"Jewish ceremonial art is the most effective medium for spreading a facet of culture in Israel. Every home, whether religiously observant or secular, has Sabbath candlesticks or a Chanukah lamp. Few of the owners of such items are art collectors or artists, yet most of them are keen on their beauty. It is the designer's role to introduce them to new attitudes regarding form, proportion, harmony and textures".
Professor Arie Ofir was born in Israel in 1939. He graduated from the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem 1964 and continued studying with the renowned silversmith D.H.Gumble. And then he studied two more years at "George Jensen" in Copenhagen, with a scholarship from the Danish ministry of education. In 1968 Ofir opened his studio in Jerusalem and in 1972 became head of the Gold- and Silver smiting Department at the Bezalel Academy for art and Design in Jerusalem. He headed the department for twelve years and was appointed full Professor of Fine Art in 1982.
Ofir's works of art have been displayed in many well known museums, including the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, The Victoria & Albert Museum in London, The Jewish Museums in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Amsterdam, Frankfurt,
The 20th century museum in Vienna and the Museums of Modern Art in Tokyo and Kyoto. In 1992 Arie Ofir was awarded by the Israel Museum the Jesselson Prize for Contemporary Judaica Design for his life work of creating innovative objects using unusual materials, daring and complex shapes and colors; for breaking new ground and conquering new territories in the world of Jewish art." (Quoting from the Prize testimony) In recent years Ofir has also designed sculptural lighting elements and environmental construction projects, integrating fine art with design to provide functional and esthetic products.
Quotes from articles and interviews
1981 Jewelers Showcase
"Ofir is not a great believer in the perpetuation of ancient traditions. He is always in search of new images and fresh forms' and encourages his students to adopt a similar view" The Gold and silver smiting Department in the Bezalel academy for art & Design has undergone a revolution during the nine years of Ofir's tenure. It has developed from a glorified workshop into a comprehensive educational facility" "Ofir takes quiet pride in the fact that several of his graduates are represented in major exhibitions and galleries abroad." "His designs are defined as Jewish ritual objects' but not by traditionalists who find them too modern for their tastes. Ofir on the other hand, disdains the constant imitation of Baroque and Rococo styles, which he maintains have so many non-Jewish motifs, that they cannot be truthfully classified as Judaica. His designs are much more contemporary, in keeping with modern life styles and their aesthetic values of modern day Judaism".
Jewish art?! by Emily Bloch
What is Jewish art? Despite prolong disputation among artists, craftsmen, historians and philosophers, there is no simple answer. Designer Arie Ophir' Professor of Fine Arts discusses contemporary Jewish art and its role in the making of a local culture. When people talk about Jewish art or Judaica they usually refer to ritual items found in most Jewish homes and passed from generation to generation as heirlooms. Many of these objects originated in 17th - 19th century Europe and were mostly crafted by non-Jewish artisans. As Jews in Medieval Europe were forbidden to work in most crafts, they commissioned Christian artisans to create and design ritual articles. These craftsmen did so according to the style and fashion of the time. Thus we can find a Baroque style Chanukah lamp, a Venetian spice box resembling a church spire and a rococo design on an Ethrog box. Later when restrictions were lifted, Jewish craftsmen continued to produce articles in the same style, which by then become "traditional" Ophir argues that is not really Jewish ritual items so dexterously made today by skillful Jewish craftsmen, who still follow old styles, cannot really be called Jewish art. The Chanukah lamp becomes therefore, more than a device to commemorate a miracle. It serves as an object of aesthetic value, an element of the national culture. Unlike pure art, it has a functional aspect, it must be designed to enable the user to light the candles in a prescribed manner. Yet, there is more to it, it needs Hiddur (adornment or glorification) which becomes a spiritual need. The aesthetic design, becomes an art from belonging to a culture, and then it mean's Hiddur Mitzvah The artist, involved in the process of design, is influenced by various elements: his own background, nature, tradition, other artists' work etc. If the style of Jewish ceremonial art remains unchanged, it is a cultural stagnation.
I write this coming chapter by myself in order to maintain the authenticity, of using my own way of telling. Even though that English is not my mother language.
- My biography is interwoven with the entire biography of the product design in Israel.
- I was born in Israel 1939 to two parents who fled from Poland in the beginning of the 30th, and went through the same tough experience as all the other pioneers of the 3th immigration.
- My father stole the Lebanese border illegally under the nose of the British soldiers.
In spite of being illegally he worked at the Tel Aviv harbor. In 1941 he joined the British Army as a volunteer to fight the Germans through the Second World War. He and many of his other Israeli friends fall as war prisoners by the Germans in Greek. I was one year old when that happened; I was five when he returned.
- I grew up as a typical young Israeli: being devoted to a youth movement.
