Israeli Design Is an Art Without a Home

The discipline does not get regular state support, so designers must sacrifice chances to join important international exhibitions.

Last October, at the highly regarded Tokyo Designers Block, curator Nirith Nelson heard a lecture by Renny Ramakers, the curator of the Dutch design group, Droog Design, and was filled with a sense of frustration. Ramakers related the success story of the group, which began in the early 1990s following Droog Design members' participation in the Salone de la Mobile in Milan with funding from the Dutch government.

Nelson's frustration intensified when Ramakers related that today too, ten years later, the Dutch government continues to provide full financial support for the group to take part in all the important design shows around the world.

"Suddenly I realized that the story of Droog Design could've been our story," says Nelson, who curated the Israeli design show "Contemporary Israeli Design Domains." The show was presented at the Tokyo Designers Block two years ago (see box) with funding from the Foreign Ministry's cultural and scientific affairs department, but since that funding was stopped, no other Israeli design exhibition has been featured at the Tokyo show.

"The reactions Droog got after the first exhibition resemble the reactions to "Domains." The difference is that the Dutch designers were warmly embraced by the state when they returned home and therefore they continued to function, but with us the aid stopped despite the success."

"Domains" received invitations from many countries and a lot of media exposure. "A new design from Israel is wafting through the city," The Shanghai Daily declared. The Beijing Weekend wrote: "It's surprising to see such innovation coming from a country of just six million."

Design languages

Nelson's thick file of press clippings contains other favorable reviews from the Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese and European press. The Taiwanese paper, The Taipei Times, wrote: "This is an opportunity to experience an unknown side of Israeli culture." And the Korean daily, Joongang, noted that, "the language of Israeli design is prompting interest among a large international audience."

The comparison between Droog Design and "Domains" reflects the sad situation of Israeli design - a reality where there is no support from government bodies. Unlike Israel, many countries do understand the great importance of supporting local design, among them Holland, Sweden, Australia, Canada, Britain, France and China.

Most public support for design in those countries is for international exhibitions - the main arena in the world of international design. At these exhibitions, several crucial conditions for designers' international success are met - they offer designers exposure to foreign media; they create a broad platform for contacts with manufacturers; they raise the profile of local design in the international community.

Veteran designer Tal Gur who himself covered the cost of two exhibitions at the fair in Milan, took part three times in the London Designers Block and for the last four years has been invited to show at the Tokyo Designers Block.

Gur, who sells his work in many cities around the world, including Milan, Tokyo, London and Paris, is careful to participate as regularly as possible in international fairs and exhibitions. "That's the only way to enter the international consciousness and establish vital connections with movers in the world of design," he says.

Nevertheless, local designers usually have a hard time raising the money needed to attend design shows abroad. Despite the impressive success of Israeli design in recent years, no body is specifically designated for provide support in this discipline - neither government nor public institutions, nor public nor private funds. Even commercial enterprises and entrepreneurs provide hardly any patronage for designers.

One of the most important international design fairs is the Salone Del Mobile, which takes place every year in Milan. During the fair, there are group exhibitions all over the city by designers from different countries including Holland, Denmark, France, the United States, Germany and Sweden.

Cap in hand

The exhibitions are financed by special funds in each country to promote design and the considerable investment is evident in the large exhibition spaces that are rented, in the good location of the venues selected and the public relations around it.

The industrial design department of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design has been invited to the upcoming fair as part of an exhibition featuring ten design schools from different countries presenting a futuristic design concept for a restaurant.

This is the third time that the fair's international committee of curators is inviting the Bezalel Academy to exhibit at the fair. The exhibition will be divided among several large spaces and in them each design school will present a design for a restaurant to hold 50 diners using computerized imaging and life-size models. The Bezalel students will design a French gourmet restaurant under the gastronomic guidance of Chef Eyal Shani.

