vehicle of communication, to express their intentions to an audience.

Tania:
It’s just a bridge, it’s not a thing in itself.

Omer:
It’s not a generative tool. Sometimes it is, these days it is but in the environment that I came up in it was always regarded as a presentation tool and for me that never worked because I couldn’t abstract space into two dimensions, into a two dimensional drawing. And so for me there was a kind of watershed moment as a student when I reversed the process, when I made the models first and used them as a tool to design the spaces and then leave a week at the end of the project to draw what I had already built. And as soon as I reversed the process, architecture became easy and fun and I was good at it whereas before it was difficult. So graduating, I had already this extensive knowledge of how to work with my hands with different materials that I’d gained through making these very ambitious architectural models and I always thought that the models had to have their own intrinsic intentions beyond their representational qualities. So I thought, okay, yes, these represent an architectural intent, a building, but in fact they should also be sculptural objects in their own right. So I wanted them to stand up to a critique by a non-architect, not knowing at all that they have other informational intentions, that they represented something as opposed to just being something. Anyways, so then I started working for all these architects, some of them were really ambitious. In the beginning there were really good architects and then I worked for some large corporate North American firms and that was less interesting for me and so making stuff became an outlet that I used to sort of satisfy, I guess, needs that weren’t being satisfied in my studio job and my sort of day job if you will. So I’d go to work and I do architecture, the way people do architecture and I didn’t like it, it didn’t work for me at all, so then in the evening I’d make stuff or on weekends, I’d just make stuff. I had this free studio, I can’t believe it, I had this like amazing free studio on the rooftop of the apartment building that I was living in.

Tania:
How was that? How did that happen?

Omer:
It was just an available space at the top of the building and I asked my building manager if she would let me use it and she said it was really good for the building because, you know, heroin addicts would climb up the fire escape and do heroin in there so to have someone there working with tools, it was great because it…

Tania:
Discouraged them.

Omer:
Discouraged them. And there was light, you know, noise and music there, so they wouldn’t come so she thought it was good for that and it was amazing because it had this wonderful view up there. So I would just go and make stuff.

Tania:
It’s great.

Omer:
It was great.

Tania:
You must have been in your 20s or something?

Omer:
Yes, early 20s, early to mid 20s and, yes. So I was just making them as a kind of an outlet and then it was well received, people liked them, people would publish them. They started winning awards and then I sort of saw it as a way out of my day job, which I was unhappy in, and so I started focusing on, started showing them at exhibitions and they started gaining momentum.

Tania:
Amazing.

Omer:
Yes.

Tania:
It’s so interesting how that happens. Now I am going to go back to what you mentioned earlier about that year in New York.

Omer:
Yes.

Tania:
I mean in mid the 80s you were eight years old so that’s 84, interesting time in New York.

Omer:
Yes, I guess, yes.

Tania:
Did it make you want to move to the west?

Omer:
I didn’t even think about it, I guess. I don’t know, we went back to Jerusalem, I remember when we came to Canada I wasn’t — I didn’t want to come to Canada at all.

Tania:
I’m sure not.

Omer:
I had all these friends and all these community of friends, my family…

Tania:
The delicious food.

Omer:
Oh, yes, everything yes.

Tania:
Music, the sound, the smell, I mean all the things that make up…

Omer:
The place.

Tania:
The place, yes.

Omer:
No I didn’t want to. Later, in retrospect, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me is moving to Canada.

Tania:
Why?

Omer:
Well because I got have the life that I want to have. I’d have been wrapped into the politics of the region and bad things could have happened then I would have been a totally different person and I’ve very likely wouldn’t have had the opportunities to pursue these interests that I have much later in life but who knows who I would have been by then and all this kind of stuff, you never really know.

Tania:
It’s true. It’s a very similar story on my side because my mom ended up leaving Lebanon very quickly and unexpectedly and had she not done that, she would have been caught up in the civil war in Lebanon.

Omer:
Of course, yes.

Tania:
And then she wouldn’t have become a lawyer and all the things that she became. So yes, it’s true, it ended up being [great]. So that year in New York was not like, ‘Oh wow, I must move to the west?

