Omer Arbel lighting designer, Vancouver, Berlin

Omer Arbel – Seeing The Light

by Laura Goldstein -

Designer, Omer Arbel Combines Alchemy and Science To Produce Interdisciplinary Magic

Omer Arbel

“It’s been a crazy, amazing year for me,” says Israeli-born designer based in Vancouver. In March he received the 2015 Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s (RAIC) Allied Arts Medal. Photo: James O’Mara

From different perspectives, one sees amorphous cumulus clouds or a colony of opaque jellyfish, each alive with their own bright light. At night, they resemble benign icebergs – no fear of colliding – because they are trapped in fabric and suspended from the ceiling on braided coaxial cable.

This is Bocci’s ‘73’. An innocuous name for designer, Omer Arbel’s newest organic lighting collection, unveiled this year at Maison & Object Paris interior design show. Part science experiment part sculpture, Arbel invented the technique whereby glass is blown into a vessel of Kevlar fabric (used by NASA and in Formula 1 racing suits,) because it can withstand heat up to 1700 degrees Celsius. When it cools, forced air pressure allows the texture of the fabric to permanently mold into any abstract glass shape and no two are ever alike.

When the elevator opens into the 5th floor offices of the Bocci – owned building in mid-town Vancouver, Canada, one understands immediately that playful ingenuity is at work. A roofless interior courtyard with a green oasis is surrounded by wisteria on deliberate urban decay of peeling paint and cement. It’s contrasted by modern wall – to – wall glass through which open – concept work stations and colourful glass globes, like giant gumballs, are visible. A separate glass-blowing studio behind the building will soon move to a much larger location.

Omer Arbel Design for Canada House

For the re-opening of the refurbished Canada House in London, England, Arbel designed his most difficult project to date, “57”. It hangs over the central staircase and took 5 days to install. Photo: Gwenael Lewis

“It’s been a crazy, amazing year for me,” admits Israeli-born Arbel 38, designer and Bocci’s co-founder and creative director, who grew up in Jerusalem then moved to Vancouver with his parents at age 13. He was a competitive fencer and could easily have stayed in the sports arena but “I loved Lego and building models as a kid and knew even then that I wanted to be an architect,” he says. After graduating from the University of Waterloo School of Architecture he established Omer Arbel Office (OAO) in 2005. Bocci (after the Italian game of strategy,) is his multidisciplinary arm specializing in industrial design, furniture, (the 2010 Olympic medals,) lighting and most recently, set design. But it’s the synergy he derives from both disciplines working together that drives Arbel.

In February, Arbel and his team debuted an incredibly challenging permanent lighting installation “57” over the central staircase for the opening of the refurbished Canada House in London, England: three storeys of hundreds of tangled tentacles each attached to their own bubbled glass solar system. “ That was probably the most complex piece I’ve ever designed”, says Arbel. “ I went through 50-60 different versions for their committee to approve, then 8 people on our team to make it. What really made it difficult was the bureaucratic red tape to hang it because it’s a heritage building, so we weren’t allowed to drill into anything. I had a crew of six on the scaffolding, with me directing below, over five days. Everything had to be perfect because HRH Queen Elizabeth walked under it. I rehearsed what I should say – you can’t make conversation unless she addresses you first so I just said ‘your Majesty’ when she made eye contact and she nodded her head,” smiles Arbel.

Omer Arbel's Set Design for Ballet B.C.'s production of RITE

Arbel’s first foray into set design was his collaboration with Ballet B.C.’s production of RITE. He created a grove of trees made of salt-crystal that glittered high above the heads of the dancers. Photo: Gwenael Lewis

He received the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s (RAIC) Allied Arts Medal 2015 in March for his spectacular 2013 installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, ‘28.280’. It filled and transformed a 30- meter vertical space in a cascade of 280 colourful hand-blown ‘28’-series pendants.

A little less daunting was Bocci’s outdoor public art installation “16” in March, composed of steel trees illuminated inside with abstract buds or leaves in front of the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, Vancouver.

Always challenging himself especially to interconnect with other disciplines, Arbel made his first foray into set design this month for Ballet B.C.’s World Premiere of RITE,  an existential interpretation of the original 1913 production of The Rite of Spring with music composed by Igor Stravinsky. “ This was a wonderful opportunity to create a reality that disappears after a while, like a dream,” Arbel explains.

He took his inspiration from the original 1913 painting by set designer, Nicholas Roerich that featured a large central tree that Arbel refers to as “a ghost tree.”

Like an alchemist experimenting in his laboratory,  Arbel is a visionary who is as much obsessed with the process as much as the final outcome – perhaps the former even more so. “I crave the instances where there are no constraints – I believe the best ideas are sometimes arrived at that way – even accidentally,” he confides. Arbel refers to the stark salt – crystal trees that he “grew” (he won’t divulge the secret,) in a vat for a year to produce the crystalline, sparkly branches and leaves for RITE. “We originally experimented with ocean water but that didn’t work out, he admits. The exploration process and collaboration was so fulfilling that Arbel hopes to create more for the stage in the future.

Exhibiting at international trade shows, launching Bocci’s ‘73’ in Miami, Arbel is also on the judging panel for L A M P’s 2015 International Lighting Design Competition that takes place in Vancouver in November. (Coincidentally, their theme this year is Crystallize.) He is in the midst of renovating a 2,200-sq.ft space in Berlin, establishing Bocci’s European headquarters. Formerly a courthouse, the six-storey historic building will house offices, showroom, exhibition space and glass-blowing facilities.

One wonders if the man ever sleeps – and what his dreams will inspire next.

Top Photo: Omer Arbel’s newest organic lighting collection, ’57’  unveiled this year at Maison & Object Paris interior design show.

 Photo: Gwenael Lewis

Bocci Website

Omer Arbel Office

Bocci’s North American head office is in Vancouver, Canada and reflects playful ingenuity at work. Arbel is currently in the midst of renovating a 2,200-sq.ft space, formerly a courthouse in Berlin, establishing Bocci’s European headquarters. Photo: Gwenael Lewis