Rough and smooth

In London’s creative melting pot, a new design studio called Raw-Edges has recently emerged. The Israeli duo, Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay, both 31 and from Tel Aviv, are partners in life as well as design and met while studying for BA degrees at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem.

As individuals, they have been on Wallpaper*’s radar for a while. Mer’s design for milk cartons, that bulged according to the fat quota of their contents (skimmed, semi-skimmed or whole), stood out at the Royal College of Art masters show in 2006, while Alkalay’s Pivot shelves, fresh off Arco’s production lines, were featured in the magazine’s coverage of the Internationale Möbelmesse in Cologne this year.

As a duo, however, the pair’s two most recent projects, Volume and Stack, reveal a more sophisticated direction. With Established & Sons already having snapped up Stack for its 2008 collection, it’s clear that Raw-Edges is becoming a smooth and polished act.

Why did you choose the name Raw-Edges for your design studio?

Mer It’s to do with materials. We’re both very interested in the character of different materials, particularly ones whose edges don’t need to be treated and can be left rough, like paper, leather and felt. It’s also to do with our design approach.

Alkalay We don’t like to over-cook our ideas or over-style the finished products. We want simple shapes and concepts to speak for themselves. Hence it’s important that we make everything ourselves, so we don’t have to compromise on any of our original ideas or intentions. We have total control over the production of the finished piece.

What do you learn from making your products yourself by hand?

Alkalay I think there’s a very different approach when people don’t have any connection with their products. You don’t touch, you don’t use and so you don’t feel anything. If you don’t understand the material you’re using from your own first-hand experiences with it, then you miss out on important processes of experimentation and discovery, which is what we love about design. We’re very lucky to have a workshop in our studio, so we can make everything ourselves.

Mer You learn so much more making things yourself than if you’re sat with your sketchbook or your computer. Having said that, I’m really interested in making big, physical three-dimentional forms using light two-dimensional materials, so, in fact, a lot of my work, like Volume, can be made in the office.

How does your Volume furniture get made without going into the workshop?

Mer The mould is like upholstery. I make a large sheet by pasting together pieces of paper, then mix together the polyurethane parts and pour it in stages into the hollow shell. Once the foam has expanded and hardened, the furniture is solid and durable. It’s a performance-based design, it doesn’t need to be done in the workshop.

Alkalay We like the idea of tailoring furniture. With the technology used to draw the templates for Volume, we can very easily tailor the size of the chair or sofa for different people by scaling the design up or down to suit the exact height or shape of the person intending to use it.

Do you always work together?

Mer Yes, we’re both very much involved in each other’s projects. Even when we go home we take our ideas and problems back with us. So it can be really quite intense sometimes.

You seem to have different approaches to design. How do you reconcile this?

Alkalay We always support, help and criticise each other but we try to keep things quite free and fluid. If Yael has an idea, then I’ll give her feedback and vice versa. Loosely, she does things that fold and I do things that move, so our projects are still quite separate in that sense. I have a kind of cartoonish language to my work. Both Pivot and Stack have an unexpected playfulness, simplicity and scale to them.

Stack is now in production with Established & Sons. Is it difficult for you to compromise your hand-made work ethic with the commercial success of having your pieces in production?

Alkalay Our work is very intuitive but we don’t create abstract things that can’t be manufactured or don’t have a practical function. [The deigner] Tomoko Azumi said to us at a party that it’s good to go crazy with our ideas and develop our own language but we should remember that our work still needs to be connected to society. If people don’t understand what we’re doing or don’t want to use it – if it’s just a very personal expression of our own ideas – then it doesn’t really work as good design.

What factors do you feel particularly affect young designers today?

Mer I’m affected by people’s attitudes. With Ikea and other global design stores, people today feel design is disposable. I wish it wasn’t like this but, then, at the same time, it’s opened design up to many more people.

Alkalay Ikea represents design for the majority of people throughout the world. Very few people can afford Established & Sons’ products or one-off pieces. Different people desire and can afford different things. I think there’s no one rule for design and designers. There’s room for everyone.

How do you feel about the term DesignArt?

Mer I prefer the term experimental design, rather than DesignArt. So many of the things people label as DesignArt are not about art; they’re about the user, about the process of making, and they speak about design language in a way that art simply doesn’t and doesn’t attempt to. Someone can buy an expensive product but still it’s design. I’m driven by design, not by artistic values. Eventually my products can be artistic but it’s a very different starting point.

Alkalay Maybe our work isn’t 100 per cent functional and has an element of fantasy to it but we don’t think of it as pieces of art. At the most, we are experimenting with design.

Where would you like to go from here?

Alkalay We’d like to keep working in the same direction and hopefully keep doing furniture for leading manufacturers. I think Yael would like to do a bit of fashion and I’m also interested in doing some shop interiors, restaurants and hotels maybe. We don’t want to get stuck doing the same thing – with the exception of folded chairs and drawers, of course.

Extracted from the June edition of Wallpaper* Magazine, on sale from Thursday

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