30 April 2015

Interview with Ezri Tarazi

Text: Susanne Heinlein

Ezri Tarazi is a product designer and design theorist. In 1996 he founded the Tarazi Studio based in Shoham and since then has been working on commercial projects for clients such as Microsoft or Airwell as well as on experimental products, installations and exhibitions. He teaches industrial design at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design Jerusalem and also co-ordinates the collaboration with the University of Arts Berlin (UdK Berlin) together with Gesche Joost (↗ form 249, p. 34) and Bianca Herlo. Kai Rosenstein met with him for an interview at the „Community Now? The Politics of Participatory Design“ symposium which took place from 19 to 21 February 2015 at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.


You can find more on Israeli Design in form 259.


For a start, can you describe your personal principles, ideas and philosophy of design?


For me design is a junction of many things instead of being a closed discipline. It doesn’t have its own character, but rather the opposite: it can dress itself according to the situation, the circumstances and the elements it wants to combine. All based on the challenge, the need and the desire to be more interesting, revealing reality and the nature of the people involved. Everything that has to do with design is dynamic and not a territory.



At the symposium “Community Now? The Politics of Participatory Design” at the Jewish Museum in Berlin you talked about the “exampleship” of things. This term suggests that design holds the possibility of things being different.


Exactly. I wanted to show the New Baghdad table because it was first shown in Milan in 2005, precisely ten years ago. At the time it was extremely different to what is regularly shown in Milan and caused a lot of waves – some people hated it, some people liked it and some people made it ridicule. But if I look at it and its vision now, I experience it as an example. At the time object and furniture designers in Milan never attempted to respond to political events but rather show comfortable couches or beautiful lamps. Therefore, this was a shock to the system. Reflecting on it I would say it was kind of a prophecy. I worked on the project in Jerusalem in 2003, two weeks before the invasion of Iraq by the allies. The New Baghdad table is difficult to build, a delicate puzzle in the shape of the city map. It is made of aluminium profiles welded together making it difficult to create a flat surface. It happens to be even fiercer than I imagined at the time. Just as what happens to Iraq and Syria right now it is even more devastating. In my view it was an “exampleship”, a response, a reaction to something radical that is about to happen in my area. It was spontaneous. I was in the factory located in the slopes of Jordan River. I had just heard the news on the radio and decided to do the Baghdad table right away. Only later did I reflect on what had happened. I learned a lesson from it and started to listen to what is happening in the world and respond to it.



Would you describe working on political questions and themes as the social role of design?


Definitely. The Baghdad table was a radical example but everything you do as a designer is a political act. If I design a piece of furniture for Ikea it is a political act: I co-operate with the mass market of Ikea-culture in the world. Once I hacked Ikea lamps and combined them with garbage I found in the street – I also did a kind of political reaction, I contra-cooperated. I don’t say it is not allowed to co-operate with big firms, but you need to be aware of the responsibilities. This also goes for education.



This brings us to Bezalel and as a research partner also to the project “Community Now? The Politics of Participatory Design”. Can you as a teacher describe your personal expectations of the co-operation with the UdK Berlin?


First of all, I think the most important thing is the co-operation in general, the fact that Gesche Joost, Bianca Herlo and I started to work together. I would say that even the first act, deciding to do it, trying to get a funding for it, was important because then we started to ask ourselves how the others think. You share your ideology and actually find out that people in Germany for example think about a lot of things the same way. There are of course some things that we don’t agree upon but actually we found more similarities. I think academies work isolated from each other most of the time so we don’t realise how much we agree on big issues. So the first thing was to co-operate on the similarities and then also to find out that we approach some things differently. We have different cultures and attitudes and this means we can learn from each other.

I can give you an example. One of our students comes from a kibbutz (collective Israeli community) in the North of Israel. Some exchange students stayed there for one night and learned about the concept of a kibbutz. This student also played the oud which is a traditional guitar you can find in Syria and Egypt. So imagine a group of students sitting in his home in the kibbutz, he plays the local music and they spend the evening together. I think students from Germany will never experience something like that again. It’s something really important opening up to another culture and another point of view.



What is the motivation of these students? Is there a special interest in the culture of Jerusalem?


I think being in Jerusalem and at Bezalel is one of the best ways to explore the Middle East. Right now you can’t go to Baghdad or Damascus but being at Bezalel is like feeling what we call the parting line between the mix of West and East. I call it the “Weast”. The same thing is happening now in Berlin. I think for German students it is about the similarities that create attraction. 


Can you tell us more about the structure of the educational system at Bezalel?


Bezalel was founded in 1906 as an Art and Craft school. It was closed in 1929 due to the collapse of the world economy and then was reopened by people who came from the Bauhaus movement in 1935. Those Jewish students and teachers – mainly teachers – left Germany because of the closing of the Bauhaus and came to Israel, found Bezalel closed and decided to reopen it as a new Bauhaus branch. That was even before the Chicago one opened in 1939. So actually Bezalel was the first follow-up of the Bauhaus.

Bezalel is based on the Bauhaus philosophy a lot, which says you need to be creative and hands-on from the first week. If I compare it with other international design institutions where the start is more academic, Bezalel is different. It puts a lot of effort on teaching technology, working in the workshops and demanding the students to be creative. Students spend a lot of time in the workshops. I think this is something German students love because in some cases in Germany they don’t have this experience.

We have a structure of Bachelor and Master. In the Master there are three lanes: one is about design – a critique on design by creating. It’s commenting on design and actually countering the culture of design. The second one is about design management. And then we have a new lane called Design and Technology.



As you mentioned before it is important to teach students what is going on in the world and what this has to do with design. Is this part of the Bachelor or only of the Master programme?


No, it’s not only an issue for the Master. I think that we have a lot of projects that include this in the Bachelor programme. We see a lot of social innovation and social design in the final projects of the fourth year. We have specific courses on design for elderly people, design for communities, design for specific needs, etc. I can give you an example: a few years ago in Milan we showed a whole exhibition that was collecting design for exploring situations. This was possible because as curators we realised that many of our teachers corresponded to what happened in the world in their courses. For example one was on the situation after the big Tsunami. So the whole class was designing for situations before or after natural disasters like a special table for schools that can protect children underneath it against earthquakes. In Milan this was also a shock in a way because usually the show presents nice or avant-garde things.



What will be the big issues during the next ten years in your opinion? What do you really want to establish in your school and also in this co-operation with the German schools?


In my view it’s not only about Israel and Germany. I think we need to co-operate on what is going on in the whole world right now and not only on the problems of Germany or Israel. I hope that we will be a centre of development to global changes and challenges and co-operate with our students on meeting them. Today we see that the progress technology brought about is not shared with all communities in the world. On the contrary we see more gaps, more differences, more separation, more chaos. What’s going on? We thought we would have a shared community. To find out why this is happening we first need to investigate and then approach specific projects as a prototype and an inspiration to others. If we can work together on shared challenges in the world that would be great.

I’m working a lot in Latin America at the moment, which is a very interesting and challenging place. This goes as well for the Middle East, Africa and other places. It’s a huge field if you think about anything from education to health. Everything can be redesigned with the new technologies and opportunities. And I think we didn’t even scratch the surface of what is possible with a good way of thinking. Some things are meant for profit and not for improvement. Which is okay, big companies need to think about profit, but education systems, governments etc. need to think about the human benefit. We need to suggest an alternative. We have to. If we don’t do it I don’t think any system will do it. We see it as a rebellion.



Ezri, thank you very much for this interview. 


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