Omer:
The year in New York was like complete culture shock, trying to figure out how to speak. It wasn’t like a happy time but I was also completely struck by this environment and it was like a taste, it was kind of like a prequel to a story that later develops in Canada.

Tania:
Yes I know. It was a difficult year because you didn’t speak the language and it was, like you said, a culture shock but it was the year you kind of discovered that you wanted to be an architect?

Omer:
Yes, I guess so, yes.

Tania:
So may be it was one of the most important years of your life?

Omer:
Yes, may be, yes.

Tania:
So, anyways you were making objects in the studio and they were gaining awards and you were excited about that —

Omer:
Yes.

Tania:
But you still always wanted to make buildings?

Omer:
I still think that that’s more important, I don’t know why, I don’t know why.

Tania:
What does important mean?

Omer:
Yes, exactly, that’s exactly it. Why is it important? What is important? I don’t know why but somehow or another designing a building feels like you are actually changing the structure of the city, people’s lives. I know that you can change people’s life by the way that they interact with an object as well. A great object is a really wonderful thing that a designer can do for the person who has that object but somehow or another space or building feels like it has more longevity, a bigger impact. Somehow, an urban scale participation in culture seems meaningful or may be it’s just aa simple as the fact that’s what I wanted to do when I was a kid, I don’t know. That’s just like may be a completely personal, I don’t know, obsession. I’m very happy designing objects and I have this all this momentum now and there’s always these opportunities for doing that more, in a better way, and more sophisticated tools and resources, staff and these kinds of things. It has its own propelling momentum forward so I just end up doing more and more of it and it is very satisfying. I still maintain an architectural practice, we are always building very modestly while we are doing all this object based work, but I imagine that there would may be five years from now or ten years from now an opportunity to apply those object based lessons at the scale of architecture.

Tania:
Yes, I’m sure and when you think of the objects that are most important to you, that you’ve created, and then we’ll talk about objects that are most important to you that you haven’t created…

Omer:
Okay.

Tania:
And when you think of the ones that are of most importance, what comes to mind?

Omer:
That I’ve developed? There are lot of them that haven’t really seen the light of day. The studio right now is a very exciting place because we are always just experimenting and, as I said, now we have resources to do that, even if many of the experiments are dead ends. So that’s a change because there used to be so much pressure on each one of these situations, there was limited resources so everything had to…

Tania:
Succeed.

Omer:
Either succeed or at least pay for itself and there was an economics to the situation that now is still there but a lot looser. So, basically, if one or two of them make it, that’s all that needs to happen. But that’s one or two out of may be ten or twelve experiments that result in these, what I consider, very interesting objects. They are unfeasible in this way or that way, they are too difficult to make or they require too much time or too much effort. They may be not beautiful in the conventional sense of the word. Sometimes they are even ugly or aggressive. But those are the ones I really love, those are the ones that just accumulate in piles in our studio. Those are the ones that really feel like, I don’t know, real kind of companions or something like that.

Tania:
Because they don’t have to adhere to something or they don’t have to accomplish something specific? Because they have that freedom?

Omer:
Maybe, yes, there’ve, yes, yes.

Tania:
Yes, yes what she said. (laughter) That’s funny. I think that happens a lot in a successful company where there will be one or two objects that really make it and then it can give you the freedom to work on another things that are more, or less, conventional maybe or not even conventional but are more extensions of yourself or maybe they are all extensions of yourself but, you know, it’s just interesting, sometimes you just need one thing to allow you to do everything else.

Omer:
It’s very interesting. Like okay, I’ll give you an example, there’s one thing we are working on right now which requires literally hundreds of thousands of iterations of this one sort of robotic arm dipping an object in and out of a chemical solution, which has electricity running through it. It’s like hundreds of thousands of times, it takes like six months or something like this. It happens in 24 hours a day in order to make something so that doesn’t work!

Tania:
I mean, six months!

Omer:
The economics of that situation!

Tania:
Six months lead time for one piece.

Omer:
Yes, you can see what I mean. But it’s a worthwhile object at the end of that.

