Nouveau Niche: Hadas Kruk and Anat Stein Found Contemporary Judaica by Chance

Along with mezuzahs and menorahs, their special product – 'by women, for women' – is also a hit.

Many designers, certainly those who have been active for 15 years, would be able to present a diverse portfolio. But it is rare to find such extraordinary variety as that displayed by Hadas Kruk and Anat Stein at Tel Aviv’s Studio Armadillo. Their portfolio includes packaging for dishwashing soap and olive oil; contemporary Judaica products − mezuzahs, a chess set comprising 32 colorful skullcaps, ceramic candlesticks and a Hanukkah menorah inspired by the Japanese paper-folding art of origami; a vibrator that was designed − as they put it − “by women, for women”; and more.

Their foray into the world of contemporary Judaica began by chance, following their participation in the inaugural Adi Prize for Jewish Expression in Art and Design, held in Jerusalem 2001. The theme of that international competition was “Borders of Sanctity,” and artists and designers were invited to express the elusive line that distinguishes between sacred and profane, and between different sacred phenomena.

“We both have religious backgrounds, and the call to action got us fired up,” Stein says. “I was raised in an Orthodox home in Petah Tikva, and Hadas − who comes from a secular family − grew up in Bnei Brak. Pretty early on we decided that we do not work on Shabbat. As a designer, you can easily find yourself working on weekends as well.”

Their contest submission, titled “Linen,” dealt with the relationship between cover and content. Sample covers included phylacteries; mezuzahs; a Torah scroll cover; and the prayer shawl in which a worshiper wraps himself. From these material covers the work then went on to consider symbolic covers, the outer shells: the time, place, and ritual that make events sacred.

“We chose a specific moment to freeze − the moment when everything is ready for welcoming the Sabbath. We did not create the objects themselves, but rather used a covering that was a white woven cloth, sewn and starched,” they wrote in the statement accompanying the piece.

Even though they didn’t win the competition, the director of The Jewish Museum in New York asked to meet them.

“We didn’t grasp the situation,” Stein recalls. “But she told us that our piece was her favorite, and that even though it didn’t win first place, she would show it. So it transpired that the first piece we did in that field was bought by the Jewish Museum, which naturally excited us and led us to stay in that realm.”

Kruk: “This is a field which no one in our milieu was dealing with at the time. Packaging and plastic bottles is also something that is ostensibly dull, but in practice it is completely linked to branding and marketing processes. These are mundane niches in which we find charm. We decided that contemporary Judaica interests us, especially since it’s a field in which it is easier to be innovative. Over time, many designers discovered the [Adi] competition and contemporary Judaica.”

Still, the moment that you say Judaica, a lot of people lose interest.
Stein: “First of all it’s contemporary Judaica, and the challenge is to turn the traditional Judaica [item] into something more current. We don’t connect so much with the traditional product either − the candlesticks from Grandma’s house, or the silver candlesticks that you bring to a bat mitzvah. At least half of our pieces in this field are not functional but rather serve as conversation pieces.

“For example, the skullcap chessboard, which appeared on the catalog cover and invitation for the ‘Reinventing Ritual’ exhibition, which Daniel Belasco curated at The Jewish Museum in New York. In the course of working on it, all kinds of things emerged that we hadn’t thought of: [the relations between] women and men, girls knitting, boys playing, girls who knit skullcaps for boys when they woo them, and more.”

The work, “Hevrutah or Mitutah” ‏(a citation from the Bible, meaning roughly partnership or death‏), which is made of 32 colorful skullcaps arranged on a white plastic chessboard, is a good example of a contemporary interpretation of tradition: It is colorful and intriguing, and shows how far you can go without losing your connection to certain religious sources.

Handmade, not mass-produced

Now, Kruk and Stein are bringing out a new line of ceramic mezuzahs, candlesticks and a Hanukkah menorah inspired by origami.

Stein: “I suppose we could be designing items for the office, but our preoccupation with Judaica also stems from the things that interest us as designers: two dimensions, three dimensions, paper folding, pop-ups and more. In the beginning we worked with silver, but that turned out terribly expensive, and we wanted to bring out a line of useful products that could be purchased at gift stores and museum shops in Israel and the world.”

What sort of responses do you get?

“Abroad they’re already asking us what else we’ve got in the new series, but the thing is that we want to manufacture in Israel and keep to reasonable amounts. We could manufacture tens of thousands of units in China, but what matters to us is handmade products, not flooding the market.”

And how are the reactions in the Orthodox world?

Kruk: “Very good. We haven’t yet had a series that is a really big seller there per se, but when the public likes something, it also buys it. The ceramics series will be judged by sales.”

