Occupying and Activating: Omer Arbel Discusses Bocci’s Spatial Approach to Design

Emma Macdonald Emma Macdonald

“I always believe that we need visual, auditory or tactile cues from parts of a space that we can’t occupy with our bodies, in order to truly perceive it.”

Since graduating from architecture school at the University of Waterloo, designer Omer Arbel has carved out a unique practice. His company Bocci is best known for its numbered lighting and industrial design works but also places an important emphasis on material experimentation. You and I may never see the results of these experiments, however they act as an an important influence on and inspiration for the more commercial work that has caught the public’s attention.

Here Arbel speaks about this practice, as well as how he imagines Bocci will maintain this focus on experimentation moving forward.

Emma Macdonald: It’s interesting that practicing architecture — in its strictest sense — hasn’t been the focus of your work, despite having studied it. How did your focus on object and lighting design come about?

Omer Arbel: I would say there are two or three different sensitivities that I carried forward from my architectural education into my current career. And I really think the right word is sensitivity. One of them is the self-critical approach to making work in an architectural context that’s very very useful elsewhere. It’s not something that people often realize, but it is actually kind of unique to architecture. I don’t think an art education or an industrial design education has such a deep self-critical foundational approach to making work. I think it’s only in architecture where that’s taught.

That approach to critique was really quite a valuable thing that I took with me.

The second thing is the spatial approach to work. When we make objects, we make things that occupy or activate space. I’d like to believe that they have a sort of sensitivity in the way that they’re composed, or the way that they’re designed to be composed, that acknowledges the possibilities of a volume of an empty void.

The space around them?

Yeah. All our pieces in different ways have occupied space; have allowed the people who compose them to occupy space in a maybe more of an intense way than a normal object. I think probably that’s one of the reasons why they’ve been successful. A normal object you just install it, it has a kind of sculptural, central thing. You interact with it as an object. All our work tries to have an atmospheric composition to it that activates the space in a different way. In other words, I always believed — this is maybe sounding a little mystical — but I always believe that we need visual, auditory or tactile cues from parts of a space that we can’t occupy with our bodies in order to truly perceive it.

Imagine this room is 14 feet or 16 feet tall. We can’t occupy the space above our heads with our bodies; however, if there are visual or auditory cues or clues that we can relate to that are over there, somehow we’re able to occupy the volume in a more profound way.

So if those cues exist, they allow more of a relationship with the space?

Yeah, and our lights do that or are at least one element that can do that because sometimes they occupy space in an atmospheric way such that some of them are quite close to you in a way that you can almost touch them and perceive them in a tactile way and then understand in an intuitive level that the same object is also quite far away from you.

It allows you to project yourself out into a volume that your body can’t occupy, and maybe that’s why they can feel so gravity defying. People have also described them as feeling like they’re underwater.

That description is definitely clear, especially when thinking about your bigger works, lighting that occupies a lot of space in general.

You can kind of feel like that you might float up there, if you wanted to.

So those are two sort of architectural considerations. The third is maybe more direct and I hope to develop it in the coming future. I haven’t had a chance to so far because any architectural opportunities that came my way came so early, before I had really solidified my approach to materials and my approach to generating form. The ambitious architecture that we have constructed has only been very loosely related to the kind of mission that we’ve since discovered. I really, in the coming years I hope to explore the approach that we have to materials and process at the scale of architecture, and we’ll see if that works.

That’s the other way that I’d like to position my background within my current practice. At the scale of an object, we’ve been going down this road, which is getting more and more intense and more and more sophisticated, which is predicated on the idea that form is born not of an author’s imagination, but rather as a consequence of analog experimentation with the material. We see our role as inventors of a procedure or a technique rather than inventors of form. We allow the technique to yield form.

That is quite an interesting and powerful way of thinking about materials because there’s a certain appropriateness that inevitably occurs of the form to its material and to its process.

It’s true; anything — any material — is going to have an inclination.

Yeah! I always use the example of Frank Gehry because all his forms are very similar, and they are born of his imagination. He folds pieces of paper and people in the office scan them and then, whatever, there are serial numbers on each component that comes to the site and all that kind of stuff.

When you consider the fact that the same form is achieved with glass or with stone or with wood or with titanium or with whatever, to me that’s a little bit confusing because all of the materials don’t really necessarily want to make those forms. We can force them to if we hose them down with enough money, but, you know, we can make anything. We’re at a place where, with this increasing sophistication of 3D modeling technologies, we can basically make anything.

We can.

We can, but should we? The very fact that we can doesn’t mean we should, that would be what I say. What is appropriate form in a world where all forms are possible for any material? I would answer that that’s why these things are meaningful because the form is born of a material’s quality. So if you experiment with glass, it has vast formal potential, way wilder and more interesting than anything I could envision for it and try to shoehorn into this situation. Same with wood, same with metal.

So from your perspective, what is interesting is asking what is unique about working with different materials, rather than trying to make them work for whatever you already have in mind?

Anything that we could imagine as designers in an abstractive way on our phone is inevitably less intense or interesting than what we discover.

That’s just a fact. If we really wanted to pursue a practice, this would be the foundation of our practice. And if we really want that then it means we have to really step backwards in the process of authorship.

Apply some restraint, in some ways.

Restraint to the ego, as well, because you really have to be open at any moment to switching your actions. What you set out to accomplish is very rarely where you end up in our process.

Has that been a challenge to maintain as the practice grows? Even with small-scale objects, I imagine you must have to reconcile that openness a bit with the reality of producing more and more.

