Innovations: The design of illusion

Shahar Peleg's cardinal rule is affordability.

Shahar Peleg's creative space in one of the old buildings on Tel Aviv's Rehov Levontin looks like a place where unusual designs take shape. At the entrance, a large worktable stands in front of an imposing wall of tools, most of which are missing. In the empty spaces, hand-drawn black outlines remain in their places on a wooden plaque. "At least I know where they're supposed to go," says Peleg. In the next room, two computers sit opposite one another and odds and ends of Perspex, rubber and wood lie about in disarray. Against the far wall, an interesting-looking contraption with thick, metal wires and a series of hooks sits on top of a wooden box. "This was for a competition a few years ago where the theme was 'from the box' so everything had to fit inside of a box," explains Peleg as he slides one of the lopsided hooks up and down along the wire. "It's for hanging clothes." The practical and interesting idea, it turns out, was too expensive to produce. For Peleg, that breaks the cardinal rule of design. "All of my products have to be affordable," he says, sitting down at a round, red conference table in the last room of his workshop with a cup of coffee. "I once made a cabinet with drawers that cost NIS 18,000 for an exhibition. The paint alone cost NIS 2,000. But this is not a realistic price to charge for a cabinet in my opinion, and price is one of the main issues for me. I want everyone who wants them to be able to buy my products. I'm not interested in charging $10,000 apiece for collector's edition designer items." Perhaps the most intriguing leitmotif that runs through all of Peleg's products is magic. From his tall, willowy free-standing vases with magnetic bases that appear to stand alone to his tic-tac-toe board that is half-mirror and half-playing piece, most of his designs play with optical illusions. "Things are not exactly what they seem with my products, which is both good and bad," he says. "If people take a second look, they usually think it's cool, but if they don't, then they miss the point and it just looks like another picture frame or tic-tac-toe game." In one of his recent designs, Peleg took a familiar form and twisted it into a different shape for a contemporary-looking hanukkia. Then, he used a curved mirror to untwist it back to its original form in the mirror. On the surface, the hanukkia with a set of small glass bases that you fill with oil and wicks looks like a nice candle holder. But upon closer inspection, you realize that once all of the candles are lit, their light reflects the iconic shape of a traditional hanukkia in a central mirror. In another piece, he used an antique-looking picture frame as the structure for a magnetic board. From a distance, it looks like a rather baroque, empty frame. But when you get closer, small silver magnets appear. Before serving in the army, Peleg studied magic, which might partially explain his tendency to design products that are more than meets the eye. "I used to perform for children and friends a lot. I have always loved magic and it shows in my designs," he says as he slips a bottle of wine into a heavy, chain-link holder that suspends the glass in mid-air. Although the idea for the free-standing vases emanated from a personal need for an unusual centerpiece at his wedding three years ago, Peleg says that ideas come to him all the time. "The ideas are the easy part for me. The challenge is finding the right material to make a certain product, to examine it and make sure it functions, and of course to make sure that's it's not too expensive for the market." But he wasn't always an industrial designer. His degree from the Holon Institute of Technology and Design, which he completed three years ago, is in interior design. "I didn't like interior design because you have to depend on so many other people to complete the project and you have a limited budget," he says. "With product design, I can do whatever I want. I set the limits and I decide what price to put on the things I make." While he was still serving in the army, Peleg helped his father with product displays for shop windows, and he has known for a long time that he likes design. "I don't know if it's saying much to explain that of all of my clumsy friends, I was always the one who could do stuff," he says with a smile. One of the most challenging parts of product design for Peleg is the fact that sometimes a successful product emerges after one or two tries, but on occasion it takes up to two years to get it right. "I've been working on my next product, which is still a secret, for two years," he says. He hopes it will be out within the next six months, but there are often unexpected delays, especially when the entire process - from the initial design to the manufacturing and marketing - is in the hands of Peleg and his assistant, Yiffa. "Most people who pay attention to my designs see the magic, but the only person to ever ask me if I am a magician was a Chinese reporter," he says. "Maybe the Jews and the Chinese have a mystical way of thinking in common."