Designer and architect Omer Arbel is on the cusp of new techniques as he searches for the unique.
Omer Arbel, West Coast lighting firm Bocci’s creative director, possesses an unconventional sensitivity to light. “Since I was young, I always regarded light as having a volumetric quality. Light appears like liquid, and rooms are containers that define the liquid, like bottles,” explains Arbel. “I can see colour in a very sensitive way. When I describe one kind of sunlight, most people don’t know what I am talking about, but I perceive it.”
He started his career as an architect. After apprenticeships at Miralles Tagliabue Architects and the venerable firm Patkau Architects, Arbel founded Omer Arbel Office (OAO), a multidisciplinary design studio blurring boundaries between the building, industrial design, and materials research fields, in 2005. That same year, he launched Bocci.
Bocci’s trademark handmade glass-orb fixtures are ubiquitous in chic interiors and garner international recognition. The multi-talented designer even managed to squeeze in time to envision the medals for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Another crowning achievement for the 38-year-old was his 2013 installation at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The 30-metre-tall light sculpture was comprised of 280 multicolour glass-pendant lamps, suspended by a tangle of copper wires.
“All my life, I have admired and respected the Victoria and Albert, a pre-eminent cultural institution that chronicles the history of design and craft,” says Arbel. “To have an ambitious piece in such an important place is a massive watershed on a professional and personal level that really legitimizes our methodology and unconventional approach.”
Arbel moves fluidly between the worlds of industrial design and architecture, and each informs the other. His lighting is contemporary, sculptural, and dramatic in scale: his architectural designs reflect his epic thinking. Witness Project 23.2, a private home in White Rock masterfully constructed of reclaimed beams and vast expanses of glass, or the onyx-clad, multi-million-dollar penthouse apartment at 1000 Beach, or the influential design store, Inform Interiors.
“With architecture, there are so many things outside of my control, for example the budget or the site, as opposed to being creative director of Bocci where I have complete and ultimate control. So I only choose architecture projects that have potential to be exceptionally outstanding,” explains Arbel. “We are very careful about the type of work we accept. We have to truly believe there is a chance to do something special.” If a standout project comes along, Arbel sets aside work at Bocci to focus on his architectural practice. Sometimes that means managing three projects at once.
“Architecture and design don’t really have a boundary for me. The fabrication process and material discovery are just bigger and much more complex [when dealing with a building].”
Lately, Bocci’s stand-out designs come from a different starting point than most. Arbel and his team thoroughly explore a new material and then assign a use to it, rather than looking at solving a problem.
“Four years ago, Bocci shifted to exploring the way a material behaves. Then we started applying parameters, the thought process, or engineering use. We don’t even know what it will be when it’s finished, whether it will be a light, a sculpture, a manufacturing technique or construction method.”
A cornerstone of Arbel’s work is the idea that objects can have a sacred relationship with consumers. When he creates Bocci lights, he tries to imbue each piece with unique character, not easy in an era of mass production and mass consumption.
“People have lost their regard for the power — or almost sacred nature — of an object. I want them to regain a lost respect for objects. We should be very deliberate about choosing objects. If we regard them as companions of our lives, then our world becomes richer.” Arbel describes going to McDonald’s for dinner, versus growing your own vegetables and carefully selecting a recipe. “Your senses become heightened because so much care is associated with your meal. It just tastes better.”
Arbel is uninterested in creating a truly mass-produced light fixture, because its relationship between person and object wouldn’t have the same power. “Every single light is identical, so why should I love one more than another?” he notes. “We are excessive consumers of objects, the same way we consume almost every aspect of our environment. That has to change.”
Arbel is now working on 16, an armature-style light resembling a tree, for Milan’s prestigious Euroluce, an international lighting exhibition. The leaves are three sandwiched layers of glass. In January, he’ll unveil new blown-glass objects in Paris, made with a ceramic fabric used to insulate engine parts that can be heated up to 3000 degrees Celsius.
“It’s amazing, you can sew or mould it, like upholstery. We make forms [with it] and then blow glass into them. Inevitably that shape is unique; you get these constructions that are made of glass, yet they have the fabric’s texture, a perfect natural diffuser.”
This new way to create and its finished product signifies one of Arbel’s Eureka moments, a satisfying way to sculpt light with originality. “I try to focus on the particular rather than the universal, to celebrate an object’s specificity. Create something that’s different than every other one ever made, therefore maybe it’s worthy of a deeper commitment.”
Photo by Gwenael Lewis