Japanese-inspired Israeli furniture now in Tel Aviv

Tal Shermeister and Sia Preminger show off their work inspired by the tradition of flawed beauty.

August 27, 2019 21:19
Japanese-inspired Israeli furniture now in Tel Aviv

Sinai Bench, made of iron-made 'wpven straw' is seen from above. . (photo credit: BIKAKU STUDIO/ AMIT MANN YONA PREMINGER AND SIA PREMINGER)

A Sinai bench, usually made from light materials like straw and wood, is recast in iron, each straw-strand carefully woven to make a seat. A “floating Cyprus table” contains a burnt symbol evoking a Japanese character, in reality, traces of the branch that once adorned the tree before it became wood. These examples of meticulous, labor-intense craft honoring the materials worked with typifies Bikakau Studio. In Japanese, Bikakau means a sense of beauty.

Created by Tal Shermeister and Sia Preminger, who are a couple as well as talented designers and crafts-people, the studio celebrates Japanese aesthetic values with a unique local touch. Honoring both the personal biographies of Shermeister and Preminger as well as the larger biographies of cultures and regions. Their collective efforts are now on display at the Periscope Gallery in Tel Aviv under the title of Bright Shadows.

“I grew up in a very Japanese-style household,” explained Preminger, who is Israeli with Japanese heritage. “If Israeli children are allowed to play with their toys and leave them scattered about, we were always instructed to be mindful and put them in place. It was very important to my mother that we do this.”

Preminger eventually discovered visual theater, a medium that puts an extra emphasis on unique made-for-stage objects. Shermeister, on the other hand, began his interest in crafts with ironwork and working with horses. While Israel is not famous for its horses, Israelis do keep horses and ride them. And horses need shoes.

“Historically speaking, iron-made horseshoes are the latest thing the market has to offer,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “In ancient Egypt, they used straw-made sandals for the horses, and the Mongolians used leather-made sandals for their horses. The British were the ones who thought of the iron horseshoe.” As strew and leather tend to decompose over-time they were delighted when they visited Japanese museums and saw examples of straw-made horse shoes.

Shermeister worked in Israel in that unique field for a while, learning his skills from an older blacksmith who is a living-legend among Israelis who are in the know. “I’ve met various Japanese master ironworkers, including swordsmiths,” he said, “and this man is the closest thing to a Japanese master our culture has to offer.” Tal decided to deepen his skills at the Doug Butler Professional Farrier School in Nebraska. From the Latin word for iron, ferrum, a farrier is a person who can combine the skills of a blacksmith with those of a veterinarian to take care of horse hoofs. Doug Butler, a “farrier industry legend,” also has online podcasts and is the author of a popular book on the subject.

Shermeister and Preminger already worked together on a variety of theater-related projects when they decided to take another long study-trip in Japan. “Our lives seem to always take us between Israel and Japan,” says Preminger, who has family there. “We go there with the idea that perhaps we should stay for a while, understand we’re not Japanese and return to Israel until the next time.”
She’s quick to point out that she’s not using the term “being Japanese” in any ethnic sense, but more as a personality trait. “If you’re a British person and you’re happy in Japan, you need to have something ‘Japanese’ in your soul,” she says. “When I was thinking of learning how to make swords for example,” Shermeister says, “the master I spoke with said that I could never learn it because I’m not Japanese. At first I was very angry, I wanted him to at least give me a chance to prove myself. But the longer I stayed in Japan, the more I realized he was right.”

The main difference, they suggest, is the relation to ego. “Western people are willing to be much more radical and sacrifice a lot to get something,” he says, “but we need to come out of the process with an achievement of some sort. Japanese people, in general, are able to devote even a lifetime in the pursuit of something and even if they’re not recognized as a living national treasure, that’s fine.”

The title of a living national treasure is not hyperbole, the Japanese state really does recognize people with unique skills in a variety of Japanese crafts as a living treasure and offers them a monthly salary just to continue these traditions and teach them to the next generation.

IN ISRAEL, the couple began to shift their focus from horse-shoes and theater to furniture design. Loyal to their deep interest in Japanese values, they were inspired by the tradition of flawed beauty, or Wabi-sabi, to honor what is uniquely here and not to seek a well-finished, gleaming surface.

For example, while it is possible to produce furniture that won’t bear any trace of the work involved in the making of it. Meaning, to smooth wood panels and create gleaming metal surfaces – Bikaku Studio honors the skills and the work by leaving some marks of it on the object. These traces, which blend beautifully with the finished design, may go unnoticed at a passing glance but they are there. Some work is invested in creating this so-called “blemishes,” for instance, using a mixture to oxidize iron surfaces gives them a unique, rough to the touch, covering which is unique, one of a kind.

The couple also works with materials found here, in this region, some with a fascinating history. The iron used by the German settlers of pre-state Israel to build their homes was recently harvested by Arco conservation and restoration and given to Bikaku Studio to work with. “This is a century-old German iron,” Shermeister explains, “so it’s of better quality than the iron one usually gets today. It’s hard to explain to a layperson but older iron was better because it could store more heat, making it more enjoyable to work with.” The iron was used to create the legs of a glass table.

Bringing into the unique, handmade furniture the careful consideration of movement and balance (from the world of horses) and the way in which humans and objects move and use space (from the world of theater) the works are surprisingly affordable when you think of just how much effort went into the making of them.

“We don’t put a price tag on our creative effort,” Shermeister says, “because for us, this is the real joy, we weigh in the costs of the materials and hours, so we think it’s more than fair.”

Bright Shadows will be shown at the Periscope Gallery on 176 Ben-Yehuda St Tel Aviv until September 21. Curator: Sari Paran. Bikakustudio.com.

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