Omer Arbel

The Vancouver-based artist and designer publishes his first monograph, replete with experiments in lighting, sculpture, design and architecture

86.3. Fahim Kassam

Spherical glass as fierce as molten lava; an angular furniture set cocooned amongst a cave-like canopy; a nest of elongated, spindly arms attached to a series of bronzed bulbs; these are all but a few elements making up the portfolio of Omer Arbel, a Vancouver-based artist and designer known for his experimental approach to processes and materiality. Reaching acclaim for his work across sculpture, industrial design and lighting – and let’s not forget his co-founding of design and manufacturing company Bocci – his lengthy tenure has now been dissected in form of his first monograph, aptly named Omer Arbel, and published by Phaidon.

Omer himself has many titles: an architect, artist, inventor, designer and, perhaps the most unlikely, a competitive fencer. The latter a sport he enjoyed during this younger years, it was a close marriage of strategic play and discipline that enabled him to propel into more creative pursuits later on. “I always knew architecture and making things would be my path, and fencing was a cool side gig. There are lessons I carry with me from that era that come up almost everyday,” he says. “People describe fencing as ‘sprinting and playing chess at the same time’, but I think it is more like backgammon: intuition and willpower play an outsized role, with strategy, perhaps, secondary. Everything happens so fast, there is little time for analysis, so responses are intuitive and must be decisive. Maybe I’ve carried that method of decision making forward into my career, though its relevance is questionable given that projects take years to mature now, not seconds.”

23.2. Fahim Kassam

Even if Omer’s work currently adheres to a much slower pace, his decisive (and thoroughly disruptive) attitude shines through fully. This becomes clear within Omer Arbel, a publication housing his broad and experimental projects spanning lighting, industrial design, sculpture and architecture. Each of which is marked in a characteristic identity system of numbers – something he’s incorporated since the dawn of his practice. A “great tool for introspection”, the numbering also means he can skip over the menial and oftentimes tricky task of naming the projects.

Omer has now reached a “mid-career” point, so not only does he delegate more of the workload to his trusted team, but he’s started to reflect. “The nature of the monograph is to offer a survey that covers the entire output of the practice,” he explains, “to invite the reader into our ecosystem of ideas.” Designed by Derek Barnett, the book is constructed with transparent paper, allowing the viewer to identify texts and imagery through its layers – a kind of visual maze that gives a glimpse as to what’s coming next. “This felt true to our process, in which ideas are always infecting other ideas in the studio,” he notes. Meanwhile Stephanie Rebick edited and worked on the curatorial process, organising the chapters and content as well as a collection of excerpts. “Together these strategies offer a scrapbook quality,” says Omer, “at odds with the formality of the monograph trope, which I like.”

93. Fahim Kassam

Flick through the pages and you’ll notice the studio’s immense attention to detail and investigation, whether that’s in the literal sense of approaching a brief or through the use of materials, mechanics and applications of light. 64 is pinnacle to this, a project conducted over several experiments with hot beeswax and water set at different temperatures. Omer was inspired to work in this manner after reading Rudolf Steiner’s Nine Lectures on Bees – a philosopher who predicted the declining population of the honeybee. “It is a celebration of a long ritual of transformation, beginning with the bees making the wax and ending with lighting the candle,” says Omer. “Even the transportation of the object is part of the ritual.” The result is this metamorphic object, where twiggy formations of wax amount to a delicate candle structure. All previous associations of how a candle should look and behave are tossed away happily with this creation, and there are many of this kind.

75.9 Model. Fahim Kassam (22)

87, for example, is one of the first experiments the studio made with the folding glass technique, presenting the sheer durability of the material. The technique arose from a residency at Pilchuck Glass School in Washington: “Glassblowers there demonstrated what they called ‘a trick’, involving spinning hot glass rapidly on a concrete floor, which caused the glass to fold over itself many times while still malleable, yielding a pearlescent cast. Upon analysis, it became clear that small air pockets in the glass, folded and folded again numerous times, rapidly divided the glass matrix into numerous glass strings with a very small diameter. Each fold stretched and thus reduced the diameter of the air pocket and doubled the number of individual strands in an exponential relationship; thus, the more folds could be achieved, the most interesting the optical properties of the resulting object.”

The method involves a careful “vertical folding motion”, done so with just the right mount of glass for it to be well-handled by the glassblower, before filling it up with air bubbles with soda water, “increasing the intensity of the gossamer effect.” He adds: “The form of each loop is a direct result of the folding motion of the glassblowers. Introducing light on one end of the piece meant that it could travel within the glass filigree, creating a gradient across the length of the piece.”

Throughout the book, these more intricate structures are paired with more large-scale architectural pieces. But no matter the size, each protrude with the creators signature language: one of variety and skill. Omer is a designer who knows no boundaries. In fact, the term inventor might be better suited as his ultimate title. 

Omer Arbel is available to pre-order here and will be published at the end of the month

31.3. Fahim Kassam
Janaki Showroom, 87. Fahim Kassam
75.9 Work in Progress

Watch Your Weight

With the traditional wind-up wristwatch more popular than ever, we explore how the Swiss are staying at the cutting edge with high-tech, lightweight materials science 

With speculation whirling about who will play the next James Bond, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the portrait featured here for a particularly dramatic teaser – 007’s scheming, megalomaniacal nemesis standing menacingly by his weapon of global destruction. But Senad Hasanovic is very much fact, not fiction, and he couldn’t be more self-effacing if he tried. 

