Arik of All Trades

After conquering the world of design, Arik Levy is presenting Israel with another side of himself: artist.

"Who the fuck is Arik?" That's what designer Arik Levy says his exhibition opening at the Alon Segev gallery in Tel Aviv this week could have been called, as the world-famous designer forays into the art world.

Arik Levy Daniel Tchetchik
Daniel Tchetchik

"Everyone in Israel knows Arik the designer, but they don't know Arik the artist at all," Levy says over the phone from his studio in Paris. "In the end I understood that it may be a title for an article, but not the name of an exhibition, and therefore I decided to call it 'Natural Disorder,' because the exhibition is not about an artist but about an artist's work. That's the point, and there is often confusion. My art, or design, or that of anyone else, although they originate with me, they stand on their own."

Levy, one of the most famous and successful commercial designers in the world, moves back and forth between fields, between artistic creation and commercial exhibitions, between personal projects and mass produced items. He doesn't seem to be overly preoccupied with the question of "who the fuck is Arik."

And still, among the dozens of projects on which he is working at any given moment, the exhibition in Tel Aviv holds a special place for him. Levy admits that he is excited: This is the first exhibition in his home town, and possibly the first art exhibition by a designer here.

It is difficult to predict how the local audience will react. Will the people from the design world be forgiving? Will artists see him as one of their own, or an outsider trying to pry his way in. "It's always amusing to see designers who think they are artists," one leading artist said recently.

"There's nothing written on my business card, only my name," says Levy. "The connection between the things is me, my DNA. When Issey Miyake wanted me to design new perfume bottles for him he said to me, 'Arik, I want a sculpture, not a perfume bottle.' My works have a sculptural quality because of my experience and my connection to art - that gives the result an important power."

Levy, 47, underwent a long journey before being recognized as a mega-designer, whose works are displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the Pompidou Center in Paris, among other places.

He started his career as a self-described beach bum, surfing and painting boards. Eventually it turned into a livelihood.

He opened a small store with partners below Gibor House in Tel Aviv, which was called Merkaz Haglisha (the Surfing Center ) and began to design and create products and clothing for surfing. At the same time he established a studio for graphic design.

When he was 28 years old, Levy went to Switzerland with his girlfriend at the time, and studied industrial design at the European campus of Art Center College of Design. In 1997 he established the Ldesign company together with his friend, designer Pippo Lionni, and designed for Adidas, Cassina, Fiat, Ikea, Ligne Roset, Molteni & C, Swarovski and others. The firm now has 20 employees.

In the present exhibition he continues his ongoing investigation of the complex relationship between the natural and the man-made. A prominent characteristic of his works is the act of constructing by subtracting from the structure: the absence and the void expose the hidden layers.

The exhibition includes works in various types of media, such as painting, sculpture and video. All of them deal with the "social code, stigmas and understanding of everyday life, between the personal and the social, and the relations between us and nature," as he puts it.

"Its name, 'Natural Disorder,' attests to all the fields relating to that. Even exhibiting in Israel is natural disorder for me," says Levy with a smile.

The exhibits will include some that are related to one of his most famous designs, "Rock" - objects in a polygonal arrangement created by subtracting parts from a mass and that has been translated into a variety of products and sculptures, ranging from a coffee table to a six-meter high sculpture.

"There will be a new work that I'm doing especially for the exhibition that is called 'Rock DNA' and deals with the genetics of the 'Rock' that I invent," he says. "For example, there are two columns in the gallery that are part of the construction, and I'm going to attack one of them with axes - but the visitors won't know what the axe is made of, only its silhouette will protrude. That changes its concreteness and creates confusion."

On the top floor of the gallery stands a work called "Departure" - a bronze sculpture that looks like a pillow, including the indentation left by the head.

"For me the indentation symbolizes both departure and arrival," says Levy. "Both someone who got up in the morning and left and will return to the same place, and someone who has died and his soul has ascended but his physical presence has remained on the pillow. On the other hand, if you put it outside, in a garden or a park, a water trough will be created that will invite the birds to drink, and there will be growth. The absence fills up in a different way and creates life. It's talking about my grandmother, who is 96 and ... may not be there tomorrow."

On the same floor there will also be a screening of a film by Levy in which his grandmother appears and describes how she makes bourekas. "She doesn't know the exact quantities of the ingredients. She says in an almost mechanical way, 'You take flour, two cups.' 'What cup?' I ask. 'The cup I use. You put in salt.' I ask, 'How much salt,' and she replies, 'Until you get the right taste.' It's an interesting conversation; we have something automatic in our bodies for formulas, with which we create things that become part of us, like writing with your eyes closed. You remember how you write. Or if you have to tap out the code of the car alarm and you close your eyes because you remember what to do but you don't remember the number. When she passes away nobody will be able to make her bourekas. When you see the film either you cry or you laugh. You see that she is elderly and on her way out, but also that she creates life, energy, food."

Levy says his art works are much more personal than his "banal" designs of ordinary objects. "The excitement and the fear stem from there too. People know dressed Arik, and now I'm going to stand there naked. That's exposure and intimacy that's very personal and internal for me."

He says his dream was once to establish a design studio that would give him enough time and money to focus on art, but is now in a different place.

"I'm full of ambition, and now I have six projects of huge sculptures that I'm working on," he says. "It's hard for me to say what's next, aside from my desire perhaps to create a 30-meter sculpture. But the moment that happens, you want 60 meters. It's a certain chaos that I have in my head."

Alon Segev has been familiar with Levy's works since 2002, and admires the artist/designer.

"You see in his works that they are the clearest, the sharpest, very beautiful, very visual," he says. "When I visited Arik's home in Paris I entered his studio, where he paints, and I entered the studio of an artist, not a designer."

What will be the reaction of the local art world?

"I can only guess. Some consider it something very innovative, they understand that nobody has done that in Israel, it's of great interest to them. There are some who are familiar with what Arik does and are pleased, and there are some who have to be told and given an explanation. The reactions we have received so far were very good. ... Arik is an international artist."

A designer or an artist?

"It's clear that something is happening in this world. The moment that large galleries open their doors and let in designers and they are integrated among the plastic artists, the borders become blurred over time. I've been in many homes of collectors where you can't distinguish between the works of art and the works of the designers. Everything comes together, and even the gap in sales and prices begins to narrow. I would be happy to develop this field in Israel, it isn't sufficiently developed."