The Israeli Designer Who Hates Israeli Design

Car, coffee maker or CT scanner, Alex Padwa’s objects seem intended above all to get us to say: ‘That’s what I want’

Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar
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Industrial designer Alex Padwa.
Industrial designer Alex Padwa.Credit: Asaf Einy
Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar

“Think of Angelina Jolie’s liver,” suggests Israeli industrial designer Alex Padwa. “We do not appreciate the beauty of internal organs, because they just do their job. Angelina Jolie is clearly one of the most beautiful women in the world, but every cell in her liver has wisdom that no man or woman approaches. The question is: how do we show the beauty of this wisdom? My role as a designer is to do justice to internal organs.”

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As you might understand from this comment, Padwa, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1956 and is one of Israel’s most prominent industrial designers, is also one of the more complex and controversial figures in the local design scene.

American actress, director and activist Angelina Jolie. 'We do not appreciate the beauty of the internal organs'Credit: \ ARI JALAL/ REUTERS

He admits to being both a drama queen and a perfectionist; declares that he never learned anything from his teachers, and (in an exaggerated fake French accent) calls French superstar designer Philippe Starck a “decadent diva.”

“Philippe Starck once told me about something that I’d done that it was ‘overdesigned.’ That’s an expression that’s unacceptable to me, that’s in no way valid,” Padwa says. “As far as I’m concerned, one can design well or design badly, but there’s no such thing as ‘overdesign.’ As for ridiculous or bland design? I have a mild allergy to being overly illustrative in design; I don’t like that. There are people who do it well, like Philippe Starck or Stefano Giovannoni, with restraint and sophistication. You can make a refrigerator that looks like a strawberry; you can do anything you want, I just don’t think that’s interesting.”

French superstar designer Philippe Starck. A 'decadent diva.'Credit: AP

In April, Padwa won one of the world’s most prestigious design awards — the Golden A’ Design Award, in the scientific instruments and medical devices category of the A’ Design Award and Competition, for a computerized tomography scanner that he designed for the Israeli startup Arineta. “This is a revolutionary CT that checks the heart, an organ that’s hard to examine, because unlike our [voluntary] motion, you can’t stop the heart. It’s a unique system in all kinds of ways,” he says, as he explains why he believes the prize was justified.

The device has no back or front; there are control panels on both sides. “Medical design is a conservative field, and there was a fine line here between a system that must inspire confidence and calm and a breakthrough device,” says Padwa. “In this case, measure is the name of the game; the abyss on the right is exaggeration and that on the left is boredom.”

A planetary rover designed by Padwa for SpaceIL.Credit: אלכס פדואה / דוידי

This is the fourth time Padwa has designed a scanner. When he designed his first one 22 years ago, the feedback he received was that the scanner seemed to be about to leave the room at a speed of 200 mph. In retrospect, he says, this was no surprise; it was just after he had returned to Israel after a career in Paris designing automobiles for the French car giant Citroen, a job he took after earning a master’s degree in car design at London’s Royal College of Art.

That experience was also an important lesson in humility, for someone who admits that even then, limits were not his strong side. “As a car designer you are trained, your whole being is intent on creating drama, arousing an almost erotic feeling,” he says. “Suddenly you have to design something quite similar in its dimensions — a large metal box that a human is put into — and do the opposite: avoid excess emotion, to calm. Suddenly you realize that the tools you have worked with so far are limited.”

Humility and recognizing limits are not characteristics generally associated with Padwa. His sense of humor and outgoing personality are an acquired taste that not everyone gets used to. What some consider his charm is considered by others to be arrogance or smugness.

A Citroën car model designed by Padwa in 1988.Credit: אלכס פדואה / דוידי

Padwa is a person who can say, “Without meaning to insult anyone, sometimes when I see Israeli design, I think that the designers’ motto is, ‘there’s so much beauty in the world, why add to it?’” Even though he makes the statement with a smile, one can understand why there are those who consider it haughty, or even contemptuous toward the local design community of which he is a part, rather than as an ironic or self-aware statement. After all, if there’s anything that drives Padwa out of his mind, it’s talk about Israeli design.

“There is Israeli design about which people like to say it’s improvised and smart, but that doesn’t do it for me,” he says. “It doesn’t interest me to say, ‘look at how smart, look how much we saved.’ Those plastic bags people use to sled on [Mount] Hermon? That doesn’t warm my heart and it isn’t something I want to continue.”

The first thing you notice about Padwa’s designs is the meticulous aesthetics, which serve to make the object desirable. It doesn’t matter if it’s a medical scanner, a coffee maker or a car, Padwa designs objects whose first purpose seems to be to get us to say, ‘that’s what I want’: The desire to create an object of desire is an inseparable part of his brief. His many years in the automobile world also contributed to the development of his design style; it has movement, momentum, and that elusive element that seeks to create an emotional connection between the user and the product.

Alex Padwa. He admits to being both a drama queen and a perfectionist.Credit: אסף עיני

Medical devices are only one area of the wide range of projects that Padwa deals with in his studio in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood. It’s an ordinary-looking space, the dominant element being a blackboard that covers an entire wall and with racing cars drawn on it in white chalk. Since opening the studio in 2004, he has designed smart 3D printers, coffee machines, an infant car seat and toys, while continuing to work with such international car giants as Citroen, Peugeot, Mitsubishi, Daihatsu, BMW, Ford, Volvo and Renault.

He has also dealt with the culture of Chinese tea and the future of chocolate. “Strauss Elite wanted us to think about what chocolate would look like in 10 years: the chocolate itself, the packaging, the size, the texture, the eating experience, and so on. I still can’t talk about it, but when we made concepts and studied the way people eat chocolate, we dealt with guilt feelings, with restraint, with the nausea that comes afterward, with crumbs; there are so many aspects to work with.”

