Master of Decor

German-born Alfred Abraham was one of the first interior decorators in the country, known to the select clientele who could afford him by his 'total design' approach. His legacy ranges from Hebrew fonts to open-plan kitchens.

Miki Abraham is holding the phone book that belonged to his grandfather, Alfred, and leafing through it with the sort of care reserved for rare museum pieces. Although over 70 years have passed since it was first used, none of the pages in the book is torn or even yellowed. He opens to the letter "F," and finds the name of the Fromchenko family, founders of the Elite chocolate factory in Ramat Gan.

This phone book was never actually used for phone numbers or addresses. For example, beneath the name Fromchenko, there is a long list of places that were photographed in that family's luxurious Tel Aviv apartment. And the same is true elsewhere in the phone book: careful listings of photos taken in dozens of homes and businesses that were designed by Alfred Abraham for his small circle of clients.

Photos courtesy of the estate Alfred Abraham

"Grandfather didn't learn Hebrew to his dying day - he communicated with his clients in English or German," says Abraham, beginning to read the list written in neat handwriting. "There's halle, or hall; herrenzimmer - study; schreibtisch - desk; sitzgruppe - seating. Thanks to this notebook, we can now decipher all the materials that he left behind, although none of the apartments still exist."

Alfred Abraham, "an architect of interior decoration," as he called himself, was one of the first, few interior decorators working in pre-state Israel. Starting in the early 1930s, over a period of 25 years he designed over 100 projects for the local moneyed aristocracy, and even several luxury homes in neighboring Arab capitals. He also specialized in designing high-end commercial spaces and offices (including the first offices of El Al ), and furnishing them with dozens of unique pieces of furniture and lighting fixtures that he designed and manufactured with the help of the best artisans in Tel Aviv. In most cases, the latter didn't even know the clients by name, only as serial numbers. Abraham made a clear separation between the parties involved in his projects in order to have complete control over the design, manufacture and pricing.

"It wasn't design with a local flavor, it was European design that the yekkes [Jews of German origin] brought to the country with them," attests Rafi Kaufman, manager of the Nussbaum fabric store that has been owned by his family since the mid-1950s. He remembers Alfred Abraham as a pleasant and elegant man - "a yekke potz, like my father," he laughs. "The design world was then a closed club and far more personal. Those who used his services were the Tel Aviv aristocracy."

Abraham's work was familiar and greatly admired among a certain bourgeois circle in Tel Aviv; he didn't bother to advertise himself among the general public. After his death in 1958, his name was almost completely forgotten but the firm he started continued to be run by his son Rafael (Rafi ) Abraham, a graduate of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, who continued running it for four decades.

Today the firm is run by the grandson, Miki Abraham, and it remains in the same ground-floor apartment on Hashoftim Street in Tel Aviv where his grandfather worked, featuring his original design from the 1950s: heavy doors, stylized desks, colorful fabrics and side tables topped with the first shipment of Formica that arrived in the State of Israel.

Alfred Abraham was a pedantic documenter who left behind him a beautiful archive of hundreds of photographs, sketches and drawings, but until recently his grandson says he didn't have the time and energy to deal with it. Then, a few months ago, a first, modest exhibition of Abraham's work was displayed as part of Israel's Architecture and Design Conference (curated by architect Heidi Arad ), and at the same time Miki Abraham decided to open the doors of the company offices to the public as part of the "Houses from Within" happening. He is now initiating a comprehensive study of his grandfather's work and his contribution to design in pre-state Israel.

Researching Abraham's life and work involves a sort of detective work, because, as far as is known, none of his projects remains in its original state. The luxury homes he designed have since been dismantled and their furnishings scattered in all directions, and the commercial spaces he created have been renovated in keeping with the fashion and spirit of the times.

And yet, on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv one can still see a few remnants of his creative work. For example, the Laro coffee house at No. 37, which today is a delicatessen and liquor store with the same name. The present owner is not familiar with either Abraham or the original design of his store, but when I showed him several historic pictures of it, he gets very excited and with great pride shows me a large cast-iron coffee machine that he says has been around for over 80 years, and may simply have been too heavy to throw out.

The coffee house is a fine example of Abraham's style of work - what magazines now call "total design." No element went unnoticed by his sharp eyes or untouched by his agile hands; apparently, he even invented the art deco-style font of the signs that adorned the coffee house's exterior and interior. The entrance door was set back slightly from the street in order to give depth to its display window, and to create a little foyer for the customers - a recurring motif in Abraham's designs for commercial spaces.

According to photos, the materials used for the furniture and shelves inside the coffee shop had a classical European feel: wood, heavy metal and glass. On the horizontal wall there was an inscription in Hebrew and English: "The cafe with the quality that suits every taste, fresh every day." The font Abraham used, explains graphic designer Kobi Franco, belongs to a geometric sans-serif style - in other words, without embellishments at the ends of the letters, like the Aharoni and Sapir fonts that were designed in the 1930s and are still used by designers to this day. In keeping with the spirit of the times, the coffee-house floor was made of painted tiles, covered by luxurious Oriental rugs. Abraham was a great fan of textiles and rugs and used them in almost every project.

Major changes have been made to the premises on Allenby Street since then, but still, when you stand in front of the building you can distinguish the unique design of its display window and its unusual bottom panel, styled in metal, that was made by special order.

Other shops designed by Abraham on the main streets of so-called Little Tel Aviv are harder to find. The Masada bookstore that was apparently on 53 Allenby was buried beneath a clothing bazaar; Arieh Shoes, the Sova restaurant, Yakobi fashions and other famous businesses have over the years turned into dollar stores or Russian bookshops. This is additional evidence of the major changes that have gone on in recent years in the city center, and the movement of boutiques and upscale shops to Kikar Hamedina, northern Dizengoff Street or the Ramat Aviv Mall - a phenomenon which deserves a study of its own.

Wauchope on the beach

Alfred Abraham was born in 1900 in Castel, Germany, to a non-Orthodox Jewish family with origins in Portugal. He completed his studies in Germany in 1924, but his family was never able to find the official documentation attesting to his education in the field of architecture or design. At the age of 33 he decided to immigrate to Palestine with his wife and son.

"A good friend who was active in the Nazi party hinted to him about what was expected to happen, and he decided to pack his bags and leave," says his grandson.

At first the family lived in an apartment on 72 Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv. Alfred started a small firm there and began assembling clients from the large European community that had immigrated to the city during the Fifth Aliyah between 1920 and 1939.

"From the first day he worked very intensively. People say he closed the deal for his first project aboard the ship on the way here," says grandson Miki. "In terms of the clients, he was in effect the main contractor: He provided not only planning services but would give the client the key after all the furnishings, curtains and other objects were in place."

Of course Abraham didn't work alone. For many years he was accompanied by architect Helena Roth (also a yekke ), whom some of the clients remember as his "field representative." Also working in the firm were Lazar Hezkia and Yehezkel Gad, the husband of famous designer Dora Gad, who afterward began their own firms.

Abraham's work was always carried out in a wealthy, or at least relatively well-to-do, environment. Interior design was not yet a bon ton in the 1930s and the '40s, it was usually done in a discreet way and cost a fortune.

"The exterior facade of the buildings did not indicate the wealth inside," says Miki Abraham. "There could be a luxurious apartment on one side of a corridor, and a very simple one across the way. People with money enjoyed it quietly, modestly. If you were to take those same clients of Grandfather's and move them to the present day, they would probably choose to live in Savyon, Kfar Shmaryahu or a residential high-rise in Tel Aviv, in buildings whose exteriors are luxurious as well."

The home of Oved Ben Ami, the first mayor of Netanya, a leading diamond merchant and one of the founders of the daily Maariv, was a clear example of a home that was beautiful both inside and outside. It was built by architect Zoltan Shimshon Harmat between 1935 and 1937, and Abraham was in charge of its interior design. The house was built on a two-acre lot that is now in the center of Netanya and is no longer standing. Its design was inspired by the works of the famous German Jewish architect Erich Mendelssohn (who had tremendous influence on the development of the International style in Israel ).

The villa served Ben Ami in his ramified public activity. His daughter, Hannah (Hani ) Wolfson, says her father understood the importance of maintaining direct contact with the heads of the British Mandate, and therefore wanted a house where he could receive high-ranking guests and hold events with large number of participants.

"When Father first met with British High Commissioner Arthur Wauchope, they stood on the sand in Netanya because he didn't have a home to which he could invite people. He wrote at the time in his diary: 'If things develop and the work and connections expand, we have to consider a comfortable home for receiving people and visitors.'" Her father succeeded in his mission: Thanks to his good connections with the British, he received ownership rights to the coastal, sandy parts of the city, and promoted efforts to dry out the nearby swamps.

The Ben Ami house met every standard of luxury and sophistication of design, even when compared to other mansions built in that period - such as that of Sir Alfred Moritz Mond (1st Baron Melchett ) on the shores of Lake Kinneret, or the private home of Chaim Weizmann in Rehovot. Ben Ami lived with his wife and their two daughters there, and Wolfson has a clear memory of their move to the new house, shortly after her seventh birthday.

"For two years we would visit the house on Shabbat, walking around among the scaffolding," she recalls. "Father moved there before us; we waited for me to finish the school year in Tel Aviv. There was tremendous excitement before the move to the house. I'll never forget the feeling of going up the broad stairwell and encountering the wide wooden door with iron decorations. We ran from room to room, amazed at the wonderful design. I didn't know the meaning of aesthetics or harmony, but I knew how to admire it."

The house had three stories and included large areas for entertaining, and was one of Abraham's most important works, both in its dimensions and design complexity. He was able to create a hierarchical but flexible system of spaces characterized by different materials - for example, he used marble panels for the living room walls, wooden doors for the study. The most impressive room was the formal living room that took up most of the ground floor: In pictures taken shortly after construction was completed, one can see the combination of freestanding sofas that could be moved around, and heavy sideboards and shelves placed against the walls.

The great effort invested in design was also reflected in the choices of curtains, wallpaper and rugs ("a combination of Mother and Alfred," says Wolfson ), and the standing lamps that were specially produced - according to the dimensions of the house - and emitted a warm and pleasant light. Wolfson says the living room was not used by the family on a daily basis; they preferred to sit in a smaller and more intimate space.

What does she remember of Alfred Abraham? "What kind of impression does a six-year-old girl have of a respected yekke?" she laughs. "He was a very polite man with a well-developed sense of design, in which everything was calculated down to the last detail. He had outstanding taste. Really, he deserves every compliment on his taste. [The house] could have been used to this day because it still would have looked modern and fitting."

In spite of Ben Ami's original intention that the house to be transferred in the future to the public domain, the family decided, with his consent, to sell it after the death of their mother. Instead of the luxurious villa, there is a collection of residential buildings, and the few furnishings that remained in the family were first put into storage and eventually disappeared. "We didn't understand the value of the things at the time," says Wolfson.

The importance of a lobby

The bourgeois lifestyle of Palestine in the 1930s and '40s was clearly reflected in the work of Alfred Abraham. There is almost no photo without an ashtray, or an apartment without a bar, as though life in Tel Aviv was like that portrayed in the American television series "Mad Men," with residents engaged in various colorful, exciting events.

Abraham's style does in fact represent the spirit of the time and constitutes a turning point between classical European design, characterized by heaviness, complexity and conservatism, and a lighter modern style. In his later works, one can even see a spark of American modernism and the use of innovative materials. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had his career not been terminated with his death at age 58.

Miki Abraham thinks that his grandfather had a "universal and eternal style, divorced from passing fashions," yet, in a substantial part of his residential work one can see recurring motifs - for example, the above-mentioned entrance lobby. This space was as much a functional as a cultural necessity, a kind of additional "filter" between an exterior stairwell and a private, residential area. Abraham's dignified design for such lobbies involved lowering the ceiling (by means of plywood, since plaster was not yet in use ) and concealed lighting. Within the space there was often a small table with a chair alongside it, which provided seating for anyone waiting for the master or mistress of the house.

Another design element that recurs in Abraham's work and is also of cultural significance is the multipurpose furniture - for example a folding sofa that opens out into a bed or an armchair (usually with an ashtray attached to its arm ).

"That's a reflection of Yekke thinking," says his grandson Miki. "You don't waste money, and if you're already making a piece of furniture, then it should serve several purposes, even if it costs more."

And Abraham's furniture did cost more, far more. The cost of a piece of such complicated furniture alone would probably be in the tens of thousands of shekels today, without figuring in the cost of rugs, fabrics or coat hooks, which were also unique design elements for Abraham. There are projects for which he apparently insisted on proof of the financial standing of his clients - in order, for example, to know whether he could order luxurious mohair upholstery fabric that cost about $300 per square meter.

In the various places of business whose interiors Abraham designed over the years, one can also see recurring motifs, such as the entrance door set back from the street (as in the Laro coffee shop ) or parts of display windows that were not transparent, which prevented passersby from peering in to see what was going on inside.

"It was considered nosy to see who exactly was spending money and on what," Miki Abraham explains.

The items on sale in these places were usually displayed in an interesting manner: In the food shops the items were placed in glass cases, in a kind of museum arrangement, while in shoe stores (such as Arie Shoes ) the boxes were concealed in a side room in order not to detract from the aesthetics of the space.

A particularly interesting commercial space whose interior design was done by Abraham was the first office of El Al airlines, which was built in the early 1950s in Tel Aviv. Miki Abraham explains that it embodied the glamorous idea of the age of jets and trans-Atlantic flights, and had the feel of an exclusive club. Located in a two-story building, the offices were divided into an area for purchasing tickets, on the ground floor, and an administrative space on the second floor. The walls were wood-paneled - creating the association of a wealthy shipping club - and on the wall was a huge map of the world with the airline's trademark logo. The staircase leading to the second floor was designed in an aerodynamic manner, and there were ashtrays, of course, on the reception counter.

