A dance production, an office chair, an air conditioning unit and
several pieces of jewelry. These are just a few of the projects on Arik
Levy’s to-do list this month. We met with this maestro of many things at
his studio in Paris.
“I was a disaster according to business people, they said ‘you’re
crazy!’ You can’t work across so many fields; you have to concentrate on
one thing to be successful. That was the attitude when I set up – but I
was right!” Levy grins, and leans back in his chair. We’re sitting in a
glass meeting room in the middle of the Paris studio he shares with
business partner Pippo Lionni and their 20 designers, busy at work
around us. Under the banner L Design, the studio is currently working on
around 100 ideas, spanning everything from graphic identities to
sculpture. And since setting up in 1997, they’ve created a sophisticated
balancing act: In good years, “glam” projects for the likes of
Swarovski and Baccarat see lump sums arrive in the company account,
while quick “face-lifts” for hard-up brands keep the money trickling in
when the market slows.
But clever as this arrangement sounds, it was never a master plan.
“I’m totally dyslexic,” says the Israeli-born designer. “Now people
think being multi-disciplinary is the best thing you can do for your
business – for me, it’s just the way my brain is wired. I was a complete
disaster at school, so I found different ways of saying what I wanted
to say, in 3-D.” Today, these “different ways” include projects for the
likes of Kenny Schachter Rove gallery, Vitra, Desalto, Molteni, Frag,
Ligne Roset, Zanotta, Swedese, and Swarovski. His ability to flit
between disciplines and cultures has made him a name as big as they come
in the design scene, and this year, he joins a legacy of A-list
designers as guest of honour at the Stockholm Furniture Fair.
It’s an incredible success story. But with so many varied projects
rolling out of the studio, is it possible to have a methodology?
According to Levy, displacement, culture shock, dyslexia and “the loss
of this finger,” he says holding a stubbed digit in front of me, amounts
to an “absence” that pervades his work, from the broader concept of a
piece right down to the treatment of its material. We’ve come here to
understand the relationship between his objects. And to see if his
“We won’t need long, I am an interview pro,” Levy emails me before we
meet. Face to face, he is just as confident; and he is certainly well
rehearsed. Over fika – a tradition he picked up from a homesick Swedish
intern – Levy reels off elaborate anecdotes I’ve read in previous
interviews. But you wouldn’t know; he speaks with such energy and
enthusiasm you feel like he’s thinking everything up for the first time
in front of you. In the past he’s gotten so carried away in interviews,
he’s allowed journalists to believe he’s formed previously documented
ideas while talking to them. But then amiable as Levy is, he is also
savvy; he knows how to work the system, and how to make a good story.
It’s all part of “surviving,” according to Levy. Growing up in Israel when he did, survival was something you held at the forefront of your mind. “It wasn’t about ‘which school should I go to’,” he says. “You go to high school, you do your bit in the army, and then you’re out there doing it – surviving.” After school he set up a graphic design agency and a surf shop where he did everything from building boards to designing wetsuits, and produced artworks on the side, most proudly exhibited along with “the Jeff Koons of Israel,” in 1986, he says.
It was “the love of a woman,” in Switzerland that saw him leave the country to enroll at the Geneva branch of the California-based Art Centre College of Design. But reality hit home quick: “I was shocked,” he says. “Culturally shocked, personally shocked. I didn’t know what to do. On the first day the teacher showed 100 slides of design and asked ‘who did this and when?’ I got three right – I realised I had no foundation, no basis of European cultural knowledge.”
But being “a positivist,” Levy used his lack of cultural baggage to his advantage. He picked up some useful tools from design school; how to produce technical drawings, use industrial processes, and organise his thoughts more constructively. But he protected his intuitive design process from the school rulebooks, and it’s this that gives his work its individuality. Levy shapes objects guided by his instincts. With no template to hold him back, he is free to take flights of fancy, and it’s here that things get fun; his goal is to “bring the theatre into technology, technology into furniture, furniture into theatre, and consumer electronics into sculpture.”
