Bezalel: Doing Not Dreaming

Inspiring Education: Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem

British degree level courses in craft subjects have been in crisis for some time now. But it may be a mistake to consider this an indication of a global trend. Like so many of our modern art schools, Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem found its early inspiration in the Bauhaus model of workshop experimentation. The roots of the academy go back to a desire to redress the stereotype that the Jewish community worked with money rather than manual skills. Today Bezalel prides itself on “doing stuff, not just dreaming about it”.

This year’s graduates of Bezalel’s Jewellery and Fashion Department exhibited an impressive range of skills combined with innovative thinking. “Thinking about everything for the body” is how Head of Department Einat Leader describes the current curriculum. Since her appointment five years ago, the course has adopted an enviably fluid approach to the subjects of fashion, textiles, jewellery, hat and shoe design with students able to specialise or move between areas. Leader is adamant that materials knowledge is core to the curriculum. “It is important students touch material in their first degree,” she explains after observing that computer-based work makes it “hard to develop new shapes. Only touching materials gives new shapes.”

This year’s graduates drew their references from the past and future in equal measure. Merav Oster, for example, scours our digital habits for new ways to adorn the body. “I try to turn every little gesture – a finger touching a screen, a click on a keyboard – into an attractive event,” she explains. Her final jewellery collection included fine metal ‘wings’ that expand and contract as a finger taps away and an ‘antenna’ that flickers as thumb and forefinger move across our touch sensitive digital interfaces. In contrast, Emi Ronen’s oversized jewellery reworks the symbols of military service that young Israelis must undertake before their studies to create regalia of craft rather than military action.

Other highlights include Dafna Amar’s flat pack shoe, which offers the perfect solution for light travellers. Made of a sheet of leather studded with poppers, each foot is wrapped in any number of variations to create an ever-changing shape. Lihi Laskar also reconsiders the conventions of footwear, creating prototypes that break and link mid foot and, in another, separating the shoe into three layers of increasing durability.

Leader explains, “industry has closed over the past twenty years in Israel. We don’t have many big [design] companies.” The upside of this challenge is a vibrant creative community with numerous graduates who “open their own workshops, do stuff on their own, and are strong role models” for the next generation of students. “There are a lot of ways to deal with the future,” Leader concludes. “Understanding materials contributes to our way of thinking.” The independence of Israel’s design community may not entirely be by choice, but Bezalel’s open-minded curriculum coupled with the absence of mainstream commercial design jobs is fostering a wealth of smart, skilful and accomplished designers.

Crafts magazine (Nov./Dec. 2010: 16)