Tania:
The process…

Omer:
…is a fascinating thing is, the result is a fascinating, fascinating, mysterious sort of thing. But how do you justify that? I don’t know.

Tania:
There is this artist name, Roxy Paine who recently, well in the last couple of years, did the roof of the MoMA (correction: Metropolitan Museum of Art). You know, they always have artists take over the roof.

Omer:
Yes.

Tania:
But I interviewed him very early in my career, very early, when I was 22 and he was doing these pieces where he would dip his canvas, he had to create this massive machine, and there would be a canvas

Omer:
Yes.

Tania:
…And he would dip it into paint and then take it out and dip and take it out and that was the process. [You piece] reminds a little bit of that and you would never know what would come up because of this sort of reaction, momentary reaction, between what was in the paint and the canvas and it was always unique and it reminds me a little bit of that. So yes, you have all this freedom, which is really exciting, but you still want to go back to making buildings?

Omer:
Yes, I’d like to keep them both going. I think it’s a unique structure, we have unique structure and it’s a result of necessity and probably it’s a result of being on the periphery of the cultural centers.

Tania:
How is it to be doing all this in Vancouver?

Omer:
Yes, that’s what I mean. We are isolated from London and New York and the places where these conversations are relevant.

Tania:
Do you feel irrelevant?

Omer:
Completely! We operate in a complete vacuum out there. You know, tumble weeds. It’s a new city, it’s a new city with everything great that comes with that like optimism and…

Tania:
Freedom.

Omer:
…Freedom, exuberance…

Tania:
No restrictions.

Omer:
Yes, that’s kind of stuff but also all the bad things comes with it, which is, you know…

Tania:
No one understands you

Omer:
Yes, no one cares.

Tania:
Do you feel like you have a community there?

Omer:
Not really. There’s a handful of people, literally a handful of people that I can even interact with in Vancouver. Of course though I have lots, my community is much bigger now, I traveled a lot but what I was going to say is that this unique structure that we have, which is a combination of a studio that designs things at the structural scale, an industrial design studio, materials research laboratory, a manufacturing company including ateliers for glass and ceramics in-house, a company that’s setup to sell and market objects with a network of distribution that’s global, an IP Department where we patent any of these techniques or materials that are worthy of that kind of attention, all of these things operate under one roof in a synergistic relationship that feels completely natural. And it’s a unique structure, it’s an interesting, unique structure but the reason that it’s developed over the last nine years is as a direct result of necessity. So had we tried to do any one of those things, ambitiously, in Vancouver, we would have failed. The only reason that we were able to kind of survive in the beginning was because we did all of them.

Tania:
Yes.

Omer:
But then there’s some sort of threshold that we passed after a while where we weren’t dependent on our local economics anymore and a structure that had been born of necessity became a kind of an interesting, new thing because all of a sudden we could explore it for what it really is and it yields all these interesting synergies that we’re just starting to explore now. So your question about buildings: I am very interested in seeing what this new, hybrid organization can yield in the way of buildings later on. So what if we manufacture our buildings in our factory? What if we make blowing glass or ceramic buildings? I don’t know, I’m just speaking out loud but we can do that now, like we can produce, we have all these strange lateral connections between fields that are at our fingertips and that are controlled mostly by us or at hands reach and so to leverage those resources in service of architecture is fascinating. It’s a fascinating proposition that many architects don’t ever get to explore.

Tania:
It is. And how’s your team?

Omer:
Super cool team, great team. Well, first I have a business partner who is my kind of evil twin counterpart and the whole thing would not have…

Tania:
Happened without him.

Omer:
…Been possible without him.

Tania:
I heard about him.

Omer:
What did you hear?

Tania:
I heard that he’s really good at being an advocate.

Omer:
Oh yes, yes.

Tania:
Yes.

Omer:
He is, yes, that’s one of his skills.

Tania:
And that’s…

Omer:
A big one.

Tania:
…A beautiful skill. He really believes in you, which creative people really need because its very hard to say, ‘hey, look what I made, look at, do you want to hear? Interested?’ It’s great for someone else to be doing that for you.