It’s more just like we intentionally try to stay small. We could grow much bigger than we are. But we feel like that would be a mistake, partially for the very reason you identified. We care so much that we only want to make two or three new things a year. You know, the competing brands have 20 new things a year. I can’t even imagine how that would work.

We try to make two or three successful things a year, and of course that means there are 10 or 12 experiments or material explorations — what I’ve started calling free explorations for research, as well.

Those have been an ongoing program of work that we have always done, that have intensified in recent years, in ambition and in resources. That’s been behind the scenes. The only things that people have seen have been the very few one or two a year that are selected to become products in the Bocci catalogue. And in order to become products, it’s not necessarily the best work that we’ve produced, it’s just the most suitable for our market environment. In other words, it’s reproducible in scale. Our resources, our glass shop can make them, our dealers like them. Those are layers of consideration that are not necessarily related to quality of work.

It becomes pragmatic even after all of that research and play.

It’s a business partnership. My role is to produce as many ideas as possible, and my partner makes it into a business. He has to make those decisions.

Not many people can boast being able to compare working in both Vancouver and Berlin. What is that balance like for you?

Berlin has been a great opportunity, and it has only in the last year begun to show the full breadth of our explorations. In Berlin, the great thing is we’re not commissioning our catalogue work. We’re showing our catalogue work in the context of the full range of experimentation we’ve been doing over the last 10 years. The really free explorations that have no function, that don’t have any kind of usefulness to them, they’re just an interesting way to work with the material and can only be presented as a curiosity or something like that or a piece of research.

So it kind of allows the behind-the-scenes work to have a platform?

To have a presence.

For me it’s a joy because then the catalogue work also gains a dimension of complexity because it is born of the same process of thinking.

And the combination of Berlin and Vancouver is almost perfect. The only thing that’s not perfect is that both winters are kind of awful! I would have loved it to be Rio de Janeiro or somewhere the winters are reversed. That’s the only imperfect thing, but even that, even that’s not true because the poetry of a Berlin winter or of a Vancouver winter are significant, and I love being in both places in the winters. Even though they’re hard for different reasons. It’s perfect — having such a different experience in the two cities. Our building in Berlin is much older than our city here!

Bocci’s Vancouver office

So there’s just a complexity of what that means culturally. To be able to toggle back and forth between a new and old world environment is amazing. They’re such different cities, they’re so, so different. Berlin is so open, and there’s a kind of “fuck you” attitude, but a friendly “fuck you” attitude.

It doesn’t have the politeness?

Yeah it’s to just express yourself!

And there is a greater appreciation for the arts on a mass cultural level, which I find amazingly receptive to our work. Here, appreciation of the arts is almost like a hobby, but in Berlin, it’s a part of citizenship or even personhood. If you’re a person, you’re interested in the arts, to some extent, or some aspect of the arts. I think that’s such a healthy approach to culture. Whereas here, it’s like “Oh I love whatever, I love theatre” or something like that, and you’re like “Oh, you do, great, interesting,” this person has a hobby. An interest in culture is a hobby here.

Vancouver is also a young culture. I don’t see it as a negative thing because in Vancouver there’s a greater — truly a greater, on a deeper level — there’s a greater openness. There’s less dogma, there is actually the potential to make new work here.

In Europe, there’s so much inertia from hundreds of years of art and design history that you’re always consciously responding to, and here there is none, there’s nothing, it’s the void, and it can really make you work.

How did the Berlin space come about?

It came about in kind of a magical way. We’ve leased a twenty-two-hundred-square-feet courthouse on six floors in Charlottenburg. Behind this courthouse, constructed in 1890, used to be a women’s prison constructed at the same time, so the courthouse and the prison operated in tandem. Our landlords purchased the entire site with the intention of renovating the former women’s prison into a boutique hotel, which they wanted to design and operate. They were looking for somebody interesting to take the front building.

We had to make a decision about it very quickly, and it’s a strange story, but we fell in love with it obviously, immediately. It is way more space than we could ever need or require. It’s so big, such a huge building. And that became attractive because shockingly, in Berlin, there are these empty buildings just sitting there. Which is actually a story that is impossible anywhere else right now.

Bocci’s space in Berlin

Maybe Lisbon and Detroit, as well.

Even Berlin is changing fast, but we were right at the tail end of this time where these massive, beautiful buildings were still available, which allow us to show really experimental work there because you don’t need it to generate income, need to pay the rent or need to pay the whatever. The kind of thing that is only possible when there are inexpensive or free spaces.

Was your interest in materials something that drew you to architecture school in the first place?

For sure, but it came in an oblique way. In architecture school I always made models; I never drew. I can only draw now. It took me years and years after architecture school to learn to draw. And in architecture school, that was quite a challenge. I had a very hard time extracting space into a two-dimensional format section of plan. I just had a kind of mental block that kept me from doing that way.

My only way to sort of survive or succeed in architecture school was to make models, which I could because I can make anything with my hands. I have this kind of facility with my hands, so I made models and they became increasingly more complex and more artful as I went through what I studied until at the end they were like these majestic, enormous things.

Buildings!

I realized before the last two years of architecture school, I didn’t even care anymore or very loosely or at least I only gave lip service to the fact that they were representational of a much larger building. Really, I just liked making them. There were themselves. Maybe they hinted at another thing, they hinted at maybe being an abstractive building or a representation of a building, but only loosely so.

When I graduated I started working for architects and really missed that kind of way of interacting with materials, so I would just make stuff, and from there it just all sort of grew.

All images courtesy of Bocci

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