When you grow up in a home in which art and crafts are an inseparable part of your daily routine, your parents are Bezalel graduates, your grandfather is a carpenter and both your grandmothers sew for a living and for pleasure, what the future holds for you it is pretty clear. This is the reality in which 28-year-old Noa Himelfarb, a recent graduate of the Department of Industrial at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, grew up.
MuZoo, photographs courtesy of Noa Himelfarb
Noa Himelfarb's final project, MuZoo, a do-it-yourself kit for toddlers with which play animals are made of soil combined with natural and industrial materials, is on show this week together with other Bezalel graduates' projects in Lambrate Zona, part of Milan Design Week.
Noa, who grew up in Nataf in the Jerusalem hills, says that the goat farm her parents founded fifteen years ago on Har HaRuach - the mountain of wind and spirit - near Nataf occupies a significant part in her life: her relationship with animals, the connection with nature, manual labor, and traditional cheese-making.
The main material you worked with on your project is soil. Why soil of all things? Where did the idea come from?
I came to working with soil after researching and thinking about the characteristics of local identity. In my third year of study, I went to Barcelona on a student exchange program. Living and studying in a foreign country, coupled with my move from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in my final year, made me think about the question of local identity. What makes a person feel that he belongs to a place? Can you form a new local identity? And, if so, how?
I studied different cultures and tried to understand which physical means vary from place to place and accord difference and belonging. That's how I got to soil, this so very basic material, that dictates the type of agriculture and consequently the local food, animals, smells and landscapes.
As a child in a small community settlement I played outdoors a lot, and the natural environment was a large part of my everyday life. Today, with technological and industrial developments, children who grow up in different areas are exposed to natural, raw materials to only a small degree. I wanted to create a product that would restore the experience of playing with a natural, local, and accessible material.
What are the main characteristics of the game?
Playing with characters is based on the very typical sociodramatic play of children aged two to six. It is intuitive play that occurs spontaneously with no defined instructions. It changes and becomes more complex as the child develops, and constitutes a developmental milestone in different spheres. While playing with the characters the child creates a role-playing game that gives life to the visual images, which is characterized by representation of real-life situations, mimicking adults and animals, and changing reality in accordance with the child's imagination.
MuZoo, the play characters I created, add local and personal characteristics to the game and develop additional skills while playing. They are based on a schematic plastic frame that provides a guideline and helps in repairing and rebuilding the character. The frame is designed to maintain the character's validity as it wears out, while leaving freedom for intuitive creation with the material. A body made of soil is built onto the frame and is clamped by flexible colorful plastic strips that characterize and enrich it. The colorful additions endow the figure with additional character, and the way they are connected enables holding them in the material's various states. As part of their life cycle and as a result of being played with, the characters change, deteriorate, fall apart and break, changing from a toy to soil and back again in the child's hands. They can be intentionally broken, added to, and rebuilt.
Tell us a little about your experiences with children. How did they react to the figures and the process itself?
After refining and processing the data of size, abstraction, and the game's parts, I presented kindergarten children with basic "skeletons" with schematic outlines in the shape of different animals, soil, various clay dusts, and water to. When I showed the material to the children I was surprised to find that most of them didn't recognize it outside the everyday context. I let them feel and experience it, and they expressed excitement and great willingness for the encounter. Each child was given a frame, mixed the soil with water, and added clay of the color he wanted, made mud, and completely intuitively, without any instruction whatsoever, built the animal's body onto the frame. It was very important for me to observe how they worked, proof of the feasibility of the frame and their understanding of intuitive building without instruction. Happily, and beyond my expectations, the children really enjoyed working with the material. The frame served its purpose, the children created the animal's body out of mud, completed its shape using the outline, and even in cases of only partial completion, the figure's validity was still maintained. After building several figures, you could see significant improvement in the degree of accuracy and a desire to go on creating, the children connected with the products and started playing with them, and for me that was definitely exciting.
In the course of the project you spent a lot of time playing with soil. Will this material continue to be part of your work?
I very much enjoyed playing with it and learning it and how to work with it. Different ideas for the future emerged and I hope to apply them soon. This material is without doubt one I shall use in different forms.
Is it a forgiving material or one that's difficult to work with?
It's a material that in its natural form is not used to make products, so working with it involved material research. I investigated which materials it could be mixed with and how it reacts to various actions. I tried mixing it with different materials, both natural and synthetic, to obtain a mixture whose properties are more suited for the project. In the end I obtained a new, organic, stronger composition, but which was still brittle and water soluble.
Now that the project and your studies are behind you, what have you got on your desk?
I'm currently working with Noa Tabenkin, my good friend and partner in the Four'n'Five Design Group, on a series of toys called "Alte Sachen" [secondhand merchandise], ecological toys made of wood and cloth remnants from local industry.
At the end of your studies you founded, together with other graduates, the Four'n'Five Design Group.
Four'n'Five Design Group is an initiative by nine friends, young designers who are all graduates of the Bezalel Department of Industrial Design. Four women and five men who joined forces on the basis of their friendship and common values, and on the understanding that the whole is greater that the sum of its parts. Our fields of interest and activity range from industrial design, production design, through material and ideological research to independent production. We place great value on spontaneous endeavor together with endeavor stemming from thinking, planning, in-depth research, and mutual enrichment between the different approaches.
Our work space in Jaffa Port serves as a design lab where we work, learn and share. It comprises a workshop, a work area, and a gallery where we show finished works and works in progress. Additionally, once every two months the place is used as an exhibition space for the group's works for two weeks.
As a group we strive to create conscious design deriving from the place we live in - local material, culture and endeavor, and to be an Israeli design center where throughout the entire process design can be seen and enjoyed.
And finally, tell us one detail about yourself that people don't know about and will be surprised to discover.
I was the first woman diver in the Israeli Navy's Underwater Missions Unit.
Click here for Einat Kayless Argaman's blog, DesignBreak >>
Click here for Noa Himelfarb's website >>