VANCOUVERITES | A Comfortable Hour Spent Inside The Brain Of Local Designer Omer Arbel

January 5, 2015.

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by Grady Mitchell | Omer Arbel leans back in a chair in Vancouver’s most attractive conference room, surrounded by the objects he and his team have made, all of them beautiful. We sit at a circular table of his design. It’s like a rolling landscape cast in marble, with smooth, wave-like divots scooped out. Above us hangs one of this ornate chandeliers, a hybrid of copper wire and colourful glass spheres. On the far wall rests No. 1, a shelving unit he designed, which holds dozens of additional glass globes, prototypes of his light fixtures. On the opposite wall is mounted a copper ornament with a polished central disc encircled by a haphazard, black rim. I feel very much like I’m sitting inside his brain. It’s a pretty cool place to be.

One of Omer’s various roles is as the creative director at Bocci, a Vancouver company that specializes in shaping light. The pieces they create have gained international acclaim for their fluid, graceful style; rather than simply emit light, they seem to encapsulate it, as if they’d frozen it solid mid-flight. Under his other company, Omer Arbel Office, he designs furniture and objects and undertakes architectural projects. If you’ve ever ordered a burrito at Tacofino or grabbed an Americano from Gene and wondered at the otherworldly lights above you, you’ve seen Omer’s work. If you’ve wandered through the sky-lit concrete majesty of Inform Interior’s Gastown location, you’ve been inside his work. If you reached the podium at the 2010 Olympics – and if you did, congrats, seriously – you actually own some of his work; yup, Omer designed the medals.

Clearly, the dude is brilliant. Throughout our conversation he speaks in paragraphs as precise and well-considered as his designs. Here’s one, for example, because I can’t really write it any better than he said it. It’s about his process:

“I would have an idea independently of any kind of context, a formal idea, and then I’d use whatever resources were available to me to bring that idea to fruition. But as I came to have more and more work realized, I found that actually the only interesting things that occurred in the work, the reason why the work was interesting, had a lot more to do with unexpected contingencies than with my original intent. My original intent led me down the path of experimenting with materials, and inevitably the material experimentation yielded some sort of discovery, or some sort of alchemical, phenomenological moment, some sort of transcendent event. The piece was successful or interesting only because of that contingency. In other words, I learned that my ego was an obstacle to achieving great work. So over the last four or five years we’ve been really trying consciously to step backwards in the authorship process. Instead of applying an idea to a material, what we try to do is open up these pockets of time where we experiment in an analog way without any kind of predetermined direction or intent in the hopes of discovering something. Sometimes we don’t, and it’s a bummer. And other times we do, and when we do, we focus on whatever the discovery is and turn it into a piece. Whether that’s a product, or a light, or a sculpture, or a piece of architecture depends on what it is that we’ve discovered.”

Whew.

For most design companies, the moments at the very start and end of a project are the most important: the conception of an idea followed by its physical realization. For Omer, it’s the space in between that’s essential. He points to the copper wall ornament on the wall behind us as an ideal example of their intuitive methodology.

It’s made through a process called sand casting, which is cheap because it’s inconsistent. A positive of an object is pressed into sand. Molten metal is then poured into the cast, using a cap to block out air, and allowed to cool into that shape. Fire hydrants are commonly sand casted — their rough texture is a result of the looseness of the process.

The textured black rim is the result of overspill, the excess molten copper that overflows the mould. The central disc remains smooth and bronze because no oxygen can enter; the rim appears volcanic because it oxidizes instantly. Omer likes this piece especially, he says, “because the only decision I made was the diameter of the circle.” Everything else is left to the material. “That’s compelling to me, worthy of further investigation.”