The 33-year-old has been installed at Hublot’s factory on Lake Geneva for almost four years now, as, in his words, “part of the technology transfer” from Lausanne’s École Polytechnique Fédérale (EPFL). He’s no mere accessory to his elaborate equipment – Hasanovic worked for two years at EPFL on Hublot’s tough commission to the school: to develop an 18-carat gold that wouldn’t scratch. Hasanovic’s resulting Magic Gold was made by fusing 24-carat gold with a porous ceramic substrate under tremendous pressure and temperature, to give a scratch resistance of 1,000 Vickers. Normal 18-carat gold is 400 Vickers, by comparison. Thus, Hublot’s Metallurgy and Materials division was born, and Hasanovic was installed in-house at the watch factory, lock, stock and barrel.

“Magic Gold offered me a great opportunity,” enthuses Hasanovic, who originally joined EPFL after completing a master’s degree, majoring in carbon fibre. “Hublot is the watchmaker for materials – we’re now doing some crazy things with red ceramics, aluminium and carbon fibre…”

“Why do we go to these lengths?” he adds. “It’s because, as a young brand, we can’t talk about heritage, so materials are the thing that differentiates us. And now we have the foundry in-house, the cool thing is that we can continue to experiment.”

A finely made timepiece is a baffling anachronism. For starters, no one really needs a watch these days, finely made or not. Second, a finely made watch is still driven by a delicate concoction of wheels, springs and levers – 200-year-old technology that keeps worse time than the placky digital that fell out of your cereal packet this morning. So what’s tying Switzerland’s lab-coated boffins to their workbenches, tweezers in hand, when they could easily be enticed down from Watch Valley by any of Geneva’s micro-tech firms?

The plasma oven at Rado’s Comadur case-making facility

What’s keeping the Swiss watch positively Alpine fresh isn’t so much the clockwork ticking inside, as its packaging. The anachronism that is the mechanical watch is increasingly being spiked with lightweight yet super-durable materials, some of which are more at home in the suspension wishbone of an F1 car. 

From ceramic cases on the outside, to self-lubricating silicon micro-mechanics ticking away inside, watches are fresher and more cutting-edge than ever. Not through the efforts of classically trained watchmakers, however, but because of canny watch CEOs with a hotline to Switzerland’s finest minds, scattered throughout neighbouring micro-tech facilities. And while you might think it’s evolution for evolution’s sake, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll soon discover otherwise.

Scratching won’t get you very far in the seminal case, however, as Rado’s breakthrough in the ’60s explicitly set out to resist such abuse. Its egg-shaped DiaStar Original looked like something Captain Kirk would wear, and for good reason – the case was formed not of steel, but a newfangled hard metal called tungsten carbide. It defined Rado’s ultra-futurist manifesto and by the ’80s, Rado had mastered and pioneered the use of ultra-light and ultra-tough ceramic. It’s a material that’s now found in watches from (but not necessarily made by – third-party tech facilities are notoriously secretive) IWC, Bell & Ross and Panerai, plus fashion darlings Ralph Lauren and Chanel, whose monochrome ceramic bracelets just happen to echo Mademoiselle Coco’s iconic quilted handbag (and really are made by Chanel’s own ceramic facility in La Chaux-de-Fonds). 

Rado’s sister company, Comadur, makes all of its ceramic components and has recently innovated so-called ‘high-tech plasma’ ceramic. Gases activated at 20,000°C raise the temperature of finished white ceramic to a sizzling 900°C, transforming it into an otherworldly material with a mysterious metallic glow, without using any metal at all.

“Beyond the sheer novelty of using ceramic for our cases,” says Rado CEO Matthias Breschan, “more and more newcomers to the brand are realising that ceramic is nice to wear. It’s super comfortable, and thermally balanced with your skin.”

At the highest end of the luxury market, however, you have a much harder job convincing dyed-in-the-wool collectors that anything not encased in gold or platinum is a genuinely luxurious product. But a certain Frenchman called Richard Mille has proved most convincing in this argument. 

The sintering oven at Rado’s casemaker, Comadur, in which ceramic components are baked for 24 hours

Mille has been experimenting with the concept of weight reduction in haute horlogerie since the conception of his brand in 2000 – a revolutionary exercise in no-compromise technicality. He treated his cases like racing car chassis, the ‘engine’ suspended from it, with nothing as superfluous as a dial to obscure its inner workings. 

“When I first produced tourbillons with titanium and ALUSIC cases and carbon base plates, I was fighting against perceived value,” Mille recalls. “A titanium watch could not be a luxurious timepiece as it did not weigh enough. However, mentalities rapidly changed and gradually amateurs soon appreciated my watches for their extreme lightness associated with the best technology.”

It wasn’t just amateurs, but leading sportsmen too. Handling Rafael Nadal’s Richard Mille RM 27 watch for the first time provoked laughter. Not just because its delicate mechanics kept good time despite Rafa’s punishing swing, but mainly because it’s so surreally light – less than 20 grams, strap included – that it actually floats in water, thanks to the use of lithium-alloy, usually used in satellites and F1 cars. The case of Rafa’s latest version, the RM 27-02, is a cocktail of carbon and quartz, weighs just 19 grams, and costs a princely $800,000 (give or take a few grand).

Increasingly, the smart money is on new, proprietary composites. The latest and greatest is Breitlight, which, as the punning name suggests, is exclusive to Breitling. It packages a 50mm beast of a 24-hour chronograph, the Avenger Hurricane (£6,450), which wouldn’t look out of place on Batman’s utility belt. Like a Swatch, it’s plastic, but plastic as you’ve never known it. It’s a polymer composite spiked with carbon fibre, similar to that used for Glock’s signature pistol. The upshot of which is that it’s 3.3 times lighter than steel, yet almost impossible to dent, scratch or corrode.

Smartwatches may be (temporarily) snatching all the attention from ‘proper’ watches, but, for now at least, traditional watches are proving that the use of high-tech materials can keep them relevant in the 21st century, as well as smart in their own right.

This article is taken from Port issue 19.