Ayala Serfaty, Creative Director of the Tel Aviv-based furniture manufacturer Aqua Creations, talks in glowing terms of her signature lighting concepts that blur the boundaries between art and design.
“There is something enigmatic about light: it is present, you can see it, and yet it is intangible, ephemeral,” says Ayala Serfaty, the co-founder and creative director of Aqua Creations, a Tel Aviv-based furniture manufacturer that specializes in lighting. “It has the ability to revive objects and to make them alive when it glows through them.”
The light-emitting objects to which Serfaty refers are no run-of-the-mill lamps but rather striking sculptural pieces that blur the boundaries between art, design and functionality. Organic shapes are found throughout the Aqua collection, as are references to artists including the work of Alexander Calder. Moreover, each piece is created using innovative production techniques by Aqua’s in-house artisans.
Founded in 1994 by Ayala and her photographer husband Albi Serfaty, Aqua Creations was born from Ayala’s previous experience as a student of fine art and as a designer of props for the theater. Beginning with furniture (they still produce chairs and ottomans in tactile materials), Aqua quickly established a reputation for imaginative lighting concepts; its Soma collection of light sculptures represents the pinnacle of Aqua’s talent for creating spectacular pieces crafted from unusual materials.
“Light is more than just a by-product of a given material,” Ayala says of the primary component of her work. “I use it as a material to be shaped and designed, the same as I do with glass or silk.”
As Ayala reveals in our exclusive interview, there is a great deal of research and experimentation that goes into her ability to manipulate materials, including light. Though the joy she receives from designing for Aqua is less complicated. “There is always this exciting moment when I first turn on the light and watch what happens to the object,” she says. “It ‘wakes up’ and starts its own life.”
Ayala Serfaty’s definition of luxury?
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
My husband, Albi.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
You studied fine art, then began designing furniture and now concentrate on lighting. How did your work evolve?
My art studies sparked my primary interest in materials. From the very beginning I have found myself drawn to exploring materials – their texture, transparency, the way they interact with other materials and the message and content they convey. One early example would be an artwork series that I created using dust from my vacuum cleaner. The choice of material bears a specific meaning; in the case of dust it is of something fragile and transient, like a memory that refers to something else. Yet, while as an art student I enjoyed the freedom to explore the qualities of the material, I started to also realize the importance of function as a centralizing force that gathers all other elements around it. During the time I worked in the theater as a props designer and producer, I had the chance to design objects from time to time. I found this realm of furniture design as an exciting place to be and create. The fact that I never really studied industrial design allowed me to remain free and independent: I didn’t have to position myself in relation to other designers, but could develop my very own personal language.
Why focus on lighting?
I enjoy exploring what happens to a material once light is emitted through it, as different materials and textures respond in a different way to light. Usually I look for materials that would create soft and glowing light. Yet, in my pieces light is more than just a by-product of a given material. It has specific roles that it has to fulfill. When the light is first turned on, there is a precious moment where the artwork begins its own journey and shapes itself independently, regardless of the artist.
Why the name Aqua Creations?
The name refers to water as an essential element that creates life. My first pieces were conceived while I was pregnant with my first daughter. I saw the analogy between the water outside my body and the water inside, between underwater life and the new life sprouting inside me, this little baby who is surrounded by amniotic fluid – the magical water that gives life.
How much of your inspiration comes from creatures of the sea?
My early work was influenced by that real experience of diving in the Red Sea and by the interesting shapes and textures I witnessed. I was inspired by the softness and the bright colors, by buoyancy and underwater movement and wanted to translate what I saw, the micro-cosmos of secret life and those laws of nature into handmade furniture and lighting. Yet, underwater life was only one model I used in my work alongside others. It represented my general fascination with organic cellular structures and mechanisms, such as methods of reproduction. Indeed, my early furniture pieces were based on multiplying a basic module to create something that looks like an organic tissue of cells. So while my work is still identifiable for its underwater-related shapes and texture, it mainly represents a general organic quality, and expresses an abundant, feminine and joyous character that is not necessarily inspired by the sea.
How does your background in art now influence your work?
My art studies enabled me to look at things from a fresh point of view. I was free to invent new materials and techniques, to “follow” materials, or take them to the extreme, to places where no one had stepped before and to use them in a novel way that was never experienced. I enjoy watching how a material changes and to think what qualities I can release from it. A good example of this artistic approach is the installation, Soma, which was free of end use or time limits and focused on self-expression. When I created this piece I used glass filaments, a material I had to study in order to figure out how I can manipulate it. Discovering the right polymer spray that clings to the glass filaments and covers them allowed me to reach the final effect I was looking for.
Other artists are also an inspiration – there are a few pieces in your Jewelcollection of lighting that recall Alexander Calder. Is it the case that youthink you can improve on previousartistic ideas using light?
Alexander Calder’s mobiles and the way they glide in space have always enchanted me. I was curious to see what happens once you put light into the equation. The challenge was to create mobiles that would both illuminate and move. And no, I don’t see it as an “improvement”, but more like a post-modern quotation of Calder’s work.
You describe your collection called Soma as glass light sculptures and it isinteresting that there is a definite element of functionality to all of yourwork. What are your feelings about so-called design-art?
My work expresses an inner dialogue between art and design, between spirit and function. As I see it, in many senses my pieces contain both, you cannot trace where one begins and the other ends as the two approaches are constantly interwoven and merged. When I start working on a new piece, I come from an artistic point of view. I first explore shapes, colors, materials and proportions. But in contrary to a work of art, the fact that the piece has to fulfill a function and to be reproduced in the studio, influences the process and harnesses the creative thinking into certain channels. Yet, my pieces always remain in this gray area between art and design, not only in my mind, but also in the way other people perceive them. As a result, you can see my pieces roaming between different magazines and displays and crossing the boundaries between disciplines back and forth: for example, “Soma” was first exhibited in the Tel-Aviv Museum of Art, under the Department of Design and Architecture. Then, it was shown at the Beelden Aan Zee Sculpture Museum, where it was considered as sculpture, and then back at the Design Museum in London, it is now exhibited as a design work.
The craftsmanship used in creating your pieces is utterlyinnovative. What have been your favorite discoveries in terms ofsavoir-faire?
Each and every collection of works requires developing a unique craftsmanship. When I come up with projects like “Soma” or “Apaya”, developing the manufacturing process requires research and experiments, and remains a mystery until it is being deciphered. “Soma” required six years of research before I could say that I found what I was looking for. In “Apaya” I use traditional felting techniques and actually produce felt out of wool in the studio. But again, I used that old wisdom and transformed it into something new. The way we now make felt in the studio is innovative. No one uses it this way. The process of developing a technique is therefore inextricably bound to the process of developing the final design.
Why did you decide to become a design manufacturer as opposed to just adesigner?
It was inevitable to become a designer manufacturer; it was not even a matter of decision. I had to get specific materials and once I couldn’t find what I needed, I had no other choice than to simply produce it.
In general, which other lighting designers do you admire?
Ingo Maurer, Isamu Noguchi and Varner Panton.
Tell us about the design world in Tel Aviv and your Israeli colleagues –which of your contemporaries do you admire?
In addition to the dedicated Department of Design and Architecture of the Tel-Aviv Museum of Art, this is a good opportunity to mention the new Design Museum that was recently opened in Holon, near Tel-Aviv. The museum building, which is already a spectacular work of art by itself, was designed by Ron Arad. The museum gathers works of various Israeli designers and provides a glimpse of the Israeli design scene.