Last year Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, held its very first design week. Sponsored and organized by the government, it's been described to me as an underwhelming affair. This year, however, Design Museum Holon has stepped in to host what might (and indeed what ought to) go down in history as the city's first true Design Week.
The museum opened its doors only two years ago, but its been in the works for almost a decade as part of a citywide initiative to transform Holon into a hub for art, design and culture. In 2003 Ron Arad was invited by Mayor Moti Sasson and Managing Director Hana Hertsman to set the international standard with his sculptural Cor-Ten Steel banded beauty (above). The design school Holon Institute of Technology, which lies just across the street, was established over forty years ago, but Design Museum Holon is the first design museum in all of Israel, making it an obvious choice as the center of all the Design Week activities.
Unlike other design weeks that focus their efforts on a main exhibition hall filled with designer's booths and a program of talks and lectures, Design Museum Holon's Director, Alon Sapan and Galit Gaon, the Chief Curator, invited nineteen design week directors and design leaders from all over the world for what I think can be best described as design summer camp.
Every morning, after sharing a typical Israeli breakfast, the impressive lineup from Tokyo, Sofia, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Lodz, Budapest and Belgrade were picked up from their hotel in downtown Tel Aviv and bused to Holon. There, we split up into three groups and spent the day together listening to a stream of presentations made by aspiring Israeli designers. Each designer was given seven minutes to take us through a slideshow of their work, after which it was opened up to questions and feedback.
Sure, these designers could each have taken a booth in a large exhibition hall and we could have strolled by them, stopping only to look at the things that caught our eye, but for a country that readily admits to a lack of design history, what better way to introduce the world to its very active design present than to immerse us in personal conversations with local designers? We not only gained deeper understanding of what Israeli designers have to offer, but we got an up-close-and-personal insight into the reality of what it means to design in Israel today.
I, for one, noticed a surprising lack of furniture, architecture and other large scale projects, as well very little graphic or typographic design. The overwhelming majority of what we saw focused on small goods - jewelry, home and office products and gift items. When I walked around Tel Aviv I saw a similar aesthetic - plenty of jewelry shops, no furniture stores and only one object-centered design store, called Soho.
It makes sense, though. In a country where good design isn't mainstream and paying more for a certain aesthetic in basic household items is an outright oddity, why would you expect people to invest in an expensive 'designer' sofa when they can get a perfectly functional one for less than half the price? If people who don't value good design are going to buy any kind of design product it's going to be something smaller and more affordable.
But what about Bauhaus, you may be saying. Surely the presence of 4,000+ Bauhaus and International buildings has some impact on the population? I know I came to Tel Aviv expecting the shining White City I had seen so many pictures of, every street corner framed by the characteristic rounded balconies. While it's true those sites exist, after decades of neglect they're hardly white anymore. I saw one, maybe two Bauhaus buildings that had been properly maintained. The rest have been left to decay. It's only now that Tel Aviv has been added to the UN's list of World Cultural Heritage sites that people are once again beginning to take an interest in preservation. There's a ton of construction in the city, even more than in New York, and the skyline dotted with cranes seemed like a hopeful sign to me.
Another expected portent of good things to come? IKEA. And not just in Israel, where there are now two locations, but in other countries with a developing design scene as well. Adriana Dimitrova, the Program Director of Sofia Design Week, told me that when IKEA opened in Bulgaria it was the biggest event of the year. Sure, she admits that in the short term it's tough for young designers compete with a powerhouse like IKEA, but it will ultimately help those designers if it means introducing the country to a different aesthetic and popularizing more minimal design as opposed to the horrid Baroque style of furniture that's the Bulgarian mainstream right now.
Even though Israel can lay claim to a much more active design community and education system, the same idea of IKEA acting as a catalyst for good design holds true. Already you can see a raised awareness of form and function taking place, and Design Museum Holon is poised to be at the center of this movement. The museum saw a record number of visitors during Design Week - never mind that admission was free for Passover. But nowhere is the city's impending transformation more evident than in "Designs Plus Ten," a beautifully and thoughtfully designed exhibition that traces the progress of a selection of 42 Israeli designers from the moment they graduated ten years ago to where they are in their careers today.
You can see a sneak peek of the exhibition in the image above, a quote from Sahar Batsry whose remarkable work kicks off the show. Check back for more images and our review of the exhibition as well as highlights of the best work from Holon Design Week.
Bauhaus image courtesy of Sustainable City. Other images by Perrin Drumm.