Right after my military service we founded a new kibbutz: Beit Nir in the upper south, there I met Moshe shek (Jook) who was already a beginner sculptor. He studied with Rudy Lehman who thought the first generation off the Israeli sculptors. I described my home background in order to emphasize the fact that I grew into a total emptiness regarding Arts. I can say "we" instead of "I". That included most of my generation, except very few. Jook (Moshe shek ) was one of them. I tailed him since we met. He also introduced me to the Bezalel School of art in Jerusalem.
- In our mutual visit to Bezalel I saw student's works in a show case. For the first time in my life I was introduced to modern designs in non Ferric metals. What we could see in shops in those years, was the new Israeli crafts that appeared in the 50th : "Bezalel works" "Mascit " act. Full of green patina Brass Biblical images mostly for the tourists who started coming to Israel after the independency
They were two teachers in Bezalel who fled from Germany before the 2th world war: Ludvig Wolpert who immigrated later to N.Y.C. and David Gumbel Those two brought the Bauhaus influence in Gold and silver smiting, from Germany before the war . But there was no place I could see it in Israel only in this show case in that tiny room in the very old building of Bezalel.
- I left the kibbutz and moved to Jerusalem, started my studies in Bezalel which was not an academic institute at that time. Among my teachers were Menachem Berman, Shaul Seri, and Arje Greagst from Denmark who was invited by UNESCO to help elevating "Bezalel". The level at Bezalel in those years was very dull. I was lucky to be accepted as an apprentice by David Gumbel for 3 years where I had the chance to learn.
- The job I had 4 years as a student and 2 more years after my graduation 1964. I was in charge of the afternoon education program in Alin Hospital for handicap children in Jerusalem. Besides paying my bills I was exposed to a world that had significant impact in my late professional future.
- In 1966 I was lucky again to be accepted by Georg Jensen in Copenhagen for two more years with a scholarship from the Danish ministry of education. I emphasize the term "lucky" because there I had the chance to learn at the highest grade of silver smiting, supposed in the entire world at that time. That was at the mid 60th when Scandinavian design took the lead of the contemporary western design.
- I returned to Israel at the end of 1968. Besides establishing my own studio I was invited to teach at the "Bezalel School of art" in Jerusalem where I studied. At that time they were talks about turning the art school into an academic institution. The Gold and silver smiting department was in a very poor situation. They actually wanted to get rid of this department because they didn't believe it will gain an academic recognition. They considered that department as a hanging limb that will disturb the entire academic recognition process. At the year of 1972 I acceded the students request to take over the management of the department. I did so mostly for the challenge but not for any expectations regarding interweaving my future with Bezallel. After the first year said William Sandberg the Dutch Graphic Designer who was a great Israel lover and supported "Bezalel" in the academization process to Dan Hophner the Bezalel director that led the School toward that new future: "until a year ago the students in this department were doing like what was done in Europe 60 years ago. Now they are doing like what was done in Europe 40 years ago, to close a gap of 20 years in one year is not a bad achievement. Since then we kept the same sequence. I asked the comity that had to approve (or not) the academic recognition to my department to postpone the presentation in one more year. Then we got the full recognition. I was one of the first generation of five heads of departments who turned the Bezalel School of art In to the "Bezalel Academy of art and Design" Among the others were Prof. Gedula Ogen Ceramic. Prof. Yarom Vardimon, Grafic Design. Prof. Arthur Goldreich Environmental and product design And Prof. John Byle Fine Art.
I operated in few channels. First I changed the reception criteria's for the new candidates. I split the department in two wings: Gold smiting (jewelry design) and Silver smiting (Hollowware). I assembled new faculty team that was a blending of lecturers from different disciplines such as sculpture, painting, design, architecture, with the professional's lecturers Gold and silver Smits, in mutual projects groups. We worked on thematically projects. Those steps upgraded dramatically the entire level, and changed the whole perception of jewelry and hollowware design. That shifted the whole concept from Craft only toward art and design. Among those Lecturers were: Prof. Pinchas Cohen Gan. Prof. Osvaldo Romberg. Gideon Gechtman. Fine Artists Nachum Meltzer Gustavo Leibson architectures, beside Beny Borensteyn, Israel Dahan and Shaul serry gold smiths, and me as a silversmith.
The most significant step I did was to invite guest lecturers,and established teachers and students exchange with Europe and the U.S.A. Among those guests lecturers were:
Prof. Stanly Lchtzin. Prof.Kurt Matsdorf, Prof. Helen Drut, From U.S. Prof. Gijs Bakker and Emmy van Lirsum from Holland Prof. David Watkins, Wendy Ramshow, Pier Deggen, Tony Lows, Barbara Cartlidge from England. Dr' Fritz Falk, Cornelia Ratting and Prof. Claus Bury from Germany.