You don’t need to dig too deeply before you see this at play. Levy’s slender vases for his L’Autre exhibition are bent three times, giving them an anthropomorphic quality – it’s as if they have knees, a waist and a neck. Each different to the other, collectively the composition leads you to think about dance, so it’s no surprise Levy was working on the set design for a dance show at the time. Similarly, his Mistic vase for Gaia & Gino, composed of seven entwined silver cylinders, is the image of a group tango from the waist down.
Levy calls his process “techno-poetic”. “It’s scientific as much as it is emotional,” he explains. “It’s like a kind of recipe; the percentage of how much poetry, emotion, technology, science, industrial or hand-made production processes you use changes constantly, to create something that has its own identity.” It’s a process that is more philosophical than it is hands-on. While popular contemporary practice is to form objects experimenting with techniques and materials, Levy’s inspirations are more abstract. In fact, his overarching philosophy is so abstract that it took a psychotherapist to put it into words.
“I had a meeting here with a collector in 1992 and I was talking about my art work,” says Levy. The collector noticed Levy’s missing digit: “He’s a psycho-analyst, and he said ‘do you realise you’re doing your own psychotherapy through your work?’ Then he spoke for five minutes and he connected all these strings for me visually and mentally. We linked them all to absence. There’s the absence of my finger, my country, my family, my friends, of a certain knowledge… I’ve realised absence is a big part of who I am.”
So how does this link back to Levy’s work? “When I make a Rock, I take pieces out,” he says, referring to his polished steel Rock sculptures, made by slicing off sections from a rectangle. “What’s left is defined by what is gone.” And he’s right; when you look at these pieces, the planes that are missing are as visible to the mind’s eye as those that remain.
This is a recurring feature in Levy’s work. He hacks away at a material, building a shape through removal; his Kaz glass candleholder for Gaia & Gino looks like it’s been taken to with an axe, while in his GTFrameVoidWood shelving he removes from the inside out, creating holes in the block and, as the title suggests, framing voids.
Levy’s ability to form a philosophical bridge across his work puts him in a strong position as a designer. New clients such as Miyake and Molteni recently approached Levy to produce products that were more “sculpture” than design.
“This is the reward of doing my own thing for 30 to 40 years, it means I can now live in it,” says Levy. Having struggled to prove that his multidisciplinary model works, you can see why he’s happy to have the big brands on board. The problem is, in packaging up his philosophy so neatly and trading on it, he runs the risk of producing clichés.
This was the case at the designer’s mega Swarovski Crystal Palace solo show at the Milan Furniture Fair in 2009. Called “Osmosis”, the show took “the transition of particles from one part to another part” as its theme – a metaphor that works neatly with all his methodologies. For starters there is the blurring of disciplines: the pieces were lit up, and accompanied by music “as if it was a dance show,” he explains. Second, there was the “absence” of any Swarovski crystals; we were led to believe the crystals had moved through osmosis into another place, leaving humongous wire-frame crystal-shaped skeletons in their wake. The lack of crystals was a loud void for a Swarovski show, and their “absence” was portrayed on such a large, literal scale, it left nothing for the imagination. The show was a pastiche of Levy’s processes, which was a shame because tucked away at the back was a lovely idea; an interactive arena that turned visitors’ dances into code, later translated into a series of simply stunning sculptures.
What’s most interesting about Levy’s work is its ability to fire up the imagination. You probably won’t pin down the themes running through his work on the shop floor, but you’ll end up on your own flight of fancy. His objects are imbued with that hard to quantify “feeling”. They trigger something in us when we hold them. It’s a subconscious sense in us, but Levy studies it to an obsessive degree, frequently hanging around shops to watch people interact with objects. He also has a habit of treating his clients and visitors as guinea pigs. We’re talking about feeling and design as the interview comes to a close – and I sense I’m about to be experimented on.
“Shut your eyes,” he says. “Shut! With your eyes open you are concentrating on your questions and my answers, what I am wearing and what I am doing. Now is the first time you can listen to the volume of my voice; the first time you can feel the chair – not sit – feel, and decide if it is comfy or not.” A mug Levy designed lands in my grip, and I’m aware that my fingers move into crevices in the ceramic to find a comfortable grip. “Does it hug your hand?”