Lebanon sketchbook

After his military service, Padwa worked in a variety of odd jobs, including as a fisherman in Jaffa. He enrolled in the industrial design department at the Holon Institute of Technology, but completed his studies at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. While still a student, he was accepted to the MA program in car design at the Royal College of Art. About the sketchbook he sent with his application, he says: “The Lebanon War was in full swing, I had to send a portfolio, and suddenly I realized that I was going into reserve duty and that I had nothing to send. I bought a sketchbook, took it with me to Lebanon and drew a car or two, before running out of ideas. I began drawing what I saw around me at the outpost: sleeping soldiers, armored personnel carriers, a gunner, guard posts. I was accepted because of the crazy sketchbook from Israel with drawings they had never seen before.”

After graduating from RCA in 1987, Padwa moved to Paris and began working for Peugeot-Citroen. “For five years, I worked like a madman, until one day, I’d had enough and uncharacteristically for me, I upped and left. My marriage with my wife was the trigger — I got the courage to leave.” He started working as a freelance designer, working with — among others — Philippe Starck, “Before he became a decadent diva,” notes Padwa, mocking Starck’s typical speech.

'This is a revolutionary CT that checks the heart, an organ that’s hard to examine'Credit: אלכס פדואה / דוידי

“I really wanted to work with him. I cold-called his studio and they told me he was very busy and maybe in a month and a half he would be at the studio for a couple of days and I should send a letter; that was before email. I sent a huge white envelope on which I pasted a photo of my final project from college, something that couldn’t be ignored. I put 10 photos into the envelope and I wrote, in French: ‘Monsieur Starck, all I need is 20 minutes. Alex Padwa.’ An appointment was made, they allotted me seven minutes, which became 45. He was very enthusiastic and for several months I worked for him on a huge project for SABA-Thomson and Telefunken that included stereo components and radios, 300 products. An entire studio worked on this and I learned a lot from it.”

Other than his work with Starck and his participation in a 1989 Pompidou Center project, in which he designed part of an exhibition of work by Italian designer Achille Castiglioni, most of Padwa’s work abroad was with the automotive industry. He was flying back and forth between Tel Aviv and Paris and didn’t plan on settling permanently in Tel Aviv, but then: “It happened. I got married, Efrat got pregnant, they assassinated Rabin, I returned to Israel.” He was also a guest lecturer at the RCE in London for 17 years. “Once a year, I’d go there to give a week-long workshop.”

In 1998 Padwa embarked on one of the most ambitious adventures in the history of the local design industry, establishing an Israeli branch of IDEO, one of the leading and most innovative design companies in the world. Leon Segal, a classmate of Padwa’s at the Alliance High School, and innovation psychologist and a former helicopter pilot who worked with NASA, worked at IDEO in Palo Alto, California, and received a green light to open a branch in Israel. He asked Padwa to be a partner in the company and take charge of design. At the height of its activity, the local branch had 22 employees, among them some of the country’s top designers, including Elisha Tal, Ezri Tarazi and Anat Katsir.

The promise of the local branch of IDEO was not fulfilled, and after only three years it closed, as the result of a clash between the American organizational culture and the Israeli reality, along with disagreement among the partners, about which Padwa prefers not to elaborate. After IDEO fell apart, Padwa and Elisha Tal founded the design company I2D – Innovation to Design, one of the leaders in the field in Israel today.

A motorcycle Padwa designed for Harley-Davidson in 2013. Credit: אלכס פדואה / דוידי

Padwa opened his own studio in 2004, two years after he became head of the industrial design department at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art in Ramat Gan, a position he held for 12 years. “The job they gave me of being a department head is something between a miracle and a mistake. I am not a great administrator,” he says with a smile, “but I can lead. The big challenge is how to teach the students to stick to a timetable, to stick to a brief and to be part of a machine on the one hand, and on the other to give all the sacred cows a kick in the ass. How is this accomplished? To this day I don’t know. I am so much more of a student or a rebel than I am an authority figure and maybe that’s what Amotz Weinberg — the president of Shenkar at the time — saw: someone who isn’t cut from the classical cloth of department heads, a bit of an outsider. As an automobile designer, I was also always a bit of an outsider, and it didn’t interest me: I don’t know what horsepower is and I am not one of those car junkies.”

In general, he says, he has no special relationship with cars, just as he doesn’t have any special relationship with medical scanners. “A person who has sex doesn’t do it because he loves babies: I am no expert about cars, I have never owned an exotic car, and in general all cars are pretty much alike. But I don’t think there is any product that has a unique relationship like the one between a person and a car, and this doesn’t apply only to men. There’s something unexplained about this, like there is in every love affair: The great writers manage to present us with the mystery, not to solve it.”

Ori Cohen, who was a student of Padwa’s at Shenkar, subsequently worked at his studio and now works in Amsterdam at the studio headed by Marcel Wanders, one of the world’s most renowned designers, relates that some of Padwa’s mantras have stayed with her.

A 3D printer designed by Padua in 2013. Credit: Alex Padwa

“They express profound and uncompromising seriousness, together with absurd humor that puts everything in the right proportions. When Alex related to the challenge of teaching design in a country that doesn’t have an extensive aesthetic heritage or cultural history, he would always say that we didn’t walk through piazzas with statues by Michelangelo on the way to school. We’re the Be’er Sheva ski team, and we are going to win with this.

“Beyond that, Alex was an incorrigible virtuoso. He has an unambiguous and not very sophisticated opinion about design: Make it beautiful. Along with that, he is hungry for pathbreaking content and encourages throwing down the gauntlet. Ultimately, he is a master in his field and this can be seen in every sketch of his, even the most casual of them, done on a napkin in a kebab joint,” Cohen says.