As opposed to the interiors of private residences that Abraham designed, the commercial sites he did acquired a certain degree of fame, if only because of their location on main streets. In September 1937 two of his projects - the Laro coffee house and the Yakobi lingerie shop - were included in a special survey of local architecture that appeared in the prestigious French architectural magazine Architecture d'Aujourd'hui.

Designing the lock

Prominent among Alfred Abraham's loyal clients were members of the Habas family, who commissioned his work for three projects, over a number of years. For the first generation of the family, Tzippora and Abraham Habas, he designed the interior spaces of the luxurious Tel Aviv villa designed by Zeev Rechter on the corner of Hanevi'im Street and Chen Boulevard. For the members of the second generation - Abraham and Shosh Habas - he designed two apartments, also in central Tel Aviv.

"Alfred was a very well-known figure during that period - there weren't many designers in the country and he stood out became of his meticulousness," says Shosh Habas, recalling a typical story: "My mother-in-law told me that a dining table was delivered to them, and Alfred stood at the side and began muttering, 'What a catastrophe!' She asked him what happened and he replied that they had not installed the lamp precisely above the center of the table. My mother-in-law said to him: So move the table a little and it will be exactly in the middle. That's the kind of yekke he was."

In the two apartments he designed for Abraham and Shosh Habas, one can see from photos that there was an intelligent division of the space along with particular attention to furnishings and other objects. The first apartment on Katznelson Street was modest in size and the main challenge was to find room to serve various purposes. For instance, in the living room Abraham designed a multipurpose piece of furniture: a bookshelf containing a bar, a pull-out desk and shelves with a bottom door with shutters, for storing papers.

"The room did not look crowded, but it contained everything we needed in that small space," says Habas. "He paid attention to every detail. He designed the lock, the key, the handle. Nothing was store-bought. I even remember that he lined the inside of the closets with mahogany veneer, every detail was important to him."

In order to add a special personal touch, Abraham designed a logo for the couple that represented their occupations: a palette and a paintbrush for artist Shosh, and the diagram of a molecular chain of sugar for chemist Avraham. This logo was engraved on the bar and undoubtedly became a conversation piece.

Later, in the other apartment he designed for the Habases, on Rothschild Boulevard, Abraham dealt with much larger spaces. Some of the furniture was transferred from the family's previous home, with slight alterations. However, Habas particularly remembers the design of the children's room in the new house, which was featured in a special article in Haaretz in 1955.

"Most architects admit with some hesitation that even the wealthy, when they redo their apartments, devote little attention to the children's room," the article said. "The children's room serves as a kind of 'junkyard' into which all kinds of furniture, chairs, lamps, curtains etc. are stuffed - which 'aren't nice enough' for the other rooms in the apartment."

The children's room in the Habas apartment wasn't a junkyard. On the contrary: It was spacious and included many design innovations. The closet was suited to the use of children and it had a pull-out desk as well. When the children grew up Abraham placed a closet in the middle of the room, which created two separate spaces and gave them privacy.

Another innovation in that apartment was the installation of a kitchen that opened out to the dining area, in order to save space and to make the preparation and serving more accessible. This is the first instance of an open kitchen in Israel - a design fashion that is now found in many dwellings around the country.

Habas now lives in a different apartment in the city center and admits she doesn't miss the apartment on Rothschild. "It was very dark because we lived on the first floor and the trees grew and concealed the light. I miss neither the furniture nor the design. Today I'm happy in my apartment which is all square and modern, a total revolution."

Alfred Abraham may have left Europe in the early 1930s, but apparently Europe never left him. Just as he chose not to speak Hebrew to his dying day, his style could never "connect" to the Levant, either. At a time when contemporary designers like Dora Gad were able to create an original language of design, taking into account the climate, lighting and color unique to this place - he remained a conservative who refused to sever himself from the European tradition. Perhaps that is the reason why none of the spaces he designed remain in their original formats.

Nevertheless, one should not underestimate the importance of Abraham's work. The interiors of the houses, apartments and commercial premises he designed over 25 years faithfully represent the bourgeois culture and society of Tel Aviv at that time. In almost every picture or sketch one can discover something about the daily routine of the users, their dreams and their attitude toward the environment. The history of interior design in the Land of Israel suffers from a great paucity of research and publications, even more than the field of early architecture. Abraham's work is definitely a worthy starting point for such research. W