Stein: “The religious community accepts [the object we create] without a problem because they work. We don’t want to demean or provoke, but rather to create a new connection. These pieces interest them; they don’t hurt their feelings. In general, we insist that if, for instance, we’re making a hanukkiah, we’ll make the effort to make it kosher.”

Stein and Kruk met while studying in the industrial design department at the Holon Institute of Technology. Kruk, 42, went on to earn a master’s degree in culture research at Tel Aviv University. Stein, 40, got her master’s in industrial design at Bezalel − Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem. For the past six years she has taught in Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College’s design department.

The duo opened their studio in 1997, after graduating, and since then have won a number of design competitions ‏(including The Israel Star, a contest sponsored by the Israeli Institute for Packaging and Design‏), and shown their work at trade fairs and exhibitions, such as “Judaica Twist” at Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People; “Reinventing Ritual” at The Jewish Museum in New York; and “Food in Art: A Matter of Taste” at the Youth Wing of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

How did the twosome come by the name Studio Armadillo? When they were just getting started, every time they arrived for a meeting, the clients would say, “Here are the girls.” “So we realized that we needed a name of some kind,” Kruk says. “We searched and searched until we got to Armadillo, which is a cute animal. I come from a South American background, and from the beginning we imagined it illustrated.”

Initially, they focused on developing science-education products and toys for museums, producing work for exhibitions on pedagogical themes and more.
“Dealing with children and education was idealistic, but at a certain stage we realized that in order to make a living from design, you need something more,” Stein says. “It wasn’t enough in terms of the work volume. Another thing was that we opened the studio in the late 1990s, a period that was characterized by a lot of public projects and budgets. Starting in 2000, everything was cut back and we realized that we’d have to turn to industry as a source of work as well.”
People say there is no industry in Israel.

Stein: “That is why we turned to packaging and bottles. This is a field that exists in Israel − most of what you see is manufactured here, if only because it isn’t worthwhile transporting bottles full of air in containers or planes abroad: They take up a lot of room and can’t be stacked like chairs. Even if the content is imported, the packaging is made in Israel and filled here. Furthermore, this is a field with a high turnover, relatively speaking: New series or new individual products in series are constantly coming out. Turnover is particularly high in Israel. The industry is frenetic and brands change names all the time.”
Even when it comes to international brands?

Kruk: “Even if the brand is international, the packaging generally needs to be adapted to the dimensions that are customary in Israel. Israelis like big. For example, a bottle of liquid soap with a volume of 250 milliliters throughout the world is three times larger in Israel − 750 milliliters.”

Stein: “Many of the projects we are involved in could have ostensibly been given to an engineer at the plant to implement, but time after time it turns out that it’s a job for designers. We get projects where the client-company thought all you had to do was increase the volume of a bottle, but then discovered that you must also take into account proportion, [user- and eco-] friendliness and so forth.”

What can possibly be reinvented in this field?

Stein: “Lots. You have to distinguish between ongoing projects and flagship projects in terms of branding − such as the ‘Swan series’ [of household cleaning items] made by Kleen, which includes dozens of products and they all have to be unified by one branding language.”

Kruk: “All the packages in the series contain a detail of a swan’s tail on the bottom right, and there is also something swan-like about the bottle necks. We also put thought into the way that the sticker sits on the bottle. Sometimes the innovation occurs in products that do not come out in the end. We developed packages that looked like vases, but in the end it fell through because of budgets.

Theinnovativeness from the development stage does not always wind up being put into practice; there are many constraints. These are not glamorous products and they won’t appear in design magazines − but it’s work.”

And then there are the vibrators you designed. How did that come about?

Stein: “Along with major companies, we also work with entrepreneurs − someone who’s got a patent. That is another group of projects we like. We were approached by an entrepreneur who had started a company and had an idea for a vibrator that she’d been kicking around for years. She knew what she wanted and she needed designers.”

Kruk smiles: “She asked if we were willing to make toys for adults, and that was funny, because after we had started out designing toys for kids, now it was the adults’ turn. So we found out that no vibrator had been designed by women before 2008 ... Furthermore, when you design a vibrator, you do not have to imitate the male organ. The whole idea was to create something by women, for women.”

How was that done?

Stein: “The final product is very compact, smooth, without a big clunky engine. We set up a team for engineering, plastics and electronics ; everything was compact-design guided. We managed to create a type of gadget that includes a smaller engine, which allows for sophistication and subtlety. Today this product, known as Tulip, is sold around the world, and we’ve already begun thinking about the next thing.”