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Arik Levy has nine fingers | icon 051 | September 2007

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words Justin McGuirk

Arik Levy has nine fingers. This is not just an observation, it’s an explanation – it might even be the basis of a methodology. For a designer whose process is so haptic and intuitive, it makes sense that missing the index finger of his left hand – Levy is left-handed – would have a significant influence on his work. However, it seems to have been a largely subconscious influence – until today.

“Um, circular saw,” says Levy, when I ask the obvious question. “It was in the wood workshop. I was in Paris.” That was in 1992, when the Israeli-born designer had just moved to the city. His studio, L Design, is still based there, generating an unusually diverse output that includes furniture, industrial design, electronics, interiors, fashion, jewellery, packaging and even graphic identities. “In a business school this would be called a disaster,” he confesses, “but in an art or design sense it’s great.” Levy is designing crystal for Baccarat, tables for Zanotta and sportswear for a Korean fashion label, and yet what he talks most passionately about is designing sets for contemporary dance.

Today, we are in Caffè Cova, in Milan. The city’s furniture fair is raging, and above the clatter of spoons against coffee cups Levy is taking the design industry to task for its tunnel vision. First there is the obsession with chairs. “The chair is a myth,” he says. “Before you have done your first chair you can’t do a chair – the industry won’t let you. It’s a right of passage – the puberty of a designer is in his chair.” Levy, however, is too protean, or perhaps pragmatic, to fixate on furniture.

In practice, he spends more time designing modular merchandising systems for shops. This gives him an interesting perspective on what it’s like to be a client or manufacturer in any aspect of the design industry that is not what he calls “glam”. “Most of the clients don’t really know how to get to the designers they need except through the magazines. ‘Oh, I saw his name ten times, he must be a good designer.’” Levy has large, meaty hands, and as he gesticulates when he talks it’s hard not to notice the missing digit. Apparently, losing an index finger is no great disability (“Thumb is major”). I ask whether it makes a difference to his work. “Yes and no,” he replies. “I mean, it’s an incredible experience because suddenly you have a relationship to something that doesn’t exist. It’s about absence, it’s about the other. I was horrified that I wouldn’t be able to work. So afterwards I started training to write and draw with my right hand. Psychologically it was mad.”

Levy launches into a series of anecdotes about, for instance, the first time he held up his finger to reprimand his son only to be reminded that it wasn’t there, or how tricky it is now for him to give directions in the street (“They don’t see where I point”). You’d think he must have told these stories ad nauseam, but he’s so engaged it’s as though no one has ever broached the topic with him. So I ask again how the impairment has influenced his design, and this time he looks down as if deep in concentration, and then starts to smile. “I only thought about it now,” he laughs. We come back to those words – “It’s about absence, it’s about the other” – and Levy seems stuck on their significance. He explains that he’s just had an exhibition near Paris called L’Autre – the other – and, apparently, it was “all about absence”. The connection genuinely only just seems to have dawned on him.

At the risk of pushing this metaphor, his recent series of vases for Baccarat have pieces cut out of them. “I did not think about it at all, but the collection is called Intangible.” Intangible in the literal sense? Meaning you can’t touch it? “Yeah, exactly, but I didn’t think about it,” he says, laughing again. “It’s quite extraordinary. I have to thank you because I did not… it is so much part of me now, even though I feel it every day and the body reminds you… but thank you.” This is a moving moment and, to be frank, I don’t know where to look. As a segue, it may be the time to point out that Levy has made a light using just one arm of a traditional Baccarat chandelier, and that his beautiful polished steel Rock pieces are made by removing planes from a rectangle. In other words, subtracting and excising are prominent features of Levy’s work. The trick now is going to be not to read it in terms of the finger.

Levy arrived relatively late at the “glam” side of design. After doing his service in the Israeli army, he opened a windsurfing shop in his hometown of Tel Aviv, designing boards, wetsuits and more or less anything related to the sport. But as well as living the surfing lifestyle Levy was forging a parallel career as a graphic designer. “I used to sleep in the printer’s place and learn how to do colour separation by hand,” he says. Eventually, though, he enrolled at the Geneva branch of the California-based Art Center College of Design to study industrial design. After graduating he moved to Paris, and among other jobs designed sets for dance performances, which he describes as “the most unbelievable experience”. Finally, in 1997, aged 34, he set up L Design with his collaborator and business partner Pippo Lionni. Looking at a work such as the Mystic Silver vase and candleholder, designed for Turkish brand Gaia & Gino in 2006, it’s easy to imagine Levy’s encounters with dance in the early 1990s.

“The frustrating thing about dance is that photographically it’s meaningless,” he says at one point in the interview, which seems to chime with the way Mystic Silver’s arms leap and weave like a piece of time-delayed choreography. This, however, like the subtraction theme, might have been sublimated, because Levy says his starting point for the piece was to imagine “a new type of grass”. He likes the idea of creating forms that evoke nature but that are arrived at by completely different means, and uses the phrase “non-biological nature” repeatedly. Like the Rock sculptures, which are pieces of intuitive geometry, the grass in this case is improvised almost musically – there is no obvious beginning or end.

Levy describes his work in terms of processes. “I don’t give a lot of importance to the finished object,” he says. “I’m a very bad stylist, I don’t know how to choose the right colour, it’s not my thing. I work from a very intuitive point of view, from a very techno-poetic point of view.” There’s nothing particularly rigorous about these processes. They are, as he says, more intuitive than scientific. But Levy does enjoy using technology in original ways, such as using a water jet to cut the decorative patterns on the Baccarat crystal vases, a technique usually only used to roughly cut the crystal.

What’s most interesting about Levy’s work is how conscious he is of trying to give objects a ceremonial or ritualistic quality. He hangs around in shops listening to people, trying to understand why they do or don’t buy something. In a world where everyone moans about storage space, Levy aims to appeal to that emotional impulse that he describes as “I gotta have it”. He could be quoting Ettore Sottsass, who famously advocated the poetic life of objects, with this description of his vase and candleholder: “When a vase is without a flower, what do you do with it? This doesn’t look like a vase when you don’t have a flower in it, it doesn’t look like a candlestick when you don’t have a candle in it. And this is important because it makes people want to live with the object and not to have a candlestick.”

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