‘My Job Is to Make People Happy’: An Israeli Textile Designer's Colorful Antidote to the Pandemic Blues

The coronavirus made textile designer Naama Ben Moshe fearful that she was no longer needed. So she set out to create a collection that injects color and vitality into days of lockdown and worry

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Naama Ben Moshe. “The more serious the coronavirus epidemic becomes, the more colorful my work becomes.”
Naama Ben Moshe. “The more serious the coronavirus epidemic becomes, the more colorful my work becomes.” Credit: Meged Gozani
Avshalom Halutz
Avshalom Halutz
Avshalom Halutz
Avshalom Halutz

At the end of World War II, Great Britain emerged on the victorious side, but enfeebled from almost every possible perspective. Facing a lengthy period of decline in international standing and the serious erosion of its economy, the former imperial power found itself in need of symbols of optimism and hope.

One such symbol took the form of an abstract design for textiles called Calyx, which was exhibited in 1951 at a London fair by a young British woman, Lucienne Day, who would become one of most important textile designers of the mid-20th century.

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Inspired by surrealist and kinetic artists, Day created fabrics for home use with a pattern of floating cups connected by stalks, in a surprising color combination of bright yellow, flaming orange, brown and black. For many Britons, her acclaimed designs signaled the colorful onset of a new period of possibilities and change.

Seventy years later, the illustrated textiles of the young Israeli designer Naama Ben Moshe, produced under her NAMA label, could also offer some solace during a time of worry and enforced seclusion.

“The more serious the coronavirus pandemic becomes, the more colorful my work becomes,” she said, taking a break at a Tel Aviv pop-up store where she sells her work together with other young designers. “I don’t define myself as the world’s most optimistic person, so I do things that make me and others happy.”

Naama Ben Moshe's Genesis collection.
Naama Ben Moshe's Genesis collection.Credit: David Seth

The outbreak of the pandemic engendered Ben Moshe’s greatest fear: that she was no longer needed. That feeling intensified when an exhibition of giant textile dolls she was about to present in the Youth Wing of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem was postponed after the museum itself was shuttered, and fairs and exhibitions abroad in which she had planned to participate were canceled.

“I could easily have said that I am not essential. That is my greatest anxiety, especially when people are reduced to bread and toilet paper, while I manufacture luxuries,” she says. “But I believe I have a role: to make people happy. In however small and minor a way.”

It’s hard not to feel cheerful when seeing her work. Her current collection includes graphic cushions with boldly colored silhouettes, a spectacular series of wall hangings of various sizes that can double as bedspreads and throw blankets, baby blankets, dolls and pocketed T-shirts – all featuring the same colorful motifs.

During the lockdown that began in March, Ben Moshe decided to produce do-it-yourself kits to create dolls from fabric, which have been a hit among adults and children alike.

Socialist depression

The more serious the coronavirus pandemic becomes, the more colorful my work becomes

Naama Ben Moshe

Themes such as community, creation and rebirth occupied Ben Moshe, 31, even when she was a student at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan. Despite her graphic works, in which illustrations play a large part, she also investigated the craft of weaving.

“It is the most hard-core realm, it’s to enter the innards from nowhere, it’s how to create a textile from zero,” she explains. “I wanted to do things as thoroughly as possible – to understand how fabric is constructed. That’s considered more analytical, more mathematical, more calculated. There is a great deal of planning, a great deal of understanding of the system.”

Like other works, which began with an intellectual process, her graduation project in 2015 was based in part on the studies of the British anthropologist Victor Turner about rites of passage in African tribes. “Rites involving coming of age, initiation or marriage. A passage from one condition of social status to another,” she elaborates.

In the same way that the pandemic flattens the differences between the world’s societies and forces different countries to deal with an identical reality, Ben Moshe says she was amazed to discover that the rites of passage that inspired her recurred in identical fashion in totally unrelated societies.

Naama Ben Moshe's work “The Savage,” exhibited at Jerusalem Design Week.
Naama Ben Moshe's work “The Savage,” exhibited at Jerusalem Design Week. Credit: Yana Friedman

“I was astounded at the parallel development of human thought in different places. It was found that even identical patterns of embroidery developed in different places,” she says.

For her graduation project, Ben Moshe decided to draw on the psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, yet the result is far more likable and playful than that description might suggest.

To the three works inspired by Turner, she says, “I added a series of 12 cloth dolls, based on Jung’s archetypes (such as the lover, the dreamer, the thinker). That connected with the theme of self-searching. People enjoyed choosing which of the dolls best represented them and what their choice said about them.”

The same questions led Ben Moshe to search for “herself” in a different society, and immediately after her graduation she moved to Berlin. There she launched – together with a local partner – a crowdfunding project to raise enough money to launch a business based on the Jung dolls. The project, though recommended by Kickstarter, did not raise the amount sought and was canceled.

Ben Moshe devoted her time in Berlin to creating her label, which came into being in 2017, for home design products including pillows, throws and wall hangings.

“At first I thought of making small designer dolls from fabric, because I myself am a collector of vinyl dolls, but regrettably I soon realized that the idea was not commercially viable,” she explains.