The project's estimated cost is $30,000 and at Bezalel they have not yet managed to raise that sum. The only assistance they have been assured of is from the Foreign Ministry's cultural and scientific affairs department, which will take care of flights and shipping. Prof. Ezri Tarazi, the head of Bezalel's department of industrial design, says he approached the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Employment for aid, but was turned down.

"This is a huge international design event that around 400,000 people visit and we'll represent Israel there. It's not an end of the year school exhibition, which would obviously be the Bezalel Academy's responsibility to finance; moreover, we don't have the budget for a project of this scale," says Tarazi. "If the Israel national soccer team made it to the Mondial, wouldn't some body be found to finance it? We've been invited to the Mondial of the design world, but we don't have the money to attend."

Designer Alon Raz-Gur attended several design exhibitions around the world "until my parents' and my own money ran out," he says. Raz-Gur wanted to exhibit a series of metal vases manufactured for him by the metalwork company, BTI, at this year's Salone Satellite show. But he was unable to raise the necessary funding - around $30,000 - from government bodies.

Avital Sherf, who works in product design and collaborates with Raz-Gur, approached commercial entities and private businessmen, but did not find any funding there either. "Unlike other designers, I found a manufacturer that can export the products all over the world tomorrow," fumes Raz-Gur, "and despite that, I can't find funding."

Food for thought

Designers Roi Roth and Inbal Gil, graduates of the Bezalel Academy's department of industrial design who have worked together in the past in the Yavhush Group, which designed sets for nightclubs and events, were chosen to exhibit at the Salone Satellite show outside Milan. They are to present a sitting area for rest and relaxation, otherwise known as a lounge.

Even though the curators' committee invited them to present at the Salone Satellite - along with just four other designers - in return for a symbolic fee, they were asked to raise several thousand dollars to cover the production and setting up costs. In recent months, the two have searched feverishly for financial support. They approached corporations and several expressed interest in the project, but none has committed to helping, except for Morel, a manufacturer of loudspeakers that will donate loudspeakers and technical consulting.

They also approached government entities in search of aid and received a promise from the Foreign Ministry's cultural and scientific affairs department to cover the cost of flights and shipping. In addition, they recently heard that Mifal Hapayis will allocate NIS 25,000 to the project. Kobi Gil, who has helped designers raise money, is pleased with the results, but says that, "the sense was that you have dig underground in order to eke out some funding.

It was a journey of ad hoc moves, connections, chutzpa and luck. I doubt if other designers would be able to achieve what we did." The dominant perception among many designers is "we have nowhere to turn to," as Inbal Gil says, "there is a sense that design is treated differently than art."

"All areas of art and culture in Israel - dance, film, plastic arts and others - have a known and permanent home," adds Prof. Tarazi, "even if there is a budget crisis, there is still a budget and funds to provide support. When it comes to design, on the other hand, there is no home."

Designer Raviv Lifshitz, who took part in the "Domains" exhibition and in two exhibitions of Israeli design in Verona, is incensed that in Israel they have yet to understand that the success of an Israeli designer abroad can contribute to the country's image.

"Design is an unequivocal cultural ambassador that is disconnected from the Middle East conflict," says Lifshitz. Prof. Tarazi concurs. "Design is today a vital element in contemporary culture and it has a large audience and a vast professional following all over the world," he says, "the problem is the minute Israel does not participate in important design shows around the world, Israeli design in essence does not exist.

Who even bothers to try to help?

The only outfit that has recently been helping Israeli designers to attend international exhibitions is the Foreign Ministry's cultural and scientific affairs department. The department is also the only body that funded three group exhibitions of Israeli design.

Nirith Nelson stresses the importance of group exhibitions as opposed to independent exhibitions of designers. "It's more convenient for the press to cover a group exhibition than individual designers spread throughout a city. The fairs are indeed large events with numerous participants and you have to also fight for exposure."

Rafi Gamzou, the director of the arts and literature division of the ministry's cultural department, says in the last three years over $300,000 has been allocated to design. However, the money was taken from the budget intended for plastic arts. Unlike other art disciplines that are regularly funded by the department, no special budget is designated for design.

