December 6, 2008

Serve Surprising and Pleasing but Don’t Overcook

An Interview with Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay of Raw-Edges Design Studio
by Ziggy Nixon

Raw-Edges is a design studio in London run by Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay that tries to continually challenge the basic premises of why a designed object has to be the way it is and how it functions.

The End
Ziggy Nixon, 05.12.2008


Aargh, I can’t do it! I simply can’t fit enough about these guys into one sentence, despite their inspiring input (keep reading). We’re going to have to revert back to the usual long-winded blogger style, sorry for this:

Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay (pronounced ‘Ya-el’ and ‘Shy’, respectively) are not only partners in design but partners in real life, too. This Israeli duo – both in their early 30’s – first met while studying and receiving their BA degrees at
Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. After this, they decided to further their design education and experience. They were both accepted into the Royal College of Arts masters degree in London and just as importantly got to participate in the prestigious Platform 10 program.

Their combined talents have received numerous accolades from design publications, shows and exhibitions, and awards alike. You may have seen some of their creations in your favourite museum shop, or housing a bat that may need a place to hang around in for the night, or even ironed on to the stained shirt of a colleague. Oh, and that purse that looked like someone is carrying a head around in it; this is theirs, too.

Ziggy Nixon was very pleased to get a chance to discuss life, hard work and the joy of messy studios with Shay, the male half of this very busy and talented dynamic design duo (update: even later getting to quickly follow-up with his partner, Yael, who was very helpful in polishing up the overall piece!):

Hi Shay, thanks for your time. In terms of your education, I wanted to ask about your – and throughout the interview please accept that as meaning both of you wherever appropriate – decision to get a graduate degree at the RCA. I’ve met a lot of people that have done their BA in different areas of design, but why did you re-enlist and sign up for more in terms of the graduate program?
Well, obviously we started our studies in Israel. Don’t misunderstand; Israel is a great place to study and a terrific place to come to find very talented and creative people and market chances. Still, it is a relatively small market.

We did get a very good basic education in design in Jerusalem, but it was more limited than what we wanted ultimately wanted to do with design and our careers. Not that the teachers or education were conservative or in any way restrictive. But we both wanted to expand the way we were approaching and looking at design, as well as look for a chance to get more exposure.

The RCA was an ideal opportunity for both of us where we were very fortunate and thrilled to get the chance to study there, as we found that their approach best met our targets. What was so important for us is that there you learn to not only look at products or product designs that solve specific problems but you truly get to do what you want to do. And they push you in this direction and challenge you to take advantage of this freedom. It’s a bit difficult to describe, but we were really drawn to the chance to broaden our vision like this.

Why did you choose the RCA in London vs. a chance to study in Paris, or New York, or Tokyo, just to name a few other key hubs of design?
Again, the style and program at RCA very much attracted us. We believe that Europe in general is one of the best places obviously to have wide exposure not only to people but styles and approaches to design. Plus, we had the opportunity to study together with a very strong group at the RCA.

It was such a great experience. I can’t put it into words, but it was an amazing team in London. Plus it was so cool that almost everyone was from somewhere else, meaning we were a group that came from all over the world. Almost right away we didn’t feel like strangers in a strange land, but along with the other students we felt like we were a big family. We definitely didn’t anticipate this or know it would be like that. But it was terrific and the feeling only grew stronger over time.

You were involved in the
Platform 10 group, part of RCA’s acclaimed Design Products department which is known for many things including its “playful thoughtful ethos ... that it seeks to challenge existing product typologies”. What was this experience like and how was being involved in this affected your career and your approach to design in general?
The basic premise of working in Platform 10 was just doing things we wanted to without necessarily finding a good reason to do them. We were constantly challenged to question why people do things the way they do. We learned to just keep asking basic questions about the world around us and were pushed to try and break out of our typical ways of thinking.

We were taught to not just think about designing something but to think about the ultimate object’s intended function and work from there, not from a standard set of premises. Our professors encouraged us not to call something we had in mind with just a noun – like for example ‘chair’ – as this leads you to think ‘design a place to sit on with four legs’ instead just thinking of it simply as ‘design a functional thing to sit on.’ So we had to do our best to not box in our way of thinking and creating objects. Instead, we had to constantly try and look at something’s basic functionality in a completely new way.

