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Intelligent Design

Exhibitions in Milan and London this spring have made clear that Israel’s Bezalel Academy is now a central address for contemporary art and design

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Ami Drach and Dov Ganchrow, Masks. (All images courtesy of Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design)
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Israel has long prided itself on its resourcefulness, on doing much with little, on making the desert bloom. The state boasts more start-ups per capita than any other country. But while the Israeli tech boom has been fueled by a range of schools and sources, its preeminence in the fields of art and design can be traced to a single nexus: Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy.

Founded in 1906 by Bulgarian émigré Boris Schatz with four teachers and 20 students, Bezalel today, between its Jerusalem headquarters and a satellite branch in Tel Aviv, boasts a faculty of over 400 and a student body of nearly 2,000. (The handful of newer design schools in the country were all founded by Bezalel graduates.) A key milestone in this history was the 1935 influx of refugees from the Bauhaus, who set Bezalel on a modernist course while maintaining its mission of integrating “European artistic and Jewish traditions with the local culture of the Land of Israel.”

This heritage is particularly alive this spring. In April, the school had a major presence at the world’s leading forum for applied design, Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile. And this week, Sotheby’s London is hosting a major show devoted to Bezalel artists.

In Milan, Bezalel was one of 45 groups selected to partake in the Ventura Lambrate, an avant-garde offshoot of the main Milan fair. Bezalel presented “Thinking Hands,” an exhibition of student work highlighting the school’s distinctly experimental laboratory approach. The title reflects an engagement with what Ezri Tarazi, head of Bezalel’s Master of Design program and one of the show’s curators, calls a “postindustrial revolution” characterized by “going back to the materials and finding smart ways to make things unique.”

A prime example is Ori Yekutiel’s LightStone, a bench made with volcanic powder converted to foam that looks hefty but is virtually weightless. Tarazi traced the work’s genesis to a workshop in which students attempted to recreate elements found at the Dead Sea. Similarly inventive is Ophir Zak’s Between the Lines, a mesmerizing orange chair realized after repeated trials with a laser cutter that transformed flat metal sheets into an elaborately twisted, net-like form.

Artifacts of everyday Israeli life find themselves radically transformed. In Ori Sonnenschein’s Solskin Peels, a set of citrus tableware is made with microwave technology; Yael Friedman presented a line of Veggie jewelry. Not surprisingly, politics come into play, most notably in Arthur Brutter’s Protectable, a classroom desk that doubles as shelter from earthquakes and is being outfitted for Israeli towns bordering Gaza. (Israelis can be said to be experts in the field of emergency preparedness; following the Southeast Asian tsunami, Bezalel tailored an entire course around what people need in the wake of a disaster.) The common thread is an improvisational attitude that is at the heart of Israeli culture. “The lack of resources and fixed traditions translates as a need to build something new, and we make things from what we have,” Tarazi said.

This sensibility was on full view in Milan, where Bezalel graduates were also featured in a show organized by Israel’s foreign ministry and in other, smaller venues and galleries. It wasn’t the first time Bezalel was at the fair, but this year, Tarazi said, there was “a lot of buzz; people kept saying what’s going on? Bezalel is everywhere.” Top-tier peer institutions approached Bezalel about potential collaborations.

The buzz will, no doubt, continue as independent curator Janice Blackburn showcases students and graduates of the academy in an exhibition at Sotheby’s London on view through May 11. The seed for the show, “Bezalel:  Legacy, Innovation, Inspiration,” was planted last May when Blackburn visited Israel to see her friend Ron Arad’s new Design Museum in Holon. While there, she explored Israel’s design scene and toured Bezalel, where she was struck by the quality and ingenuity of the work and intrigued by the institution’s rich history.

“Their products have a very independent spirit and freshness which I found very appealing,” Blackburn said, adding that Israeli designers are particularly conscious of recycling and sustainability. A case in point is David Amar’s Raymond Table, made of aluminum legs and reclaimed wood planks jointed to allow for various configurations. A similar sensibility informed the whole of the Sotheby’s show, which Blackburn hired Amar to install. Using two long displays made of secondhand industrial shelving, Amar juxtaposed examples from students and graduates (many of them now professors) to emphasize Bezalel’s informal, radically collegial atmosphere.

An eye-level platform will hold smaller, more delicate objects, among them Arad’s brand new stainless steel Pirouette cutlery, 50 sets of which have been donated by the manufacturer, and an experimental shoe project featuring funky and thought-provoking—if  not entirely wearable—footwear. Another long unit with lower plinths will present larger furniture like Tal Gur’s Sturdy Chair, which is made of plastic drinking straws, and a set of drawers made into bookshelves conceived by Raw Edges, the duo behind Stella McCartney’s retail stores. Both embody the whimsy that is also a hallmark of Bezalel designs.

Other works are overtly political, though even these can be quite witty. Edit Yemini’s readymade porcelain ware is adorned with small plastic toy soldiers and rifles. Less explicit but just as sharp are two tables by Tarazi: the first a prototype for his New Baghdad, which features a maze-like aluminum surface mirroring a map of the city, and the wood and Plexiglas Thermal Earth, which evokes a photo taken by an unmanned aerial vehicle and in which warmer areas appear darker. (The latter was included in a show of his work titled “Kalab”—Israeli army slang for karov labayit or “close to home”—at Paradigma Gallery in Tel Aviv this past winter, for which he created an entire home environment using military materials and metaphors.) As Blackburn sees it, the nation’s mandatory military service is a key factor in enriching the experience of its art students.

The only purely fine art entry at Sotheby’s, a photography project illustrating the port city of Ashdod, will hang on one gallery wall, while masks by Ami Drach and Dov Granchow made of repurposed headlights will grace another. Another centerpiece is an illustrated timeline of Bezalel’s history made up of informational pads from which visitors can tear off sheets.

In the months to come, there are plans for a show of jewelry and shoes at the Parisian boutique Cecile et Jeanne this summer; inclusion in London’s Design Week this fall; and a traveling U.S. exhibition kicking off in February 2012.

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Intelligent Design

Exhibitions in Milan and London this spring have made clear that Israel’s Bezalel Academy is now a central address for contemporary art and design

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