Dora Gad's Private Sanctuary

Sketches, prints, letters, plans, photos - a glimpse into the archives of the architect whose work became the face of 'Israeliness'.

There is no hint of what lies behind the blue-painted door, one of many on the second floor of the building that houses the interior design department of the Rishon Letzion College of Management. A fluorescent light is on over the door; students sit at a row of computers, hard at work on their assignments. The voice of a lecturer can be heard from a room further down the hall. Only a small sign alludes to what may be inside: "542, Interior Design, Dora Gad Archive."

The room is tiny, most of it taken up by four, wide wooden file cabinets with dozens of drawers - the kind architects use to store their blueprints. Randomly opening one drawer, one gets a glimpse of the hidden treasure inside: tens of thousands of documents, drawings, prints, photographs and sketches, made by the late architect and interior designer Dora Gad, recipient of the Israel Prize for architecture. The collection also includes Gad's personal photographs, letters and papers, including her Palestine immigration certificate and marriage license. Later additions to her professional archive include architect Dan Reisinger's original blueprints for the Hamashbir Lazarchan department store chain, for which Gad designed the interiors.

It is hard not to feel a thrill as you hold Gad's original designs in your hand, or browse through the sketchbooks of the architect, who is identified more than any other with "Israeliness," as Ran Shechori, a former director of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, wrote in the catalog for Gad's last retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum, in 1994, which was curated by Ziona Shimshi. Thus it is hard to believe that this material has not been cataloged or placed in an established archive, although Gad died 5 years ago. The reason, as one might have guessed, is money.

"Gad had no children or close family in Israel, so her heirs wanted the archive to go to a public institution," explains Prof. Arieh Sivan, chairman of the college's interior design department. "That's how we entered the picture. I remember the first time we went into Gad's office, which was in a big garage on the grounds of her home in Caesarea. We told them we were willing to take it all, even items that were seemingly not related to interior design, like her husband's books or family photos.

"We loaded the filing cabinets just as they were, with everything in them, along with her chair, her desk and her husband's library. There was something gut-wrenching about it, invading someone's private life like that. It did something to me. In a way, it was like violating a sanctuary."

Sivan started sorting through the tens of thousands of papers, but realized very soon that he did not have the manpower, time or budget for it. In addition, many of the documents were difficult to decipher, among them loose sketches, unmarked personal photographs and other material there was no way to date. In order to make use of the archive nonetheless, Sivan proposed that one of his lecturers, architect Hadas Shadar, teach a course on Dora Gad based on these materials. Both believed that the papers were very important because the history of Israeli interior design has never been documented. By studying Gad's travel diaries and sketchbooks, for example, one could learn about her approach to her surroundings and what was important enough to be jotted down.

Shadar wrote her doctoral dissertation on public housing in Israel. What initially drew her to Gad's archive was her interest in historical research. When she began to go through the materials, Shadar was particularly impressed by the great accuracy of Gad's perspective drawings and her bold use of color, as in her sketch of the movie theater at Beit Gabriel, on Lake Kinneret.

"Something very powerful is conveyed here that you might not see in a photograph," Shadar says. "In this sketch, the gallery, the wall and the stairway are all the same color, whereas in reality, they would be slightly different. This tells us something about Gad's design philosophy: She did not relate to each of these components separately, but as one large mass, which she dug into, to create the stairway and the wall. This is a process you wouldn't see looking at the final product."

Dora Gad (nee Siegel) was born in 1912 in a small town in the Bukovina region of Romania. She studied architecture and engineering in Vienna. In 1936, she immigrated to Palestine with her first husband, architect Yehezkel Goldberg-Gad, with whom she opened an office in Tel Aviv. They worked together until his death in 1958. A year later, in 1959, she married Ephraim Ben-Arzi, later chairman of El Al, who died in 2001, two years before her death.

Gad's fame dates back to 1950-1970, when the government invested large sums of money in national development. She played a major role at the time in designing the country's visual image. For decades, her work became the face of Israeliness. She designed the interiors of the Knesset and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (for which she won the Israel Prize in 1966 together with Al Mansfield) and the interiors of the country's first large hotels, among them the Sharon Hotel in Herzliya and the Tel Aviv Hilton. The interiors of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, the planes flown by El Al, and many Zim passenger ships, including the SS Shalom, the flagship of the local shipping industry - all were designed by Dora Gad.

In her designs, Gad incorporated a great deal of artwork, thereby contributing to the emergence of a new generation of Israeli artists, among them Dani Karavan and Yaacov Agam, whose careers she launched. What defined her work was a blend of local and universal elements, modernism and orientalism, industrial design and handiwork, along with splashes of vibrant color.