It was incredibly open and new in the way of thinking for us. And we made such great friends while we were there. There was a fantastic kind of group dynamic that developed and we were able to really take advantage of everyone’s unique and different ways of looking at things. We still all worked on our own designs, of course, but everyone helped with the concepts and critical evaluations.

What motivated you to start your own agency right out of college vs. moving into a more established design agency or group?
I think this has a lot to do with our experiences at the RCA as well. For two years, the school pushed us to do whatever we were interested in. It almost created a feeling that we didn’t want to work for anyone after the school … or maybe we even thought we couldn’t work for anyone else. It’s just you begin to realize that you want to keep doing your own stuff and hopefully be able to earn some money from it.

Plus, we decided that if we wanted to extend any kind of energy at anything – and were willing to invest the same amazing level of effort it took some of our friends just to find ‘external’ jobs – why not invest this for us and start something for ourselves? Not that one approach is more right or wrong than the other, it was just right for us to start our own studio.

It’s not easy to start from scratch like we have for the last two years. But you have a kind of a trade-off with the creative freedom you enjoy and the ability to make a living. It just wasn’t within our wishes to go the established design house route and as such, here we are at Raw-Edges!

It seems that you have a general interest in environmental issues or social responsibility.
Well, I have to say that I’m not sure how you got this impression. I can see that maybe we do have a social aspect in our work and I would say that such values come again from our University background.

In terms of a green approach, I don’t see this so much in our designs. Yes, we’re aware that being environmentally responsible is very important, but we’re not so clear on what’s good to use and what’s not good to use. The current state of input about recycling is kind of confusing anyway, especially if you’re making furniture or other objects to go into someone’s home.

But now that I think about it, whereas we’re not focusing on these issues per se, we do feel that if you’re producing top quality, good design, that its going to be naturally environmentally-friendly. For example, even if an object is made of plastic and has a long life-time, if it’s good enough quality and design so that the end-user does not want to throw it away, that’s positive for the environment. So much of waste is people throwing away things that are even only something like 2 years old.

For me its like if you take the classic designs in so many areas, even furniture from the 60’s: usually, people don’t throw timeless stuff like this away. Are these objects made with recyclable materials? Probably not, but then again, they don’t wind up in the land-fills so quickly either.

Part of my impression was based on you participating in the recent charity environmental auction sponsored by Adventure Ecology and Phillips de Pury & Co. What did you learn about your design processes from this experience?
To be honest, it had a completely different interest for me than what the sponsors initially had in mind. I mean, I had heard of the auction but didn’t know all of the details. But when I heard that it was not only about bird houses but also for other flying creatures including bees and bats, the first thing that came to my mind was to do an
UpsideDownHouse for bats. Suddenly, I had this idea in my head and I just had to make it. I couldn’t think about anything else.

I thought it was a great approach also because you were limited to use what was in the studio and you didn’t have to buy new things. So this was really fun.

You have some work being that is being produced by
ARCO, among others. How do you move things into mass production in terms of the processes of going from your own workshop to the large-scale production facilities?
Basically, with ARCO the process was already established and the scale-up production of was very quick and straightforward. I think this was simply because of our close attention at Raw-Edges to the initial prototyping process. Moving on to ARCO’s facilities was made even easier through our own experiences and experiments.

You see, it’s so important for both of us to be able to make the designs we create. It’s kind of like the ‘Bauhaus’ way of teaching, where you actually have to form and make your own stuff, you know, getting your hands dirty. In order to be really good at designing, we feel that you have to truly get an understanding of how all the different processes work together or even how you have to combine different parts to create the final object in terms of its functionality. And we’ve done lots of exhibitions where we’ve had to produce prototypes, too, sometimes under some pretty stressful deadlines.

In terms of the story of the project for ARCO, I met them at a show a couple of years ago in Germany where they liked my Pivot design. So they asked me if I wanted to mass produce it and I said yes! I was really excited to do this. Obviously as a designer, I want to create an idea and afterwards I think it’s terrific to have the chance to have it expertly manufactured.