Omer:
Yes. That’s one of many, many different talents that he has and then over the years we have quite a loyal and varied collection of people that have joined us.

Tania:
And stayed?

Omer:
Yes, some have and some haven’t. Its interesting, the key individuals have stayed with us for quiet a while and we hope they’ll stay with us forever or for as long as its right for them and for us but hopefully for quite a long time and it’s really been our approach to try to have as small a team as possible of the highest quality, individuals who have synergistic relationships and good chemistry amongst themselves. And that, as opposed to growing, [because] we could just grow and grow, you know, like it’s very dangerous I think, this kind of idea of growth is almost like a baffling idea, it’s built into North American culture and North American economics. Why is growth so important? It’s very just strange, kind of a strange idea.

Tania:
Well, we’re all about big: big buildings, big food, big roads, big cars big. Everything is big.

Omer:
I mean when you think about it there’s lots of different ways to grow and, in our case, our focus or at least our idea of how we’d like to grow is to keep the team really small but grow the team in terms of quality, experience, working chemistry and give that team bigger and bigger external resources.

Tania:
Yes, it’s interesting: the different definitions of growth. Philip and I talk about this a lot. What does it mean to really grow? And it doesn’t necessarily mean grow with members. Sometimes it’s the internal growth that happens or the experiential growth that happens or the growth in freedom or the growth in creativity, all these other ways in which you grow that don’t necessarily have to do with numbers or space.

Omer:
Exactly, exactly.

Tania:
And that’s a lovely way to think about it. So, when number 14 sort of caught you by surprise by its success, what was that feeling like?

Omer:
It was a great feeling.

Tania:
I mean what happened?

Omer:
Well it’s still a mystery, its kind of a blur, I showed prototypes of it in 2005 that I made myself and the individual who later became my business partner Randy happened to be there, it wasn’t exactly a planned thing, he happened to be at ICFF during that time. He saw the response, we both observed the response of all these people to these prototypes and we just kind of, on a whim, that was May, and we both started a company when we got back to Vancouver.

Tania:
So he happened to be from Vancouver too?

Omer:
Yes, I had worked on an interior for a space as a designer, as an interior designer I worked for him so my only interior design project that I’ve ever done. I am not interested in interior design at all but I was in the state trying to get out of a day job so I took anything. So we knew each other sort of thing and had good working chemistry and then we looked at this piece together, we kind of just came back to Vancouver to start a company and it’s shocking but we shipped our first order in July. So May, June, July, three months later we were already shipping product and people were ordering product three months later. It was just like very strange thing and that’s never stopped since then, that’s still happening with that particular…

Tania:
With number 14, yes.

Omer:
And then there’s been subsequent best sellers, 22 and 28 and, yes, what did it feel like? It’s just still a mystery, I still don’t even understand that’s almost like I don’t think about it so I don’t want to jinx it.

Tania:
Jinx it.

Omer:
It’s like, I don’t know exactly.

Tania:
Because it was the thing that kind of opened up all your other doors.

Omer:
Yes, it was definitely that, yes.

Tania:
I am observing this kickstarter campaign that’s going on with one of my colleagues in radio and he’s just changing the structure of radio right before our eyes and it’s been fascinating to see him be a radio producer, be a radio producer, and then all of a sudden he does something and it just completely takes his career to a new place and it’s very exciting to witness that because you can feel, vicariously, just the sense of opening up, the sense of opportunity, the sense of, ‘Wow, look at all these other things I can do now’, which is what is going with your company. You’ve got the success of some of these products and its opening up all these opportunities to dip a stick for six months

Omer:
Yes, yes, exactly.

Tania:
And do these things that you can be really playful with. And how about 21 and 28?

Omer:
21…

Tania:
It’s interesting, every seven numbers, you know, seven …

Omer:
21 is also, it’s a modest success.

Tania:
Well, that would have been kind of interesting because seven is this, you know, special number.

Omer:
I know, of course, I know, I know.

Tania:
Your mom would have a field day with that.

