By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
This Israeli success story is, in a way, made of plastic—but it’s also real.
With its products now sold in more than 90 countries, Israel’s Keter is among the largest plastic companies in the world.
On its website, Keter (which means “crown” in Hebrew) gushes with pride about its roots in the so-called “start-up nation.”
“The ‘Made in Israel’ headquarters is now encouraging Israeli manufacturers to proudly display the Made in Israel label on their products, packaging, and letterheads, as well as in advertisements and commercials,” the corporate website explains. “Keter fully supports this project, and all of our products now bear the Made in Israel label. As an Israeli manufacturer, it is important to us that our clients know that the quality and design of our products are of the very highest standards, and, of course, Israeli.”
What has made the company so popular is its ability to balance aesthetics with practicality.
“He says, ‘What does it mean to be a chair?’ I say, ‘Make a chair,’” Amir Kadouri, a freelance designer who does industrial design for Keter, says, referring to his business partner, Koby Haham.
On a recent sunny Friday morning, Kadouri, 31, and Haham, 32, spoke with JNS.org about the art of—and their passion for—functional design, and why they think Israel is and will continue to be a leader in that field. Haham is also a freelance designer; he provides research and development for Keter.
JNS: What is functional design? Are you an artist? A craftsman?
Kadouri: “With functional design, you still do have the artistic side of things—form, shape, and colors. But any piece of art must have a function in order to exist in our world. And it must start with the human in mind: Who is going to use it? How is he going to use it? Will he use it?”
How do you get started?
Kadouri: “Either I have an idea that something should be done better or I come from the side that I discovered a new technology and I am thinking, ‘How can I use this?’…The first idea isn’t always the best idea.”
What are your favorite functional design trends?
Haham: “Going natural—it has a lot of emotional value when you make items out of wood. It’s more intimate and you don’t want to throw them away instantly. A trend is for the designer to think about how the user will feel when he or she uses a product.”
Kadouri: “Inclusive design—there is a movement to design for more and different groups of the population.”
What is the most challenging thing you have ever designed?
Haham: “I am designing a couch for Keter. It may sound trivial, but with Keter it has to be plastic—yet a couch, you want the user to be emotionally close to it. It is a cold material and I am trying to make it warm.”
What inspires you?
Kadouri: “I get inspiration from everything you see around you. I walk around and I see a piece of furniture someone threw out, and the wheels start turning.”
You both run “Hands-On Design” workshops for youths in Israel and from abroad, including hosting the students who traveled to the “start-up nation” in January as part of a CIJE-Tech (Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education) mission for high schoolers. Why focus on young entrepreneurs?
Kadouri: “They are more open-minded. One of the exercises we do with the kids is called DEM—doesn’t exist material. We basically tell them that we combined forces with a laboratory and discovered a new plastic that conducts electricity, changes color and shape. We tell them how soft or hard it is and then we say, ‘OK. You have this material. What are you going to do with it?’”
Haham: “We start brainstorming, and then a while later we say we got a call from the lab and the material doesn’t really exist. We ask, ‘How are you going to solve the problem with existing materials?’ They do it.”
They do it because they are creative?
Kadouri: “Because we get them to start thinking in a different way. When you go to develop a chair, you don’t want to think about a chair, but something to sit on. There is a preconceived image of a chair that dates back 100 years. Something to sit on could be a rock, a table. Young people are open to this new concept and way of thinking.”
There is a big push for a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education in the United States. What will all these STEM graduates do?
Kadouri: “The world has shifted from where it was 50 years ago. You used to go to high school, maybe college, get a job at a factory or desk. Kids…cannot sit still for long periods of time in a cubicle or a café. There is a new technology that bursts every five seconds and high school students are using them—the iPhones, computers, sending satellites to space. They are encouraged. They say, ‘I don’t need to go to work in a factory, I can do something that I want and imagine —something that is mine.’”
Are technology and entrepreneurship related?
Kadouri: “Not necessarily, but with all of the crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding, it is much easier. You don’t need to find a big investor.”
How about technology and design?
Kadouri: “They always work hand-in-hand. But as technology improves, so designers have increased challenges. When computer chips and hardware get smaller and smaller we need to design smaller casing without it negatively impacting the products usage.”
Haham: “And remember, technology is very abstract. A personal has to physically interact through a device. We, the designers, are the connection between the human world and technology.…Start-ups always think they need more scientists, engineers, developers. They don’t understand how valuable designers are to their company. But you can always see the distinction between a start-up with or without a designer on its team.”
With all this new technology, can we ever go back to out-of-style products that lasted for centuries?
Haham: “We cannot go back, but we can go forward in a different direction.”
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***Correction: The original version of this article did not clearly identify the interview subjects as freelance workers for Keter, rather than full-time employees of the plastic company. They are now identified as freelancers.