I mean, I knew they were going to do a good job, after all, this is their expertise. I’m not a carpenter, I’m a designer. So I was quite happy that they took it into production and it was great to see it being made right for the first time! We have other pieces that we’d love to hand over to someone. Plus, we want to move on to other stuff as well. It’s boring to just make the same thing over and over anyway. We get way too restless.

Your work has been described as ‘al dente’. What does this mean to you?
We believe any idea should be able to be explained in one sentence.

It’s the same with design. We want to keep one aspect or one issue at the forefront with each of our products. I mean, you can write tons of books about processes, but why not keep it as simple as you can? And through this, we hope to reach as many people with our concepts as we can.

Very importantly, we think that when you look at a piece, you should ask ‘what’s special about it?’ But that doesn’t mean we want to overcook an idea. We don’t want a style that creates, I don’t know, multi-functional stuff that goes way beyond some basic function. You know, like having a kitchen set-up that’s not only used for cooking but also to access the Internet or watch a movie or whatever while you’re in the kitchen. That’s a bit crazy to me: when we design we want each piece to have a clear aspect that can be described in one core sentence.

Well, with that in mind, how would you describe in one sentence your studio’s vision?
To come up with ideas you’ve never seen before.

Maybe it sounds like a hard job, to keep designing stuff you’ve never seen before. I mean, there’s so much good stuff around. But I hope we can continue to follow this route because I really believe that if it looks like something else, it’s disappointing to me. I mean, I don’t want to do something someone else has done.

In fact, we have this little saying: we kind of call our reaction to such things ‘the allergy’. If we critique each other’s designs and we say ‘you know that reminds me of something else I’ve seen’ or it looks like to the other one to be something someone else has done, afterwards we just can’t work on it anymore. We become immediately allergic to the piece and have to stop working on it at once.
Designer Tomoko Azumi said to you that your ‘work still needs to be connected to society.’ Considering this, how do you decide that something is truly practical vs. just for fun? Is there a point in design where you can say okay the purpose is gone, this is now just kitsch and has essentially lost any connection to the world around us?
We always think about practicality. Exactly how that’s defined depends on the object. If something is going to be used for furniture, it has to be practical and this is extremely important.

As another example, take a look at Yael’s
Evacuation Skirt : she never intended to make this a practical or functional object. Instead, the design ‘implements’ were only intended combine an emergency situation – here Hurricane Katrina – with beauty or fashion matters. So the design of an object can solve a conceptual problem with no practical means. The design can also be used as a way of communicating in a language that makes sense to more than one area or audience or even connects different matters.

How about your rotating piece A Day in a Life : would you consider this practical or just a flight of fancy designed with the intention to get your audiences to think about life, the universe and everything (with apologies to the late, great Douglas Adams)?
This is another design where I really enjoyed the process of wrapping my thoughts around it and forming a unique concept. The original idea can be described pretty simply: when you move into a new flat (ZN: flat = apartment), you of course are initially looking at how you can arrange it with the furniture you have or want to have. However, you essentially only – or let’s say primarily – look at the floor space. Like “put the couch here, the chair here, the table here, the bed here, etc.” Everything is just set, boom, on the floor.

But we pay usually much less attention to the wall spaces, except for maybe putting up some shelves and hanging a picture or two. Even then we usually only look up to a certain point on the wall but typically not up at the highest parts. In addition, the ceiling is just regarded as a place to hang lamps from. So much of the useable space is therefore not being utilized, with the exception of the floor – which again in this way of thinking is very busy.

So instead of just focusing on the floor, I wanted to turn the wall into the kind of functional space for use, just like the floor. I wanted to take different furniture and where it was usually put, and instead place these same objects into these empty spaces. For me it was kind of like imagining living in a corridor: how could you still get the most out of the square feet of space with which you have to work?

Like with our experiences from Platform 10, the simple premise was to redesign space and its usage. It doesn’t have to be practical. It could work but it doesn’t have to reflect reality. In this case, yes it’s a desk, a dining table and a fish tank etc. and all you have to do is just rotate it as you need it. But again, think about it in a different light: sure, we’re limited by gravity but otherwise why does our decorating have to be the way it is? Why are we just using the floor as the place to store our stuff? These are the kind of questions both of us love to ask and an approach we very much enjoy.