Omer:
Exactly and my dad. Seven was never was ever produced, seven is still just in the realm of an idea. But, yes, 22 is an outlet, it’s like a wall socket and unlike all our pieces it’s actually just a technical solution and it falls into the spectrum people associate with minimalism, just the opposite of what we do. It’s a universal solution. Usually we are obsessed with a particular and it’s just one size fits all solutions. It’s like completely outside of the rest of our portfolio. It’s just kind of weird, we had good idea, we thought it was a great idea and we just developed it and people respond to it and it solves the problem.

Tania:
And Randy’s role is what exactly?

Omer:
He is the Business Director of the company.

Tania:
What’s your day-to-day interaction with him like?

Omer:
By this point, it’s a nine-year relationship and it’s comfortable. It’s like a comfortable relationship so it’s like there’s so much that doesn’t need to be talked about anymore that’s just obvious.

Tania:
So is he like your brother?

Omer:
In a certain sense, yes. It’s interesting because most people go into businesses with friends or they were already friends with somebody and then they become partners but in our case we were business partners for years before we became friends. Now we are as close can be, and yes it does have a feeling of family.

Tania:
I’m sure. There’s this relationship that you have about the thing that may be, aside from your family or in conjunction with your family, the most important thing to you.

Omer:
Yes, and we see so much potential in our ease of working together. I mean it’s like almost just a beginning. There are things we are so excited about it in the next 10 years, 20 years that might come to fruition. All kinds of ideas that are actually possible now, so there is a kind of feeling of inevitability to the whole the situation.

Tania:
It’s a great feeling.

Omer:
Yes.

Tania:
It’s a great feeling, yes, to be able to think what you think up in your mind has the potential to manifest.

Omer:
Yes, yes. And so our day-to-day interaction, we do talk like a lot, I don’t know, lots of time a day and we exchange lots of emails and stuff about things. There’s a lot that just ends up being shorthand for bigger conversations at this point, like we don’t even have to go through the whole thing. It’s just a few sentences or even just sometimes a move of an eyebrow or something like that and we both understand what needs to happen or what needs to be change.

Tania:
Like a partnership, I mean like an emotional partnership too.

Omer:
Yes.

Tania:
I mean an ideal one.

Omer:
Yes.

Tania:
And how about of some favorite objects of yours outside of what you create?

Omer:
Yes.

Tania: Like something in your home?

Omer:
Yes. I have a good example of something that’s moved me a lot and that I’ve cherished for quite so many years. It is a collection of bricks that I found at the Leslie Spit in Toronto, which is, if you ever visit Toronto you should go to this place and it’s basically a dumping ground for construction debris that’s 30 or 40 years old and since most of Toronto is constructed out of bricks, it’s probably, I don’t know, 60 to 70 percent old bricks that have been dumped into the lake. There’s also chunks of concrete and rebar and other bits of masonry and this kind of thing but over a long time, 30 years, 40 years, water has sort of softened the form of these bricks and so they still are recognizably bricks in that there the module you associate with a brick and there’s a pattern of holes in the middle, three holes or two holes, or sometimes rectangles. But because of the constant action of wind and the expansion and contraction later to freezing and thawing, they have become overtime these very interesting soft shapes, soft organic shapes. They look like bits of mercury or something like that, they are very organic, extremely curvilinear forms but they still somehow evoke the idea of a brick and each one is completely unique. So I have a collection of those for example at my house that I really love.

Tania:
Yes, I can understand why you would love something like that. And it is not, you know, fiscally the value is…

Omer:
No, it’s nil, they are just some rocks.

Tania:
That have been thrown out, yes.

Omer:
But that’s a wonderful place, Leslie spit. If you imagine as far as the eye can see, these bricks basically forming a landscape and it’s become a bird sanctuary as well overtime so there’s all these rare and extinct birds. People thought these birds were extinct but they found haven in this strange new environment and so now there’s like bird watchers in amongst the bricks, it’s really a wonderful place.

Tania:
Do you find that these experiences of Jerusalem not your work but your life.

Omer:
I’m sure, it cannot not happen.

Tania:
It’s just not definable.