Dr' Fritz Falk who directed the Schnooks Museum In Pforzheim Germany at that time. Gave us a very important support by being our academic adviser and by introducing me to Claus Bury from Hanau W.Germany who became latter a very significant support pillar in the development of both: the department, and myself. Claus writes in his books that he himself gained a significant benefit to his work from his experience with us.
- Claus Bury played one of the most important roles in changing the concepts of contemporary jewelry design in the western world. His methodology was the same as in the fine Art. His conceptual philosophy was integrated with his constant innovation of technologies. Claus's dialog with fine art mainly sculpture was a strong linkage between Art and design. The two visits he had in the department and the amount of time we spent together in the U.S. and Germany upgraded highly the students work and also was a turning point for his own work.
Due to the fact that I myself never had the opportunity to gain any design response from any of the teachers who thought in Bezalel at my studies there, and by D.H. Gumbel and "Georg Jensen" I studied as an apprentice the technologies + being exposed and influenced by the design there, I never had a formal design education. Design I learned through teaching and from some of the lecturers, special the guests that came to the department, while Claus Bury was the most significant to me.
- I left the Bezalel academy after 17 years. I did so because I felt that heading the same Department for 12 years was enough, and when I disagreed with the attitude of my replacement, besides being very busy in my studio I decided not to teach anymore. I was not involved with any teaching for 12 years. Except students from abroad who did their internship in my studio.
- 3 of those years I was also the general director of Ein Yael Living Museum in Jerusalem, one of the "Jerusalem Foundation" projects. I founded the physical and the conceptual structure of that Museum. The main task was to integrate conservation of Archeology, ancient crafts and education through creativity.
- During those 12 years I shifted gradually toward design in a wider perspective, instead of the narrow craft area. Design by computer, using a 3D program, helped me to get out of the Craft boundaries.
One day I was invited to join a group of lecturers in the Holon Institute of technology H.I.T to found a new Department for Art & Design in that institute. Among them were Prof. Boaz Tal and Gabi Bengano. I believed it was the right time to open such a department, it also suits' my own needs for development.
During the 9 years at H.I.T the Holon Institute of Technology I was acquainted to various other design fields such as Design by more progressive computer 3D programs, which made a dramatic change and progress in my own work. I was engaged with many assignments of design for society, community, environment and the subject.
I also wrote a program for new department on that matter. Eventually was not approved by the Higher Academic Council comity because of the too many interpretations by the faculty members.
In H.I.T. I gave courses in product design such as light elements furniture's, social matters and projects that integrated Art with Design, but nothing regarding gold and silver smiting, or Judaica.
- After nine years in H.I.T I was invited to chair a position in a college for technological education that hade departments for movie making and communication, design, and fine art. I was supposed to upgrade that college toward its unification with Seminar Hakibutzim a seminar for educating teachers. I concentrated on writing a special new program for the group of excellences. With that group of special talented and devoted students + lecturers that I invited to join me, we achieved quiet good results of building new models of integrating art and design methodologies with education.
For many years I was involved in many projects of different kind, academic and professional.
- Among those the most significant one was the design of the Commemoration hall in the Air Force building in Herzelya.
I approached the competition with the same concept I used in my design of the memorial sight I build in the Jerusalem Peace Forest. For the soldiers of the Jerusalem Battalion No.68 that was staged in the fortresses along the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur war. (I belonged to that battalion). After that trauma I was asked to design a memorial. I knew what was kept by my friend's belly that experienced the event. I met many of them and recorded the intimate conversations we had. Then I placed quotes from the typed dialogs on big concrete cubes that were installed in the area of the Jerusalem Peace Forest.
In the Air Force building memorial hall I placed quotes were taken from recorded conversations I had with a wide Spectrum of the Air Force family: Former Air Force commanders, pilots from the verity of duties and ranks, families: widowers, orphans and parents. I spread those quotes on large photographs of skies images that coated the entire space: walls and ceiling.
They were two main goals in those two projects. Emphasize humanism against heroism. Attitude that appeared to me while talking to the people in four eyes. And second to be their deliver, to transform their feelings, information, interpretations, and comments. To present them, not me, the artist. In other words: to make an art work, but to play the designer roll. As I claim: The Artist asks questions but the designer should be able to provide answers. In my opinion I filled the expectations of those two specific communities.
- Through searching for the appropriate technical solution for executing the project I was introduced in a coincident way to new technique of embedding graphic images into glass in high temperature. That enabled me to start working with glass, using the slumping technique. Since then I design and create light elements and other objects combine Glass and metals.
