THERE'S AN UNUSUALLY large crowd gathered inside restaurant and arts hub Duddell's. The few rows of seats have already filled up and most people are starting to claim standing space against the wall, some surreptitiously clutching books to be signed later. As even more arrivals shuffle through the door, we're told that the man everyone is waiting to see, artist and designer Arik Levy, is on his way.
Levy is hardly a household name, though a quick look at a potted biography makes it clear why so many design fans have packed themselves, shoulder-to-shoulder, into the restaurant for this talk about his life and work. This prolific designer began his career as a selfdescribed “beach bum” making surfboards in Tel Aviv before he moved to Europe in the late 1980s, completed a course in industrial design in Switzerland and established his own studio in Paris.
Having left the surfing life behind, Levy started working on a wide variety of projects including furniture, lighting and home accessories, and slowly built up a roster of clients that now includes Swarovski, Baccarat, Boucheron, Zanotta and Vitra, among many others. On top of his design work, Levy also produces a prodigious number of sculptures and paintings to be exhibited in art galleries.
Levy's talk does not disappoint the gathered fans. The tall, good-looking designer is clearly at home in front of an audience and carefully describes everything from his inspirations to his use of materials to how he moves between the design industry and the more rarefied world of art. He's entertaining and articulate, but the hour-long talk is not nearly long enough for him to cover his entire oeuvre, so even after an extensive Q&A session he's mobbed by members of the audience who want to know more.
The next day, the fans are absent and Levy is overseeing the final touches to an exhibition of his sculptures and paintings at Pékin Fine Arts. He's clearly looking forward to the opening and, somewhat miraculously, doesn't seem at all tired after last night's event. “It's good you came to the talk yesterday because you'll have a good background,” Levy says when we're first introduced. “At least I'll figure out if you slept!”
The exhibition at Pékin Fine Arts is called Manmade (Human) Nature and is primarily made up of Levy's large, rock-like sculptures. Some are teetering towers made from cleverly crafted, pebble-like chunks of stone or wood. Others are more delicate, see-through structures made of thin strips of metal that simply trace the edges of enormous boulder-like shapes. One particularly striking piece is called CraterAir C80 and is made from mirror-polished stainless steel, which makes it look jarringly futuristic and rather Jeff Koonsesque. But all of the work here, even the paintings, seems to spring from Levy's interest in rock-like forms, which also regularly appear in his design work.
Levy puts his repeated use of these shapes down to his interest in what he describes as “primitivism” and people's gut responses to nature and natural materials. He explains, “You know earth, when you take earth from the forest, when you take just a little bit in your hand, it has a different temperature, it has a little moisture, you close your eyes and you smell it – it's strong. That's what I do: I try to bring the people to feel a moment, a fraction of a second of a moment, that makes them feel that. If that happens, that's great.
“We forget that we are primitive. We wake up in the morning – first we have to sleep, if we manage – then everybody goes to pee. The body is a machine: it needs to eat, it needs to sleep, it needs oxygen. Primitive for me is not negative; it's beautiful. Primitive parts of my behaviour, of my nature, are beautiful – it's what I am. I feel and I don't screen. The rawness of thought, of feeling, of material. First I feel. I'm more an animal than a cerebral, so first I will feel, then I will try to understand what I felt.”
Levy admits that both his art and his design work are done in the hope of eliciting this same visceral reaction, though his working process is very different for each of them. “Design is design, art is art, design is not art and art is not design. That doesn't say that you can't do both. But when I do a chair, I know that I do a chair and I fulfil the task of what the chair should do and who is using it. What kind of questions I have, what kind of concerns do I have for the user?
“When I paint or do sculpture I don't have that. So it doesn't blur. When you graduate from design in the USA, you graduate with a Bachelor of Science; it's not a Bachelor of Arts. You do take physics classes, and you need to know how to calculate and need to understand structures, which I think is important.”
Even with the exhibition at Pékin Fine Arts, his subsequent attendance at both Art Central and Art Basel in Hong Kong and exhibitions of his art in Prague and Los Angeles, Levy hasn't reduced the number of design projects that he's working on. “I've done a big project with a company called Kaldewei,” he says. “It's the biggest German bathtub manufacturer in steel. Bathtubs in steel and enamel – beautiful. We innovated quite a few things because steel is hard to form, it's complex, it's expensive it's an energy-consuming process, so you have to do it right.
“We're launching a big collection of chairs and tables with a company called Ton. As a designer who has a bit of notoriety and experience, it's my responsibility, I believe, to work with small companies. Of course it's great to work with the big companies – you're well paid, you get royalties, you get the fame, you get advertising. But they don't need another Levy. Swarovski doesn't need me again. We'll do things, if I meet Nadja and we want to do something we will do it – I love Nadja and I love Swarovski. But for a company like Ton to work with me is a total change.
“[At the Salone del Mobile in Milan] we're showing four new collections of lighting with Vibia, which is a Spanish company where I do mostly sculptures, lighting that is more sculptures in space that bring light. Then I have five new products with Danese Milano, a company that worked with Enzo Mari and all the Italian fathers of design. I have a great collaboration with them right now – it's fabulous. Also we're doing two lighting families with Artemide, so there's a lot of lighting this year. I love my work; it's great. It's enriching.”