She’s almost ashamed to say how she managed to survive her three years in Berlin, during which she developed many other products. “It’s not pleasant for me to say, but thanks to my German citizenship [her family is of German origin] I received state grants [for studies].... At first I thought, ‘Wow! What a cool socialist country!’ But in time it depresses you and creates dependence and lack of motivation.”

Naama Ben Moshe.
Naama Ben Moshe.Credit: Meged Gozani

One reason for her move to Europe, she says, had been that she thought the label she was planning would not be successful in Israel. But things turned out differently.

Ben Moshe: “I didn’t feel that I belonged here so much, I was critical of Israel just like everyone. But my time in Berlin made me see things in their true proportions. It’s true that there is security in life there, but I had no security about who I was and about what my community was. In Berlin you can make do with little. It’s a completely different pace, for good and for bad. People are content with mediocrity somewhat.

“Because of that, the art there was mediocre. You can be a so-so artist and make a go of it – not like in Tel Aviv, where you have to spit blood in order to succeed. Also, there is no textile industry there. What there mostly is in Berlin is large-scale unemployment.”

Thus, after three winters in the German capital, she returned to Israel. “Since coming back to Israel two years ago, it’s as if the world has been signaling me that I made the right choice. I was surprised by the interest in my work,” she says.

Instead of Adam and Eve, I created two Eves. I felt that a feminine image on the blanket was appropriate for me; it wasn’t appropriate for me to do an illustration of a naked man.

Naama Ben Moshe

‘Savage’ and ‘Genesis’

Since her return, Ben Moshe has taken part in several exhibitions, including Illustration Week and the Fresh Paint fair in Tel Aviv, and the 2018 Design Week in Jerusalem. For the latter, she created an “illustrated-sewn scene” titled “The Savage,” which evoked the human connection to wild spaces by means of large, cheerful cloth dolls.

Last year, a grant from the National Lottery enabled her to create a series titled “Genesis” for the Fresh Paint fair. Each of the wall hangings in that series, woven on jacquard loom in the United States, depicts one day of the biblical Creation in scenes illustrated in pastels. But one of the central elements in the story is conspicuously absent.

“For Friday, instead of Adam and Eve, I created two Eves alongside animals, fish and plants,” she says. “I felt that a feminine image on the blanket was appropriate for me; it wasn’t appropriate for me to do an illustration of a naked man.”

The power of the work, especially when it is hung on a wall, stems not only from its visual beauty but also from the fact that Ben Moshe successfully integrates elements from the ancient history of textiles with contemporary design styles. Like her other works, “Genesis,” too, corresponds, consciously or not, with the work of the design group Memphis, which was active during the 1980s in Italy. It sometimes appears that Ben Moshe’s textiles are a kind of ongoing homage to the rugs of Nathalie du Pasquier or the works of Etore Sottsass, who founded a group that challenged the conventions of good taste and the place of design in the social and economic order.

Naama Ben Moshe's works.
Naama Ben Moshe's works. Credit: Naama Ben Moshe

On the other hand, Ben Moshe’s choice of rich compositions, figurative styles and religious scenes mean that her works also correspond with textiles from late antiquity in the Middle East, notably in Egypt. As in our time, textiles were created and acquired mainly for home use during those ancient times, and sometimes contained amusing human images and motifs dealing, among other subjects, with renewal and fertility.

Last year, Ben Moshe was invited to exhibit in a project to mark the centenary of the Bauhaus movement, as part of Illustration Week in Tel Aviv. The artists were asked to address the question of how the values and principles of the famous school could manifest in the unbuilt spaces of Tel Aviv, of all places.

For her part, Ben Moshe decided to explore the works of female artists who were active in the Bauhaus school, such as the important Jewish-German textile artist Anni Albers and the first female teacher on the school’s faculty, Gunta Stoelzl.

“Textile was especially significant in Bauhaus, but the women who taught and did creative work in the school were forgotten with time,” Ben Moshe says. “I created a very typical rug in the Bauhaus style, referencing grids of weaves that female designers created in that period.”

At the same time, she chose to evoke in her work the Charles Clore Park as an empty space in Tel Aviv. “The Bauhaus school sought to correct the situation of severe unemployment, and the park also came into being as a kind of correction – built on the ruins of the [Jaffa Arab] neighborhood of Manshiya. It’s a park that is sort of a cover-up. A correction, but also an erasure.” She titled the work “Under the Carpet.”

“It was an act of sweeping something under the carpet,” she explains. “There used to be a playground figure in the form of a whale in the park, and it too was erased. This is an area that underwent many transformations, and the carpet sets out to depict the layers, which also become evident as a result of the weaving itself.”

In the past year, Ben Moshe has collaborated with other artists, among them Slowdown Studio in Los Angeles (“I made lazy dolls for them; they’re all sleeping”), the Israeli illustrator and graphic artist Yonil (Jonathan Lax) and the illustrator Miki Motes. She will soon also start selling socks of her design, spawned by collaboration with a store in South Korea.

“I am very connected to the East, and to create socks is a dream,” she says. “When I got the samples from Korea – wow, I was really excited!”

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