- For many years I actually disappeared from the Jewish ceremonial work - Judaica field. I refused to be the any longer merchant of my work. It didn't suit me. I always claimed that in the art world they are galleries that present the artists, the artist is not the one who should sell himself. The contemporary Judaica design field doesn't have yet any respectable marketing system. So I preferred not to go through any self marketing again, and I actually quitted being involved in the Judaica scene.
- Few years ago I made a joint venture with Moshe Cohen the owner of C.M.I Electronic who was itrested to be involved in marketing and developing two designed collections of my serial work in lightning elements and Judaica, made out of Stain less Steel, Glass, Brass, and Aluminum.
I always claimed that the designer should fulfill the cultural needs of his society by contributing to the wider spectrum of the public and not only to those that can afford it. In the past I already designed and produced several items in that direction. Among them: a pair of Stain Less steel Candle sticks that won an Honorable Mention in the Crate & Barrel award competition at the: Israel Museum. (CANDLESTICKS #148 in the serial work Category in my portfolio). The main problem with serial production is: for designing and producing a collector's object you need like $200 as investment for your time. But to produce serial work object you have to invest between let say $ 5000 - $ 10000 for tooling, stock, marketing expenses, etc. This is impossible for the artist / designer himself.
- As it happened in the fairy tells stories, a very generous family from London who recently made Alya to Israel Patricia and Peter Zeitlyn whom I met only two times before, asked me one day: "Why a known artist like you still have to struggle?" My answer was that we work against any basic economical rule. If under normal circumstances 2+2 = 4 in our world 2+2 = - 10 how comes? They asked. So many affords, time and money we have to invest in research & development in order to maintain progress in our work without getting the money back. Then they asked me if I am willing to be supported by them in order to upgrade my professional artistic ability. I was sure I lost my hearing.
- Since then with their generous support I came back to design a new generation of designs based on Stereo lithography which is the most up dated high-tech technology. That brought me lately to make a comeback to Judaica with a new spirit, concepts, and enthusiasm.
- At recent time I started a join venture with Shuki Freiman who has decent silver smiting enterprise, manufacturing and marketing.
- In the years 1979 & 1982 I spent two half years In two traveling exhibitions tours in the U.S.A In the first one in 1979 I had one man shows at the Jewish Museums in N.Y.C. and the spertus Museum in Chicago, the Concepts Gallery in Carmel by the Sea among many others. At the same time I was also a guest lecturer for long periods at N.Y. state university in New Paltz N.Y and at Moor College in Philadelphia. I also gave lectures at many other schools such as Rode Island and Parsons schools of design among many others. A very significant venture in that trip was being introduced to Ludwig and Erica Jesseson. Those two very special people backed the flourishing of the very young contemporary Judaica design. They sponsored a wide range of activities such as the two exhibitions: "Nerot Mitzva" "Judaica here and now" and the Jesselson's Prize at the Israel, among many others. They also introduced me to their friends who were among a minority of people at that time who had the cultural background to be able to appreciate contemporary design and arts. Those people were the hard seed of my collectors. I will always have very deep fillings to those two people, special Erica after Ludwig passed away. She was "greater than life" as we say. I regret she couldn't read my comments because she is not with us anymore.
- In The year of 1980 I was invited to chair the main event of the World Crafts Council conference in Wine. I organized a seminar debated the theme: "Are we Craftsmen? Designers? Artists?" That particular identical question occupied us enough to keep 3 teams busy to discuss that matter 3 full days in 3 different spaces in front of audiences. Team 1 was assembled of skill's people headed by Upi Untracht from Finland who wrote the two most beneficial comprehensive valiums of technologies for the Gold & Silver smiths. Team 2 was assembled by promotion people: Galleries owners & Museum people. Headed by Beno Premsela from Holland a leading figure in the Dutch & European design world (who passed away) . Team 3 was assembled by educators: Professors heads of departments headed by me. The team's members were from all over the world. I discussed with them the subjects concerning the participation part of each of them, (that was when we could only write letters. No emails, fax, phone talks were expensive). It took me almost a year to organize that seminar.
Today after 30 years we can define ourselves as "product designers". This definition came out of a long constant process that was supported by different steps were taken by different people in different times. For instance Izika Gaon who founded and directed the design wing in the Israel museum for 24 years started to invite craft designers to exhibit at the design pavilion in the Israel Museum. Placing "Design" before "skills" or the "craftsmanship" ability of the creator. The continuation in our days is the distinction between product design and industrial design. While industrial design gears in to the world of consumption, engineering's, agronomy, etc. Product design engages with culture. Maintains dialogue with art.
- Now my wife Maya Ofir (who I also owe her a lot) is already a known jeweler by herself, our daughter Daniel studies jewelry design in those years.
- My biography is interwoven with the entire biography of the product design in Israel.