Arik Levy, along with perhaps Marc Newson, is among those designers that all other designers envy (at least secretly). He flits between mass-market and high art, designing everything from cell phones to giant, one-off sculptures.
But he takes both equally seriously—and he argues that any object can be transformed into something magical: "I try to evoke memories of other objects, and that lets a product be something else."
During ICFF this week, Levy sat down with FastCompany.com, to discuss Tea Time, a new couch he designed for Molteni & Co; what that couch has in common with the design of Porsches; the education in design that began in his grandfather's TV repair shop; and airbrushing surfboards.
So what makes a new sofa, no matter how cool it looks, something that's worth thinking about?
At a distance, people look at design and think it's about aesthetics, but it's really done scientifically. The difficulty with furniture is creating things that feel normal, not thrown together. The way this piece is designed, it can be configured by the user [with a detachable backrest that can join different cushion units]. But it has a feeling to it with all these slight angles that relates to my own work.
But is that anything more than an aesthetic decision?
Have you ever looked at one of Porsche's photographs of their cars? They're usually under these long lights, and that reduces the car to just a long line of highlights [gesturing in the air, with the motion of one long signature]. The signature of the car really just exists as that line. This is the same. Those facets allow you to see the object, without it really taking over the space, because otherwise it would seem huge. This is like my sculptures. They're gigantic but they seem furtive, because they take so much from the environment around them.
Above: One of Levy's Rock sculptures, and one of his rock shelves.
Speaking of which, facets are something of a trademark for you. How did that develop?
It's a bit strange to say, but my work is about what's not there. I don't grow my rocks from the inside and I don't do geometrical faceting from a computer. I create the facets by taking away from a solid. They developed as a way of taking parts out and getting to a point where you can't take anymore away. If I don't like it, I throw it away. I always say the garbage bin is my best tool.
Above and below, "cave" that Levy designed for a Swarovski exhibit.
When did your education in design begin?
I can trace it almost back to being a toddler, to my grandfather's had an electronics store in Israel. People didn't throw out their TV's or their phones like you do now. We fixed everything. So at that time I would take parts—motors and axles or whatever—and I would make things. My grandfather would say things like, "This would work better if..." or "That doesn't work because..."
And then at 12, I started surfing. I starting building things like boards and fins, and I became a master airbrusher. I painted about 1,500 boards in my career. But it all felt like necessity, because design for me is an uncontrolled muscle, like breathing. It's part of my genetic code. I look around and I think about all the reasons things should be different. The only downside is that I sleep very badly. My bloody brain doesn't let me calm down.
Levy with a jacket and shirt he designed for Kolon.
So does that mean you never had a choice but to be a designer?
I use the social codes and natural sensations of my life as my tools. So I couldn't care less if something is innovative. What gave me passion was that I couldn't stop. It's on the border of perversion, really. But when my son was five, I took him to work and he said, "Daddy, you told me you're going to work but you don't go to work, you go play." That was the best compliment of my life. I'd give up the ability to sleep, to do it 24 hours a day.
What makes your approach different from anyone else's?
I designed stages for 15 years, and I've brought that into everything, even a cell phone for LG. In the theater, people can be born or disappear. They can be in a fire or a storm. But we accept this is all happening in the same space. The theater is a location where you free the viewer from the world, where they accept what's coming. I try to create theater in the same way, in objects. If I design something that looks like a cat, you can imagine it walking even though it can't walk. If I can create something that taps your memories of other things, it can be something more than itself.
Below: Two shots of Levy's massive "Fractal Cloud" chandelier:
Below: A confessional for shy (but kinky) lovers that Levy design for an exhibition we previously featured.