The studio of artist and designer Ohad Benit is located in a tough area in south Tel Aviv. Among the rough surroundings, the studio looks like a playground for designers, replete with creations, experiments and tools of the trade. Unlike most designers, who work with computers and have factories manufacture their products – Benit does almost everything by himself.
“There is no such thing here as a duplicate,” he says. “Everything stems from a concept. That’s why I describe my efforts as being on the seam between art and design. The difference between me and an artist is that an artist often begins his work from an idea or an opinion that he wants to express. Designers work based on orders.”
Formerly religious, Benit, 41, studied industrial design at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem. He explains that he started creating his Stress light fixtures for his own use, but today receives orders for them. These standing fixtures are composed of blown glass – resembling a soap bubble – with a light bulb inside, which has been threaded through a loop of brass.
“That’s what makes every such light fixture so unique. If there were no bulb and only a glass bubble," he says, "it would be treated as a sculpture. The moment I put a bulb into the bubble it’s immediately treated like a product.”
Some of his Stress lights were displayed about two years ago at the “Shever Kli” (A Broken Vessel) exhibition at Tel Aviv's Saga Gallery, along with multi-legged stools that appear to resemble tables.
“In a visual world, when you see an [flat] upper surface placed on legs, people identify the object as a table. I question that. Is the table a table? Does a table have to be stable?" he asks, adding that in any case, "I didn’t create the work in order to sell it.”
At that same show in Tel Aviv, he also displayed plates on which he printed images of the internal organs of animals: “I went to the disgusting part of the market, I looked for organs and photographed them. The brain, the heart and so on.”
Of his decision to research, develop, design and produce virtually everything by himself, he admits, "It is risky, as compared to manufacturing items in a factory, especially in Israel."
Although he has had financial problems, "this is what enables me to maintain my inner truth: I don’t get into monetary considerations in my work, and that’s one of the things that’s important to me as an artist. I could have joined the wave and become a designer of light fixtures. But I decided not to.”
Intellectual discourse regarding design is very limited. Design is mainly seen from the commercial point of view.
Benit: “There is a discourse, but it is mainly disseminated abroad, as in the case of things made by [Israeli professor and industrial] designer Ezri Tarazi. It’s beginning to change, but there’s room for drastic improvement. Elsewhere there are galleries that deal in design art, but here it’s almost nonexistent. It’s also a matter of supply and demand, and the clientele here don’t know how to process all that. There are also events like Design Week. I’m particularly in favor of coming in through the back door, like with the exhibition I did. In the Design Museum Holon it can also happen more. For example, they did a show about eyeglasses there and Israeli designers participated, but this should happen much more.”
Among his various endeavors, Benit often collaborates with commercial firms and creates installations for them. For example, he designed a work constructed of wooden poles that looks like amoebas, for a startup that grows algae. For the Vera Hotel in Tel Aviv he designed a wall constructed of pipes and brass elements that he calls “Gas Wall.” For the Tel Aviv offices of Natural Intelligence, a company that works in artificial intelligence, he built an installation composed of glass balls that is reminiscent of DNA, with video footage screened on it. At present he is designing something for Noble Energy.
As part of Tel Aviv's Fresh Paint Contemporary Art & Design Fair, which ends Tuesday, a sculptural installation entitled “Down to Earth,” which Benit created in cooperation with Swedish fashion brand COS, was on display in the old Agricultural Bank building in Tel Aviv. Inspired by the current 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus School of art and architecture in Weimar, Germany, the installation features pieces of colorfully painted metal, cut in geometric shapes and suspended from long glass pipes.
In particular here, Benit specifically referenced the works of Hungarian artist and photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a professor at the school, whose paintings were characterized by simple shapes – squares, circles, lines and whole colors.
The installation, says Benit, imitates clothes that have just been laundered and hung, “with their dripping drops. I took leftover pieces of metal and manipulated them so that would look heavy. There’s an attempt here to show how heavy elements become super-light. In order to correspond with the COS clothing collection, I received the codes for the colors of the clothes, and some of the metals were painted in those colors.”
In this case too, the installation was almost totally made by hand, he adds: “Some of the sheets were cut with a laser, but I did the bending with a tool that I built for the job.”
Unlike works of art, which are not usually created especially for a specific space where they are to be exhibited, Benit's works are adapted to their venues.
“If in the past in a company would buy a painting by [popular Israel artist Menashe] Kadishman for its offices, today the art created for the space expresses the power of the company,” he says. “I take a brief of what the company does and create walls for it that express the strength of its brand.”
And it’s all done using methods that are apparently not profitable.
“Absolutely. I’m against how the world works. You could say that I’m a control freak and want to know how everything is made. I’m incapable of working by the 'send it and forget about it' method. If I was unsuccessful with something, I do it again.
“It's boring to create a light fixture that will be in every home in Israel. A designer who thinks that way begins to take financial considerations into account. I avoid those places.”
Benit's insistence on designing and manufacturing by himself may not always pay, but there are companies that invest a great deal of money in his works. Why? So that he can help them distinguish themselves from other companies, he says.
“That’s also another way I differ from artists. For an artist, it isn’t necessary for his work to communicate. That’s why I describe myself as being on the seam between art and design," Benit explains. "I make art that communicates.”