It’s a gloriously sunny late-August day and Omer Arbel is crouched in a dark and claustrophobic stairwell, six floors down from the light and airy offices of Bocci, the Vancouver-based lighting design and manufacturing firm where he is the creative director. He holds a half dozen thick copper wires in his hand. From there they stretch up to the roof of the building like limp strands of wet, wavy red hair. “I’m trying to come up with a cantilever mechanism for this, because I want the lights to spread out and fill the space, not just hang there,” he says, before staring at the ceiling in contemplative silence for the umpteenth time.
The “space” in question is none other than the Grand Entrance & Ceramics Room of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where this tangle of wires will eventually come together to form 28.280, a 30-metre-high, half-million-dollar lighting installation commissioned from Bocci by the London Design Festival, which opened September 12 in the British capital. With only six weeks to finalize the design; cut hundreds of metres of wire; ship them and 280 brightly hued, handblown glass globes to the U.K.; and mount the artwork under the building’s highest point, the dizzying cupola, Arbel remains deceptively calm. “It’s not finished until it’s finished,” he says, a wry smile creeping across his lips. “The best work comes at the last minute, when you create a new problem to solve.”
His invitation to the London Design Festival is a glorious capper to a year that has seen great strides for both Bocci and the 37-year-old Arbel. In April, after years of angling, Bocci was granted a coveted spot at Milan’s biennial Euroluce, the lighting division of the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, Europe’s most prestigious design show. Not only was Bocci invited, but, thanks to some very successful backroom negotiations, the company snagged a prime position next to Italian lighting giant FLOS—unheard-of for a relatively new, foreign manufacturer. “We’re blowing glass in a small studio off the parking lot,” Arbel jokes of the Armoury District workshop across from the Molson brewery where every glass object is made to his specifications, “and here we are across from one of the world’s biggest names!”
Any doubts Euroluce’s organizers may have harboured about the Canadian upstart vanished when Bocci’s booth opened on the first day. Eyes were immediately drawn to dozens of colourful glass-globe pendant lights (called 28) spaced evenly around the stark, white-walled room. Other pieces from the Bocci stable, such as the cornet-like 21 and the tangle of milk-glass globes and living plants that makes up the 38 (the same design you can see at Hastings Street’s Tacofino Commissary), hung from the ceiling. Not only was the public dazzled by the lighting, critics and industry insiders took notice.
Arbel’s isn’t the first blown-glass chandelier in the Victoria and Albert Museum, however. It’s not even the first blown-glass chandelier by a Pacific Northwest artist. That honour belongs to Dale Chihuly; since his 2001 solo exhibition there, the internationally acclaimed Washington-state-based glass sculptor’s green-and-blue curlicues have overhung the admissions and reception hall. But when told that he’ll be sharing space with Chihuly, Arbel visibly bristles—whether from rivalry, artistic hubris, or annoyance with the constant comparisons to another famous glass artist who happens to live in his close proximity, it’s hard to say. Continued prodding produces only a cryptic explanation: “What I do and what he [Chihuly] does is so different.”
The two artists are indeed dissimilar, but the fates of their work, at least as far as the Victoria and Albert Museum is concerned, may be forever intertwined. The buzz coming out of London suggests that the V&A is considering making Arbel’s chandelier part of its permanent collection. Should that happen, it will certainly give Arbel something to glow about.