I find your Stickystains iron-on stickers absolutely brilliant (“Turn Your Stain Into A Doodle”)! What inspired you to create this (messy eating and a student’s clothing budget perhaps)?
Well, if you have a nice shirt that you like and you get a stain, you either throw it away or just go around with a stain on your nice shirt. That’s the normal thought process. So I wanted to come up with a way that you could still wear the shirt without having an obvious and potentially embarrassing stain on it.

So what I did was approach the problem by creating iron-on stickers that turned the unsightly stains into attractive doodles. Again, it provided an alternative way to prolong the life of stained clothes. I offered a postcard sized sheet of designs that were enough to rescue at least 4 different stains. The concept really worked and after graduation, I sold more than a thousand in a few months! But since then I don’t have too much time for it, though I would like to go back to it. Sometimes it’s too bad we get so busy because this approach was a lot of fun.

You said earlier that you’re not a carpenter; but you must still need some basic materials and even engineering know-how. If you’re making for example a new sitting device, how do you ensure that it doesn’t break when a guy like me who needs to lose a pound or two (or three or twenty) sits down? Is your process trial-and-error or do you have – or better said have access to – significant materials and structural mechanics expertise?
Again it depends on both practicality and experience and as I’ve said, we invest a lot of time and energy into our prototypes. For example, we’ve had designs shown at fairs where we had to put up signs “please don’t sit here” which we definitely don’t like to do, because we do want our designs to be fun for the observer and make a great first impression. In this case, we just didn’t have the functionality of our prototype where it needed to be yet.

In terms of how we produce and test prototypes, you just have to keep trying and you use as much common sense as possible. We’re not engineers, we don’t have laboratories or testing facilities, we just have to keep working until it works. But that happens to people as well with more expertise as we have.

Your materials of choice are typically wood and paper, as well as obviously also textiles, polyurethane foam, etc. Are there other material(s) that you have not yet worked with that you’d like to experiment with in the coming moons?
Of course! We’re just at the very beginning of our career (I hope!). I’m not sure what new materials we could use but we want to try as much as possible. Right now, a lot of the decision is based on what we can afford and what’s readily available. We look for what’s around us.

No doubt, I’d love to work and play with all these exotic new materials that you read that are coming out of NASA or other places, like carbon fibers and other materials. It’s all about experimenting and fooling around to see what you can do and test the limits of not only the materials but your imagination as well. But no matter the material, again for us so much is about making the first prototype ourselves and working hands on with the materials we’ve chosen. We don’t want to be the kind of designer that just sits at the computer and comes up with the diagrams for someone else to make a prototype out of. For us, we want to see, know and feel what we get with our designs. I can’t tell you how important this is to us.

Do you try to ensure that your work has a sense of play or even fun to it?
We just try to have our work be as surprising as possible. For example, when people first see Pivot : perhaps they’ll only see two drawers against the wall. Maybe they won’t get what’s special about it. But when you show them how it works – with it’s flexible fanlike structure which allows the drawers to open simultaneously, noting each drawer is slightly taller in back, so it catches on the piece above, holding it in place (the back of the table is attached to a screw drilled into the wall) – and the advantages and terrific functionality it has, you see their expressions change. In this case, I remember well that a lot of people didn’t even believe that the drawers could actually move!

To be fair, people do see so much in today’s world and the market is loaded with so many good ideas. So the ability to surprise and please is very, very important and special to us. It might be that people see a ‘sitting device’ we’ve designed, but at first can’t believe it’s so lightweight and yet so durable, comfortable and functional. So that’s great when people have this kind of reaction.

On the other hand, how do you ensure that your design does not go too far in terms of your imaginations (if that’s possible even in design) and become just show-room fodder or again, kitsch?
We’re not into shocking our audience. I don’t think we have too much if anything that’s shocking or has this aspect in it.

Again, at the end of the day, yes, we want to have a surprise but without making something overly complicated. We want to keep our designs simple. I mean, most of what we’ve created could have been made 500 years ago as the basic manufacturing processes haven’t changed that much. What is important though is that we understand the function of our designs, which will always remain in the center of what we’re doing.

Obviously design is a very emotional field. I would also assume that being not only partners in your work but also partners in life adds to your own emotional investments both professionally and privately (long, very quiet pause)… uh hello?
(laughs) Yes, I’m still here.