Omer:
I just don’t know if I can put it into words or express in what ways. I ran into a grocery store the other day, I was in a rush, I was going to miss the flight but I had to get these. It’s like a water plane so it’s almost like a taxi to go to and I was cooking for some friends on island in this cabin and I realized that I had one-too few lemons for this meal that I was cooking. I had eight lemons and I needed nine. As I was driving, I was late for this flight and as I was driving to the airport I saw out of the corner of my eye, a grocery store and, you know, how in your mind when you are in a hurry or you are unfocused or may be when you just wake up or you are just falling asleep, there are these moments when you actually can see yourself for a second or you can see how your normal thought process occurs without the layers that you impose upon it to be a normal human being and interact with people and have language and these kinds of things. So, this is one of those moments because I was in such a rush and I was in such a panic to get this last lemon so I parked the car and I ran into the grocery store and I was late, every minute counted and I was just looking for lemons, looking for lemons. So in my mind I wasn’t looking for lemons, I was looking for yellow circles, like your shirt, I was like where are the yellow circles and I was just in a kind of blur, my eyes were blurred, and I was just looking for yellow circles and then I was like there they are and I just grabbed one and paid for it and ran out and only later that I realize these kinds of moments are so valuable because you actually get to understand how your own mind works. Because, in normal circumstances, there’s all these things preventing you from seeing it. So, I realize that yellow circle is how I think of lemons and it’s like, okay good, so is that something that…

Tania:
Influenced.

Omer:
…From that region, or from that way of perceiving lights or I don’t know may be or may be not. I don’t know, there’s no way to know.

Tania:
You know what its reminds me of is Piet Mondrian’s retrospective at the MoMA where, you saw all these landscapes, beautiful traditional landscapes and then the paintings just got distilled and distilled and distilled into geometric shapes.

Omer:
Yes.

Tania:
Your vision could be distilled from the rich landscape that we have before us to just the fundamentals of what is before us, which is really just shape and color.

Omer:
Yes.

Tania:
Shape and color and actually when you distill your actual experience from conversation all this and you just distill it to what it is, just sound, smell, taste, just your senses, that’s what experience is like. So, it was a distilled moment for you.

Omer:
Yes.

Tania:
I guess that’s kind of the process of living just like distilling, distilling. How did the meal turn out?

Omer:
It was really good.

Tania:
Was it delicious?

Omer:
Delicious.

Tania:
So you were saying that it’s hard to find a community in Vancouver. How is that difficult for you?

Omer:
It’s never been, no. I know a lot of people. A lot of my friends criticize Vancouver because they say there’s no kind of energy, there’s no momentum, no community, but that’s never been a problem for me. I don’t know, I have just never needed other people to make work.

Tania:
How about to make life?

Omer:
Yes, that of course, no that kind of community, yes. It’s just a creative community that I am referring to. I have a wonderful community of friends.

Tania:
Oh great.

Omer:
I have tons of friends, it’s a wonderful city. I’ll never leave Vancouver, I love Vancouver. I don’t mean it that way.

Tania:
So it’s not like you are just lonely there at the work.

Omer:
No, it’s a wonderful place. I just mean in terms of the kind of…Even coming here last night. After the dinner, I went out with two friends who are peripherally involved in design and there was such a level of conversation about work, the level of built-in critique in every sentence was something that I’m so unused to or I don’t have that in my local environment. It was just a joy to speak to people who understand things at that level. That’s what I mean, professionally, there’s professional no community that I feel comfortable in locally in Vancouver. I find it elsewhere.

Tania:
But, you know, that’s also kind of great though because then you have so much freedom.

Omer:
You are free.

Tania:
Critique this, critique that.

Omer:
Exactly it’s true, no you are right, it’s true actually, you are free and it’s almost, it’s the unconscious freedom that you really are. That’s really valuable because you have less reference points. Of course in this time there’s hundreds of references all the time from the internet and from travel but there is less of them in Vancouver. There’s less points of reference, there’s less moments of reaction because there is nothing to respond to. So that’s good or it is less to respond to let’s say than in the cultural centers and I find that extremely valuable.

Tania:
Wonderful. Thank you.

Omer:
Thanks for the interview, it was a good interview.

Tania:
Yes of course, it was my pleasure.