During the last three years, Mifal Hapayis' Culture and Arts Council also provided funding for design to help Israeli artists and designers exhibit abroad. However, most of this assistance has so far been given to artists and not designers.

Most of the Ministry of Culture's support for design is directed to artistic activity in Israel. The only international event that received support from the ministry was the Verona fair in 2001, when the ministry covered the cost of printing the catalog.

The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Employment and the Israel Manufacturers Association do not provide assistance to designers. The same is true of the Export Institute, which does assist, among others, manufacturers and commercial companies in setting up national pavilions at international trade exhibitions in various fields, such as jewelry, fashion, books, agriculture and medicine.

It is especially surprising that the Export Institute (one of whose goals is to promote Israeli industry abroad) has not grasped that improving the image of Israeli product design - through international fairs - is likely to contribute to the success of the products themselves abroad.

Gamzou calls on various bodies, including the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Employment, the Export Institute and the Israel Manufacturers Association, to increase its support for Israeli design exhibits around the world. "If there is no assistance given, there will eventually be a situation where instead of exporting Israeli design we will be exporting Israeli designers."

Remembering successes

In recent years, Israeli design has done admirably well at international design shows. Three Israeli design exhibitions in particular featured at international fairs, were funded by the Foreign Ministry's cultural and scientific affairs department, and were highly successful.

Tokyo Designers Block, October, Tokyo

Following the favorable reactions to the Israeli design exhibition, "Domains" at the fair in Tokyo in 2002, it traveled to Nagoya, Japan; Beijing, Shanghai and Taiwan and in May will be shown in Melbourne, Australia. Four works in the exhibition were shown last year at the first design festival in Seoul, among them works by Tal Gur, Yaakov Kaufman, Raviv Lifshitz and Hagai Harduff.

Due to the absence of government support for another design exhibition, six Israeli designers have been invited this year to participate independently in the fair. However, the designers were scattered around the city and no attention was focused on Israeli design as a whole. For the next fair, the organizers have already asked Nirith Nelson to curate a new Israeli design exhibition, but without government funding that will be almost impossible.

"Abiterra Il Tempo", September, Verona

In 2001-2002, Israel participated in two design shows in Verona with Foreign Ministry funding. Eli Rosenberg, an Israeli designer working in Rome, and Vani Pasca, an Italian professor of design, were the curators. Nirith Nelson also worked as a curator in the second show. The exhibitions entailed a lot of exposure for the designers in magazines and design books and led to invitations to attend other international shows. "Design in Steel," a book published this year by London publisher, L. King Limited (which also publishes the respected "Design Yearbook"), features eight works by Israeli designers taken from the first show in Verona. The cover shows a work by designer Ronen Kadushin, also from that exhibition.

In a foreword to the book, the editor, Mel Byars, writes that he "apologizes for the many Israeli designers" and that in the past he would have apologized for the large number of Italian designers. The upcoming "Design Yearbook" will also feature works from the Israeli exhibit in Verona.

Despite the success, funding for exhibitions was stopped and as a result, the curators have not responded to the many invitations received from fairs and exhibitions, such as the Stockholm Furniture Show and the Frankfurt Design Show. They were also forced to turn down an offer to take part in the Verona fair again.

Salone Del Mobile, April, Milan

Most of the international attention focuses on the Salone Satellite that has taken place in Milan alongside the commercial fair since 1989. The show serves as a stage for independent designers and allows for suitable presentation of contemporary designs free of commercial considerations.

Designer Ayala Sperling Tsarfati presented at the first Salone Satellite and since then has shown at the commercial fair next to important lighting companies. Other Israeli designers who showed at the Salone include Yaakov Kaufman, Chanan De Lange and Eli Rosenberg. Last year, Nissim Porat and the Umamy Group also were featured there. After appearing there, the Umamy Group got a favorable write-up in the highly regarded American design magazine, I-D, and a chair the group designed featured on the front cover.