"People never went to Holon from Tel Aviv unless they were coming home from work or going for their driving lessons," designer Ron Arad tells me from London. Holon, a bedroom community 20 minutes from Tel Aviv, is where locals traditionally learned to drive, Arad included – before he left Israel for London and the international design stage 38 years ago.
Last year, Arad had retrospectives at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and MoMA in New York. This month, the designer is returning to this off-the-radar suburb to inaugurate his first architectural project: the Holon Design Museum. Fans of his biomorphic furniture will recognize in the building his characteristic curves, and his medium of choice, steel.
Tel Aviv itself is an international cultural destination. Tourists come for its frenetic arts scene, high-style people and shops, and the wealth of 1930s Bauhaus buildings by architects fleeing Hitler's Germany. (The city has the largest concentration of Bauhaus architecture in the world and was designated a UNESCO heritage site in 2003. Crumbling buildings are being restored and Bauhaus walking tours have become a popular tourist activity.)
But there's a burgeoning interest in contemporary design in Israel.
A new bridge in Jerusalem by Santiago Calatrava has become a defining element of the ancient city's skyline. And Israeli design, which traditionally focused on high tech, is now on the world map, thanks to the likes of Arik Levy, Gadi Amit and of course, Arad.
The opening of the Design Museum reflects the Holon's determination to transform its identity from suburban backwater to a stop on the area's circuit of cultural destinations.
"Holon is a city that is reinventing itself culturally, with ambitious projects that invest a lot in culture," Arad says. Indeed, in the past 15 years, it has built a children's museum, a cartoon museum and a mediatheque that includes iMatter, a showroom of materials used in industrial design.
Holon is also now one of the greenest parts of Israel, with parks dotted with sculptural representations of children's books such as Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree . The charming spaces make a kid's walk to school like a day out. They also feel a world away from the Israel we read about in the headlines. (Though in Israel, politics are inescapable: Recently Holon's streets were decorated with a controversial photo exhibit that portrayed Israeli soldiers taunting Arab children.)
The trip to Holon from downtown Tel Aviv is easy, down broad boulevards named after biblical kings or modern-day politicos. Heading toward the new Design Museum, you pass endless sand-coloured high-rises, built during a recent wave of Soviet Russian immigration. (Many of these immigrants still seem unassimilated. A lost visitor can't get much help with directions; if your Russian is rusty, you might have trouble.)
The boxy white Bauhaus apartments that are Tel Aviv's great architectural legacy line many of these streets. Built in the 1930's by architects fleeing Hitler's Germany, Tel Aviv's Bauhaus work is the largest such concentration in the world and was designated a UNESCO heritage site in 2003. Crumbling buildings are being restored, and Bauhaus walking tours have become a popular tourist activity.
Arriving at Arad's sensually curved museum, which sits under the hot blue sky on a small plaza, you feel the contrast to Tel Aviv's clean-cut whiteness and a respite from the more ordinary suburban architecture of Holon. A swirl of five rust-coloured Cor-Ten COR-TEN steel ribbons wrap around two rectilinear boxes, with a length of steel cueing the visitor to the entrance, which is hidden from the street. At the same time, the museum's loading platform faces right onto the main avenue. The architect wanted the public to be able to see pieces being offloaded when they arrive for an exhibit, making this behind-the-scenes activity part of a show.
"The building is the biggest object in the museum's collection," creative director Galit Gaonv says. "It was commissioned as a piece of design."
But it's clear Arad wanted the space to feel intimate, not intimidating. Curves – always his signature – reflect the gentle arcs of Holon's sand dunes. And yet there has been criticism about the familiar look of the building. The way Arad's curves ramp up to the galleries recalls Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim in New York. In fact, one critic called the Design Museum a "rusty Guggenheim." Still, it offers moments of real architectural originality: the way the steel bands sensually twist and torque around the galleries, creating a delightful semi-hidden courtyard and allowing light to be moderated and redirected. Light and shadow are in play inside and out throughout the day.
The museum will host exhibits related to all aspects of design – fashion, lighting, furniture, contemporary jewellery – but isn't guaranteeing instant fame for up-and-coming Israeli designers. There won't even be a permanent collection, just guest curators with shows that will attempt to create public, and very democratic, discussions of everyday design. "We could fill the museum with 20 pieces by Philippe Starck – so what?" Gaon says.
"We want to get people to talk about design by creating a dialogue. We will ask 'Why do you think this is nice or ugly?' and we're not going to give answers. The idea is that these discussion will get people to ask questions while driving around the city."
In Israel, the joke goes, there are three opinions for every two people. With Arad's new museum that will now include opinions about design.
Pack your bags
GETTING THERE Air Canada flies to Tel Aviv from Toronto.
WHERE TO STAY Crowne Plaza Tel Aviv City Center ichotelsgroup.com. Located in the Azrieli Center, it's a chain hotel with a very boutique feel thanks to its impressive contemporary design. The glass-enclosed 11th-floor restaurant has panoramic views of the city. Easy public transportation to Holon is right outside the front door.
WHERE TO GO IN HOLON Design Museum 8 Pinchas Eylon St.; 972-73-215-1507; dmh.org.il. The museum and its first exhibit, The State of Things: Design and the 21st Century, opens to the public on March 4.
iMatter Materials Library 6 Golda Meir St.; 972-3-502-1553; imatter.org.il. Geared to professionals of industrial design but also open to the public, it contains hundreds of fascinating samples of materials from all branches of industry. These include the very latest in plastics, wood, ceramics, paper, metal, composites, textiles and biodegradable material.
Israeli Cartoon Museum 61 Weizman St.; 972-3-652-1849; cartoon.org.il/eng. Opened in 2007, this is one of 12 comic museums in the world. It focuses on Israel's inroads in the art form and on political cartoons from the Pharaonic era and ancient Greece to today.
Where to buy design in Tel Aviv Hip neighbourhoods Florentine and Gan HaHashmal are full of cutting-edge furniture and fashion design stores. The Bauhaus Center 99 Dizengoff St.; 972-3-522-0249; bauhaus-center.com. Organizes walking tours of the city's Bauhaus architecture and sells contemporary design objects. Ototo 7 Levontin St.; 972-77-911-0148; ototodesign.com. Ori Saidi and Daniel Gassner, the duo behind this shop, get playful with everyday objects. Look for the T-party Vase, a porcelain vase that looks like a tilting stack of your granny's teacups. Soho Design Center Dizengoff Center Mall, third floor; 972-3-621-2450; sohocenter.co.il. Probably the largest design store in Israel, it carries mostly Israeli-sourced products. It's run by a former technocrat who wants to spread the message of quality design in Israel.
Special to The Globe and Mail