Okay, granted it is a little unfair that Yael is not there, but how do you balance the emotions you have for your designs and also for each other?
I don’t know, maybe sometimes we don’t do this so well. At the moment, it’s gotten a bit quieter. Getting ready for all our shows this year has been a bit crazy but now it’s getting to be the holidays and as such, life is returning to a bit of calm.

A couple of months ago, it seemed though like everything was blending together. We were kind of consumed by our work and we didn’t have anything except what we were doing. There was no separation from work and home life. So maybe during this time the balance in our lives wasn’t so great.

But again, when you work so hard and later see the reaction at a show, it makes all the hard work worthwhile. You understand what the project has achieved, something that you can’t get just by focusing and working on it on your own for so long. Plus we have our colleagues around us who help with opinions. Again there are more and more busy periods and sometimes they can get very frantic. But it’s not always easy, no.

What does the phrase performance-based design mean to you, which I’ve seen you refer to in other interviews?
This started in the living space project and specifically with A Day in a Life. Again, I was working against a force or law – in this case gravity – so I had to bring in function to make this area useable. I’ve called it performance-based design or you can phrase it differently if you want. But no matter how you describe this, what is most important is that the piece is functioning. It’s not about how the piece looks but how the piece is actually performing the function it was designed to fulfil and what it is that makes it work. You’ll see again that we don’t have complicated lines or complicated mechanics in our designs, they just work.

For example, I wrote my thesis on a subject similar to animation films, you know like the Road Runner series: the Coyote always wants to catch the Road Runner and he always has some inventive way to try and get him. Yet to me, all his devices seem so real and appear like they could work in reality. It’s an effect that you can’t get in a normal film, even with lots and lots of special effects.

The great thing is that this way of thinking shows we aren’t limited by the constraints we have in life. In animation, you essentially have this magical space to work in. I was always thinking that the approach of an animator could be terrific for a designer. I was totally enthused about this concept in terms of using it as a premise in my design. And also with animation, it’s not just one picture. The picture changes with time and becomes functional. This is very similar to our pieces or the effect we want to create.

Can you provide an example of one of your collaborations where you think that the unique aspects of you and Yael’s design personalities best come together?
For both of us, the aspect of creating something new and combining our different skills is the essence of our studio. If I had to describe our ‘specialties’ briefly, I’d say that Yael has such an amazing mathematical brain and can immediately visualize how to use things in new ways. I have more of a mechanical way of thinking, where I love to understand and visualize how things could move and function. It works very well together but it’s also why you see the difference in our designs.

One good example of our collaboration that we’ve worked on has been these new lights. They're functional and combine Yael’s interests – including from skills she learned in Japan learning their very fine art of how to fold and work with paper. She worked on the lamp shades and I looked at the movement and the functionality of the overall piece.

But our designs don’t have to appear to be a combination of our talents. Every project is a result of us just being together, working side-by-side and pushing each other in a new direction. We don’t have works where we are trying to say “this is Yael’s project” or “this is Shay’s project.” Again, any results of our projects are a result of us being together.

I wanted to ask about the Head Hand Bags which have been called ‘an amalgamation of violence and dissimilarity’ or even as one blog even proclaimed ‘Ladies..., do you want to kill somebody and carry the victim’s head around?’ So Shay, I guess what I really want to know is: how does it feel to be the partner of a lady that designs a handbag that looks like it has (your / a) head in it?
I think it’s fantastic, again this was actually a great project. There’s also a super story behind it and it was so much fun to be involved in the actual process.

This came from part of a college brief by Platform 10 that asked: why are museums so exciting but the museum shops at the end of the tour so boring? Yes, you can buy souvenirs or books or even reproduction postcards from museum shops, but this isn’t exciting or truly unique to the adventure of visiting a great museum or exhibition.

So we tried to look at new approaches in a few different museums. Along the way, Yael was asked to design something for the
National Portrait Gallery in London. So she came up with this head design, which is of course was based on the biblical story about Judith and Holofernes. The bags also have a kind of visual representation reminiscent of the Renaissance and each bag is unique enough to tell its own story.

I don’t think she expected the kind of response she gets for it even today. Maybe it also shows something about human nature. I think it also shows that there’s kind of a lack of the female touch in the world of design or even a shortage of truly famous female designers. I think there should be much more.

Was there for you a specific break-through or let’s say wow moment when you said, ‘Hey, I can do this! I can be a successful designer!’
Hmmm…No. (laughter)

How have your design processes evolved over time?
Lots more mess. No, seriously, A LOT more mess.

We are very messy; we’re probably the messiest in our studio which is messy anyway. Like when Yael starts folding paper, she’ll lose track of time and before you know it, the floor is covered with different models and different constructions. Plus we’re both doing so much at the same time it’s often hard to see the floor or our workspace any more.

You know some times I look in magazines at studios where designers are so clean and organized. With us, it’s just the opposite. So lots of mess is pretty much how we’ve evolved.

What has been the biggest change for the Raw-Edges team since you both left college?
I have to say that there hasn’t been a lot of change. We’ve been talking about this lately. We want to keep our work fresh and want to continuing try new ideas. But at the same time, we wonder how we need to best move ahead with the structure of our studio in terms of trying to grow the business and be more successful.

We’re still working in this kind of college-atmosphere in our studio. Yes, we are occasionally getting some good exposure in magazines and all, but we do wonder how we should organize ourselves for the future. Looking to the future, I really have no idea how our business will change or even what the new trends will bring. I don’t want to change what we’re doing necessarily, but certainly we want to gain more experience and have the opportunity for more and more projects. It’s difficult to say.

But keeping the studio running definitely takes a lot of work. And obviously with Yael and me, we’re not just sharing design space but our lives. So sometimes it’s hard to let it go and just be us. It’s hard to see some times the bigger picture of how things work at the beginning and yet also keep everything in life balanced. Again I am glad it’s a quiet period.

Plus it’s freezing in the studio so it’s not as crowded and busy right now!


Despite their relatively young age, it’s easy to find lots of mentions of both Shay and Yael’s work on the Internet. They’ve been recognized for example at the
Milan Student Show in 2006 – Yael for her creative Milk Carton forms – where the different milk cartons distinguished between the rates of fat in the milk by using form rather than color – and Shay for his Bin Bag Bear. They’ve also participated in the Disturbance show at the Great Eastern Hotel, with again both getting quite a lot of mention in different press releases and reviews. In addition, their work received critical acclaim at the RCA’s masters’ show and the Pivot shelves – again in production by ARCO – were featured broadly in the press and event magazines for the Internationale Möbelmesse in Cologne Germany this year.

Other works in progress in terms of mass production include both their
Volume – part of the Tailoring Furniture series, where these are seats made out of big sheets of pattern paper or wallpaper and filled with expanded polyurethane foam, which acts as a mould – and Stack designs, which have been licensed by Established & Sons for its collection. They’ve also recently exhibited in several shows both large and smaller, including at the Fat Galerie in Paris along with their good friend Peter Marigold. And if this isn’t impressive enough already, as mentioned they’re had a busy second half of 2008 including the Toyko DesignTide 2008 show, “Under the Same Roof – New Work by the OKAY Studio”, which was generously sponsored by the Aram Gallery and also “From Now to Eternity – Plastic in Design”.

Although their studio name expresses their interest in the character of different materials, its clear that Yael and Shay’s work is no longer raw – other than it remains as uniquely fresh as ever. Their on-going collaborations will be watched with a keen eye by many in the design world and beyond for many years to come.


Epilogue 1: Ziggy Nixon would again like to thank Shay and Yael for their tremendous patience and courtesy during this interview process. It took a while, but we did it! Seriously, both really went out of their way, so kudos all around (too cheesy again?)!

And after Yael indicated that this long, “conversational” type of interview was a little, hm, let’s say, ‘unique’ in its style for them, I’d be re-miss if I didn’t include this link to a
MUCH SHORTER video. Great stuff!


All photographs and images used by kind permission of Raw-Edges Studio and may not be duplicated or other-wise manhandled without written permission of the artists. Pictures used of the Tug lights and Tailored Wood, as well as at least one of the portraits by
Luke Hayes, those of Stack are copyright of Mike Golgwater, Pivot from the ARCO catalogue by Petrik Pantze. Maybe we missed one or two, sorry.