Israeli designers Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay
Shelves designed by Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay for Established & Sons Photo by Raw Edges Design Studio
Text size

It was April, the day before the opening of the most important design fair in the world. Only reporters were allowed into the exhibition hall of the British design company Established & Sons to get a peek at the new collections and chat - off the record - with several of the biggest names in the industry: Jaime Hayon, Arik Levy, Marcel Wanders and the Bouroullec brothers among others.

Several minutes later, the prestigious group was joined by Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay, Israeli designers who have been working in London for the past eight years. This year, the duo launched a line of 1950s-inspired shelves for Established & Sons. The series comprises six different shelves, all with a playful feel and refreshing mix of colors. It's reminiscent of some of their previous designs, such as objects created from old Fisher-Price toys and chairs constructed of origami for the Stella McCartney boutique in Milan.

The exhibition was the first time that Mer and Alkalay saw their finished shelves. To see them looking at their product, one would never guess they were the designers,or that they even belonged in this group of highly-regarded artists. They behaved modestly, with no pretenses. Their work is the same: avoiding both over-sophistication and banality and always combining playfulness with intellectual curiosity.

It has been ten years since Mer and Alkalay completed their studies in industrial design at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. Six years have passed since they completed their master’s degree at the Royal College of Art in London. Their graduating class, one of the college’s most successful in recent years, included Peter Marigold, Max Lamb, Glithero, rAndom International (yes, it's really spelled that way), Tomás Alonso and Oscar Narud.

Since then, Mer and Alkalay - both 36 - have achieved a status that few designers their age ever reach. Their work has been featured in many design magazines and galleries, as well as in museums and design fairs all over the world. They have works in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Design Museum in London and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, among others.

“You have to come see our studio in London," says the modest Mer. "The tiny hole-in-the-wall with a cold floor.” When asked about the meteoric rise of the couple in the past decade, she says, “It just happened, one thing after another."

“We work very hard," Alkalay adds."We do everything on our own. Every year before the fair in Milan, I get excited all over again. It never gets old.”

Out of the box

Mer and Alkalay – she from Tel Aviv, he from Bat Yam – are partners in work and in life. They met during their studies at Bezalel and then continued on together to the RCA.  From there, things got personal.

"After we finished out master's, we went to China with two other friends for four months," says Alkalay.  "It wasn't all that interesting from a creative standpoint, but it was there that we found that we work well together – not just consulting with each other, but really working together."

After completing their master's in 2006, they established their own studio, Raw Edges. The name came from their tendency to leave their material a bit unfinished, to keep a hint of the process exposed in the final product.

This year in Milan, they exhibited the series of shelves as well as a series of ceramic tiles with a fabric-like texture created for the Mutina tile company (marketed in Israel by Mody Ceramics). The tiles designed for Mutina last year had an appearance of crumpled or folded paper.

In addition, Mer and Alkalay exhibited a small mobile computer desk for Arco inspired by sewing machine boxes. In recent years, they have also participated in the highly successful textile show of the Danish fabric manufacturer Kwadrat, where their submission was an armchair woven horizontally and vertically.

Last year, Mer and Alkalay mounted an installation, The Unnatural Selection, at the Natural History Museum in London. A cascade of computer monitors poured out in every direction, like a waterfall, each showing animated clips inspired by the museum’s exhibitions. Several months later another version of the work, Curious Minds, was exhibited in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Another signature work of theirs was shown in the Dilmos Gallery in Milan: a series of tables and stools in lively colors, modeled on archetypes of benches from a variety of settings such as a nurse’s station, a sidewalk, a classroom and a picnic area.

Stacked success

Their breakthrough came when Alkalay designed a chest of drawers called Stack. The piece, which comprises large drawers placed on top of one another, opens to either side. It's more like an intriguing sculpture than a piece of furniture, its shape changing each time a drawer is opened or closed. The work was first shown during London Design Week in 2007.

Mark Holmes, one of the owners of Established & Sons, took note. He bought the archetype and put it into production. Six months later, the chest of drawers was shown at the 2008 Milan design fair and received an almost unprecedented amount of media coverage, considering the youth of the designer.

“I was terrified that the drawers would fall apart,” Alkalay says with a smile. “I could just imagine what would happen if this thing were to collapse.” It didn't.  Instead, it was one of the hits of the fair.

“I feel that it filled a certain need," Alkalay says of Stack's success. "There was the clean, excellent Italian design on one hand, and all the really cool experimental design on the other. This piece was in the middle – the most playful and the coolest but still something that could be manufactured industrially.”

"We try to break existing conceptions," says Mer. "We try to see how ideas can be broken down.” That characteristic has defined the aesthetic and functionality of the pair ever since.

“We have an experimental line, but we don’t want it to become too gallery-ish," says Alkalay. "What interests us is to get our work into people’s homes while bringing in surprises. We want you to see it and say, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ The result was a surprise to us, too. We don’t want 100 percent control over the final product. And we don’t want to promise that, either.”

One of the prevailing criticisms is that their designs are not practical, an accusation applied to Stack as well. “Practicality is part of the conversation,” Mer says. “But the question that most interests us in this case is not what people will put in it, but how they will use the whole piece – the nature of the contact between the object and the person.”

“It’s fun to invent a new typology,” says Alkalay. “Look, here are drawers that can be placed in the middle of the room. People can create a design for themselves. I’d be happy see how people are using it. In design magazines, some people put them to the side, others open just one drawer."

London calling

“Moving to a different place was very hard for me," says Mer of her new home. "I discovered that I’m connected to Hebrew and to the way things are done in Israel. My studies went well, but it was hard for me to get accustomed to London – unlike Shay, who fell in love with it in a second.”

“I was on cloud nine," he admits. "I still love this city very much.”

“Then we got to the RCA," continues Mer, "and suddenly we found a bunch of people who were extremely talented, each in a different field. That was a bit intimidating.”

“It’s not like in Israel," says Alkalay, "where you meet people and you ask them right away where they went to school, where they served in the army, and just from their surname you know how to pigeonhole them. London gets people from all over the world – Mexico, New Zealand – and what do you know about them? Everybody feels like a foreigner. Everybody is a foreigner. We were lucky that we had such a good graduating class. It was supportive and not over-competitive.”