By experimenting with advanced design and production technologies, the Israeli-born, London-based designer Assa Ashuach (1969-) redefines both the form and function of everyday products and furniture, while developing a surreal new design aesthetic.
Looking like the complex curves spiralling across our computer screens, Assa Ashuach’s surreal OMI.mgx lamp is the product of his experiments with selective laser sintering technology. Made from a single piece of nylon, it diffuses light so finely that, from a distance, it seems solid. On closer inspection, the lamp is revealed to be an intricate sequence of nylon ripples cut so precisely that they can be bent and twisted into improbable shapes.
The OMI.mgx could not be made without the use of complex design software and production technologies: nor could Ashuach’s furniture which, like all his work, is defined by the relationship between the visual and the physical. He begins by calculating what is required to fulfil the designated function as comfortably as possible, and deploys stress analysis software to optimise the object’s structural strength using minimal material sculpted into a seductive form. “I try to reduce design to its essential points. You can’t take from it and you can’t add to it. If a few millimetres of surface changed, it would collapse.”
Ashauch’s love of making things stems from his childhood on a kibbutz in Israel, where he was born in 1969. He made bizarre contraptions for his friends from scraps of material given to him by the kibbutz carpenter and car mechanic. After studying industrial design at the Betzalel Academy in Jerusalem, he enrolled at the Royal College of Art in London where he experimented with digital modelling and rapid prototyping. Since graduating in 2003, he has continued those experiments, notably with Materialise in Belgium. “We have to question design again and again,” said Ashuach. “In today’s technological reality, design should be seen as a strategy for questioning and modifying tradition.”
Q. How did you first become aware of and interested in design
A. I was born and grew up in a kibbutz in Israel on the Mediterranean coast. Growing up in a kibbutz in the early 1970s was the best environment for a child to create and play with the exciting old machinery and exotic scraps. Visiting the carpenter, metal workers, car mechanics and the shoemaker, I would always end up with great collections of bits and pieces. I used to ask my friends to tell me their greatest material fantasies, so I could have the pleasure of cracking and inventing another impossible thing.
Q. What influence has your design education had on your development as a designer? And why did you decide to study in Britain
A. I believe that studying industrial or product design is very important for a potential designer. Like a musician or a dancer, you have to invest time in being in the right environment with the right people. Coming to study at the Royal College of Art in London was very natural thing for me. After my BA in industrial design at the Bezalel Academy of Art & Design in Jerusalem, I felt ready to get deeper into more personal design disciplines. I believe that London is a very good example of how a multi-cultural society can contribute to a city’s success. I joined London a bit like joining a political movement, and the RCA was the best social and technical laboratory for me.
Q. What are your objectives as a designer? And how are they evolving
A. I believe that a designed object is created to fulfil a need. In my work, I try to reduce the design to its most essential parts. The two important elements for me are perception and use. The final form of an object can be broken down to two main disciplines: the visual and the physical structure. Take for example the 501Chair: it is a single surface with no undercuts, constructed in a single outline that modifies the surface structural strength and dictates its visual definition. It is a reduction. You can’t take from it and you can’t add to it.
Q. How important is experimentation with technology to your work
A. Complex technology helps to simplify design. Alias Studio tools (3D software) gave us the right tools to restrain and simplify a five metre-long line. SLS technology helps us to avoid elements that are unnecessary for the design, but are essential when production is done with plastic injection. The Upica sofa is a composition of four lines that creates one compound surface. It is a very slim and large surface that supports itself. If a few millimetres of the surface tight shape were changed, the sofa would collapse like paper.
Q. What would you describe as the distinctive qualities of your work and approach to design
A. Reduce for interdependency while keeping the essential sculptural and aesthetical elements.
Q. How did the 501 Chair project develop
A. The 501 chair evolved from an early project, My Trousers. These are trousers in which you can walk and sit. One of the things I realised when working on My Trousers was that sitting with a wider angle between the back and the thighs was not only comfortable, but good for the body posture. This new way of sitting allows the user to relax their back from tension. In my opinion, the traditional chair is an evolutional mistake that started way back with the design of the first chair. One thing is sure, sitting with a 90 degree angle is a very bad solution, particularly when it is for long hours, leaning forward to type on a computer and we are stuck with tables that are 72cm high.
Q. How did the OMI light project – and your relationship with Materialise (the Belgian manufacturing company that has adapted rapid prototyping for serial production) – come about
A. In 1999 I designed the first OMI lamp made from 120 disposable foam plates. The 120 plates were attached with a rubber band, which allowed the whole bunch to move and to create a type of biological worm mechanism. I showed this lamp at Salone Satellite in Milan 2000. It got very good reactions, but was very difficult to produce in conventional ways. The first meeting with Naomi Kaempfer, art director of Materialise, was just after my RCA graduation. My experience with 3D and RP technologies together with Materialise.mgx, a young experimental brand, was the perfect match.
The first project we worked on was OMI.mgx. It was to take the impossible design into production in the only possible way.
Q. How did you develop the Upica sofa, Coupe table and half-table
A. The Upica sofa evolved from the 501 chair. Its design focuses on the tight relationship between the physical and the visual structure. This object was carefully designed to create structural strength while keeping the essential sculptural elements. The result is a thin and light structure, different from each angle you look at it. The Coupe table transforms the dining surface into a functional tool. It is made from two skins; one creates the outer shape and the other that creates a deep wide bowl in the centre of the dining surface. The bowl can become a Champagne ice bucket, or fruit bowl. The half table is more of a lounge table – a single compound surface that creates the required table space. One is half and two is one.
Q. And the FAM suspended light
A. This light evolved from the need to control a larger working space. The standard working table lamps control just a small part of a working desk. FAM light was designed to meet my own needs. I needed a light that could move and light up to two meters of working desk. I wanted it to light up the computer while working on the desktop and then to be able to move to my modelling surface. My desk is usually full of bits and pieces, so I needed the light to be suspended, that’s why I decided to hang it from the ceiling. FAM stands for Free Axis Movement. In this mechanism there is no real axis, the light can move anywhere within a two metre diameter spherical space. It can be a directional task light and than pushed all the way up to the ceiling to produce soft ambient light.
Q. Do you see yourself as belonging to a tradition
A. It is hard to say. Tradition gives stability and comfort to the every daylife. I believe that as creators of new things, we have to question design each time again and again. Do we really like the chunky armchair? If we do, why? I insist on calling the Upica sofa a sofa and not a bench. The sofa is the largest statue in the living room. Some of the thickness of the upholstery hides the mechanical structure required by an object of this scale. Today we have stress analysis software that can help us to checking the strength of an object when using the minimum amount of material. In the Upica sofa, anything unnecessary has disappeared. In today’s technological reality, design should be seen also as a strategy for questioning and modifying traditional symbols.
Visit Assa Ashuach’s website at assaashuach.com
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run in collaboration by the Design Museum and the British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain