Something lost along the way

The life work of architect Chaim Heinz Fenchel, who was instrumental in designing Tel Aviv’s cultural scene, is on display at the Rubin Museum.

Rubin Museum (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rubin Museum
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘T here is an old Yiddish saying,” says Carmela Rubin, chief curator of the Rubin Museum in Tel Aviv. “When is a fool happy? When he finds something that was actually his all along.”
In recent years, Israelis have developed an increasing awareness of Israel’s artistic past, rediscovering forgotten painters and sculptors who, despite often enormous talent and vision, faded into obscurity after their death. Many young people, particularly in cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa, have become fascinated with earlier periods of Israeli architecture and interior design, like Bauhaus and Art Deco, which made this country a center of Modernism in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and early 1960s. One man largely responsible for some of the best in architecture and design during this period was Chaim Heinz Fenchel, a multi-talented artist who – despite his obvious creative genius and diversity of skills – has faded from public awareness since his death in 1988.
It is this lack of appreciation for a “lost” cultural treasure that Rubin hopes to rectify with the museum’s current exhibition, “An Architect’s Paintbrush: Chaim Heinz Fenchel,” consisting of hundreds of plans, sketches, paintings, collages and photographs – all just a sample of the artist’s output of more than 60 years of intensive creative work.
“I think we see here an enormous talent that was to a large extent hidden,” Rubin says. “In his lifetime, Fenchel was well-recognized by his peers, but even at the height of his career, he was never part of the ‘Israel narrative.’ He was not ideological. He was not a great socialist. There were three reigning architects during his time: Arieh Sharon, Dov Karmi and Zeev Rechter. And Fenchel was no less talented than any of them, but he was less visible.
The ideology of the others was collective. It was Bauhaus. It was about creating living solutions for the masses. Fenchel was not part of that. He was bourgeois, he had rich clients and he loved to do what he did. It didn’t matter to him whether it was a dining room in a kibbutz or a dining room in a luxury hotel.”
Born in 1906 into an assimilated Jewish family in Berlin, Heinz Fenchel showed early talent in design and became an art director and set designer in the German film industry. He participated in the production of no fewer than 45 German and international movies, the earliest of which were silent films. Following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Fenchel could no longer work in Germany but continued to assist in films in Austria and Denmark as well as in Czechoslovakia, where he also began to work as an architect and interior designer. When the 1935 Nuremberg Laws forced Jews out of most professions and removed them from public life, Fenchel decided to leave Germany. After a brief sojourn in Prague, he arrived in Palestine in January 1937.
Says Rubin, “He was well-rooted in the movie business. And it would have been natural for him to escape to Hollywood, as many of his peers did.
But he decided to come here. Fenchel did not come from a Zionist home, but he was Zionist to a certain extent. So he came here and reinvented himself.”
Indeed, one of the first things Fenchel did was to adopt “Chaim” as his first name. The second thing – because there was no movie industry to speak of here at the time – was to reinvent himself as an architect and interior designer. Soon after arriving in Tel Aviv, he heard that entrepreneur Arie Pilz was planning to open a cafe. “He volunteered himself,” says Rubin. “He went to Pilz and said, ‘I will do this for you. You don’t have to pay.’ He wanted to show what he could do, and he did.”
AS A result of Fenchel’s design, Café Pilz was unique in Tel Aviv for its delicate European aesthetic and meticulous attention to every detail. At the same time, it referenced its local surroundings with a decorative ceramic tile wall-map of the Land of Israel. Café Pilz was an instant success, drawing not only packed houses of admirers but also requests by other potential cafe owners for Fenchel’s designs. In the first years of his life in Tel Aviv, Fenchel was to design the interiors of such cafes and restaurants as Tzabar, Balsam, Shor, Lubstein, San Remo, Sderot, Noga, Genati, and the Dolphin Bar. He also designed the interiors of businesses like the Kapulski Brothers bakeries in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Lautmann stationery store, the Dugma lingerie store and the Ma’ayan bookstore.
“This area – Allenby, Ben-Yehuda – was the cultural center of Tel Aviv until the 1960s. It started moving northward around then. But in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, this is where everything was happening.
It was an experience to visit some of the shops that were around here then. Tel Aviv was an elegant city then, more so than now. And it was largely due to the German Jews that arrived here. Not just the Jews from Germany, from Central Europe – from Czechoslovakia, from Hungary. They had an elegance.
They were more cultivated in terms of aesthetics,” says Rubin.
“These people, the ‘yekkes,’ brought new living standards to Palestine that were previously unknown. The Russian Jews that had come before came from shtetls, and aesthetics was not what they were struggling for. The yekkes cared everything about aesthetics, and it was a whole new concept of design here. And when Fenchel took upon himself to design a building, it was from the shell down to the interior, and then down to the minutest details of the furniture. The keys, the keyholes, the door handles, etc., etc.”
From cafes and shops Fenchel expanded his work to include larger projects like banks, factories and especially hotels. Chief among these was the Dan, Israel’s first luxury hotel, built on the seafront.
Fenchel’s modernist design, which made use of local materials and vegetation, combining natural and artificial light and making liberal use of works by local artists, won lavish praise and set new standards in architecture and design. When worldrenowned concert violinist Yehudi Menuhin stayed there, he wrote in the guest book, “May the future of Israel be as beautiful as the Dan Hotel.”
In his later years, Fenchel worked in partnership with Israeli entrepreneur Moshe Mayer, who became involved with building projects in West Africa, primarily in the Ivory Coast. Fenchel designed a luxury hotel in Abidjan, the country’s capital, which was considered at the time to be the one of the most beautiful hotels in the world.
Designs for a parliament building followed, along with a commercial center that included swimming pools, a casino, a convention center, a movie theater, a skating rink and a supermarket. Fenchel’s designs combined modernism with a well-informed knowledge of West African decorative motifs.
“Not many of the cafes that Fenchel designed are still standing in Tel Aviv today, but fortunately his archives were kept by the family. At heart, he was a painter. He loved sketching and drawing. There are hundreds and hundreds of sketches of furniture and little details. He just loved doing it. And everything remained with the family,” says Rubin.
And it is those sketches that comprise the core of the current exhibition at the Rubin Museum.
LIORAH FEDERMANN, Fenchel’s daughter and an interior designer who collaborated with her father on several projects says, “What we have here in this exhibition is maybe 5 percent of what I actually have. It was very difficult to decide what not to show.”
She and Rubin chose wisely, however.
Throughout the two large rooms on the museum’s first floor are examples of Fenchel’s sketches for the movies, as well as his early work in Israel. Sketches and photographs are displayed against large photo backgrounds of period scenes in order to provide cultural and historical context. In the midst of all the movie sketches stands a video screen. Visitors can sit and watch clips from some of the films that Fenchel worked on as art director or set designer, while listening to a few bars of the song “Moonglow” played by Benny Goodman and his quartet, to lend a bit of period mood.
The galleries upstairs feature sketches and photographs of Fenchel’s later work, especially his designs for hotels and public buildings in the Ivory Coast. Many of the sketches, on both floors of the museum, display a definite Hollywood sensibility that Fenchel brought to his architecture and design from his earlier career in the movies. Nowhere is this more evident than in his sketches for the palace that King Abdullah of Transjordan asked him to design in 1942 – which was never built – and in the several sketches he proposed for a parliament building in Abidjan during the 1960s.
Throughout the exhibition we often see several alternative sketches of the same thing, showing us that Fenchel enjoyed playing with different ideas.
We see, for example, three sketches for a Tel Aviv chocolate shop, showing three very different design visions, as well as 30 different designs for the parliament building in Abidjan. These sketches combine modernism, African design motifs and a whimsical bit of Hollywood. One sketch clearly evokes the pyramids at Giza, while another two or three resemble Rudolph Valentino’s Beduin tent in the movie The Sheik.
Asked what a modern Israeli audience can learn from Fenchel’s work, Rubin replies, “Aesthetics.
Culture. There is something that the German Jews brought here that was thoroughly and profoundly rooted in them, that seems to have evaporated with all of the aliyot and the kibbutz galuyot [ingathering of the exiles] and what have you. I find the loss of it very regrettable. I think you can see people with so much longing as they come to see these little sketches for shops and cafes. It’s something missing now.
“Look, if it weren’t for the kibbutzim and the old socialist ideology, Israel would not have been born.
But at the same time, it was at a price. And today we can look back and see what was lost on the way.
And this exhibition is a good example, as good as can be.”“An Architect’s Paintbrush: Chaim Heinz Fenchel” is showing through the end of March at the Rubin Museum, 14 Bialik Street, Tel Aviv. For further information call (03) 525-5961 or visit