Omer’s process requires constant access to the manufacturing centres. Bocci occupies the top floor of a former printshop near the western foot of the Burrard bridge. The building houses the office, design studio and warehouse. On the ground floor is the glass blowing studio. While the sites for glass casting, ceramics, and sand castings aren’t in the building itself, they’re all nearby. Visitors to the office step from the elevator into an open-air rooftop courtyard with vine-laced walls of faded pastel red and blue. In the corner stands a massive tree. In the summer, a series of sliding glass doors pulls back to open the entire office to the air. Clusters of the company’s light fixtures bathe the space in a warm glow. The atmosphere is quiet but intently focused.

At first keeping production close was a necessity to keep costs down and turnaround quick. Today it’s essential to his process. In order to catch the unexpected events that shape his pieces, he needs to be there to see them. “I see these moments and change trajectories completely. The work becomes about these experiments.” That can’t happen if your manufacturer is in China. Or, at the very least, it’d be expensive. But this way, when an idea pops into his head Omer can test it immediately. Often, it’s a bust. “We have a lot of failed experiments,” he says. “A lot of failed experiments, like, one out of ten is successful.” (Soon, Omer says, those cast-off projects will win a second life as exhibited sculptures.) But when they do find something worthwhile, it’s always exceptional.

No. 14 was one of Bocci’s earliest pieces, and remains one of its most successful, a decade later. (Omer numbers his projects in the sequence they occur, whether it’s as humble as No. 22, an electrical outlet that’s built seamlessly into the wall, or an entirely new building, like project No. 47.) 14 is is a solid glass sphere a little larger than a baseball. It’s heavy, made from two halves of cast glass joined together with the bulb sunk dead centre in the lower half. It gives a soft, candle-like glow, the light bending and warping around the natural bubbles and imperfections in the glass. Like most of Bocci’s products, the 14 is entirely scalable: you can hang a single globe or commission a massive chandelier involved hundreds of pieces (and, probably, hundreds of thousands of dollars).

That’s exactly what the Victoria & Albert Museum in London asked Omer and his team to do. For project 28.280 they created a 30-metre tall chandelier comprised of dozens of lights linked by copper cables. It hangs in the museum’s atrium. Each pendant is made by both forcing air into and vacuuming it out of the superheated glass. The result is a series of glass bubbles within glass bubbles. Due to the lack of control, each 28, just the same as each 14, is distinctly unique.

Next year will mark Bocci’s tenth anniversary. They’ll launch three new lighting pieces (“All three are super exciting and very strange,” he says). Construction will also begin on a house project in Connecticut, and in January he’ll exhibit some of their ‘failed’ experiments at the Monte Clark Gallery. They’ll be moving the production aspects of their offices up the street to a building on W 5th Ave.

When I ask how he juggles so many different projects, he laughs. “I think the world is overly specific, I don’t think I’m too broad.” No matter the task, his approach is the same. “In my mind there’s a scalelessness to work that means, whether I’m working on a building or an object, I think of these things in the same way.”

But what about Vancouver? Omer’s background is in architecture, and he has several favourite local buildings. He admires Arthur Erickson’s work, especially his early projects, and calls Robson Square and the Museum of Anthropology “visionary.” He also nods to the Sun Tower and Marine Building, and the work of John and Patricia Patkau, “who have built in this region for a long time without getting the credit they deserve.”

His feelings about the Sugar Refinery are particularly strong: “I think it’s a total wasted opportunity, because it’s the only freehold on the downtown core waterfront; everything else is owned by the port. I think it should be a cultural institution. There’s a complete lack of foresight to put the new campus on Great Northern Way. I think it should have been in the Sugar Refinery; and the Vancouver Art Gallery. Both those institutions should have been in the Sugar Refinery with a landscape bridge going over the railway tracks, and Powell Street connecting Strathcona and downtown to the new campus, tying into the seawall. That would have been a brilliant urban design, an inspired urban design strategy, instead of just shoving things into Great Northern Way.”

Talking with Omer you get the sense that he’s always on, always pondering design, how things could be better, more useful, more beautiful. At the start of our conversation I’d asked if there was a specific moment when he realized design captivated him. His answer was typically complete, singular. “It never arrived,” he said. “It was always there.”

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