Tucked into a small courtyard behind a towering brick building housing a number of creative agencies, is a small ground floor studio.
In the large plate glass window is an inconspicuous black wooden chair, the kind you might find in your favorite café. Sticking out of the top of the chair is a golden USB stick.
The mind immediately conjures up images of how precarious an attempt to connect the stick to a computer would be. The computer would have to be turned sideways, balanced across the top of the chair. Impossible. This is the realm of Eyal Burstein: dealing with and designing unconsidered possibilities, proposing alternate realities and transforming other’s perceptions of the world as part of his practice.
Eyal has one of those rare engaging personalities that immediately makes you feel comfortable. What is also immediately apparent is that he’s a quick thinker with a sharp eye for observation, someone who likes to explore the spaces between existing classifications. By training he’s a designer, and it’s also how he refers to himself, yet tax officials have definitively categorized much of his work as art.
He’s been in Berlin for almost six years, moving here after studying Interaction Design at the Royal College of Art. We spent the afternoon with the mile a minute product designer, tinkering in his studio, discussing unrealized improvements to the urban landscape, and the surprising and unlikely inspiration tax laws have had on his work.
What is your family background? “Eyal,” where is that from?
It’s an Israeli name; I was born there and grew up in London. My family lives in Tel Aviv.
So – why Germany?
Yet another lease ran out in London for a place that I could only rent for a year and I was like, hmm, I can’t handle this every year – it’s 500 pounds a week and you’re sharing it with 50 people. I knew some people here. Here I can live like an adult. Not just in a box. It’s weird how people can do it in London.
What sort of work do you do?
I make objects.
Once you come up with an idea – what’s the process? Do you sit in the studio and experiment with different materials?
I don’t like doing that. I think it’s too fleeting, not interesting. It won’t have a life – so many people make stuff for the sake of it. My inspiration comes through the media I consume, and I consume a lot of media. It’s a new type of reading. I look at the problem, I look at issues, I look at statistics, and I make them into objects. All information is intangible now – for example, if you really like a website, how do you give that to me? You send a link. Which is a throwaway. My starting point is culture and history. I watch a lot of documentaries.
How would you define your approach?
It’s research led, I’m concerned with themes of self-censorship and the re-examination of accepted conditions. Since my graduation in 2006, I’ve addressed three main themes: perception, taxation and scaffolding. There are six to eight objects that come out of each theme. I’m also working on a book called Scaffolding Brut right now.
Taxation has been a central issue for you, tell me more about “taxing art.”
It started with the USB Stones; I separately bought ten USB sticks and ten paving stones and created one object out of them. I invoiced the buyers for a four-gigabyte USB Stone. My accountant called me up and told me that I had to reduce the VAT from 19% to 7% – because of the process I used to combine these objects they were legally considered art. I thought that was amazing. If you write a contract that doesn’t make you a lawyer, if you wear a fireman’s hat you’re not a fireman, but if I make something, it defines what I am – a designer or an artist. I don’t think any other profession has that.
Which of your objects was a result of this?
A good example of “taxing art” is the acrylic bench I made for Swarovski called Tax Bench. It came about in connection to this court case between the now closed Haunch of Venison gallery and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Haunch of Venison shipped light and sound installations by Bill Viola and Dan Flavin from New York to London. HMRC billed the gallery for 40,000 pounds. Even though the gallery appealed they lost the appeal and were forced to pay for the artworks as though they were functional objects.
The Tax Bench was designed to legally be the opposites of the trial’s claim. HMRC had claimed that whilst they are aware of the artworks status at the start and end of its journey, while the object is en route, and at the time of inspection, they are in fact electrical goods and should be taxed as such. The Tax Bench turned the case on its head and was designed in kit form, where every single part is unique and not functional, so on inspection, en route, the piece is classified as art. Assembled, the bench becomes a functional object and thusly classified.
I wanted to see what happens if I designed tax ambiguous objects. At what point does the person from the tax office identify a chair as a chair? The reasoning behind the Taxing Art series isn’t a tongue and cheek approach in order to upset people or anything, rather because design art is what I do, which isn’t to be mass produced and used as a consumer good but to be discussed, debated and exhibited.
Is it important that the works you make are functional, or is it more about the concept surrounding it?
Art does have a function, but it’s like a dirty word: function. Art should display another take on reality, and if it doesn’t do that then you’re making something that smells like art. Like that guy that does formaldehyde stuff.
Would you consider yourself a perfectionist?
Not at all! I don’t finish anything.
What are you doing with the porcelain pieces here?
I’m really into scaffolding as part of a series called Architecture Brut. I was looking at scaffolding and how it affects our experience as pedestrians, how ugly and yet present it is in our everyday lives and wondered if it could be beautified. As part of this research, I created these porcelain scaffolding accessories for use by people whose houses are covered in scaffolding.
What is this lamp?
It’s another object from Architecture Brut, a Scaffolding Lamp. I wanted to show that you don’t have to experience these really horrible tunnels when people walk under scaffolding. I am concerned with the pedestrian experience. For a city like Berlin, where tourism and the creative industries are a big, big part of the economy – to arrive as a tourist and be like, “Actually all of the monuments are unreachable.” I have designed all of these things so that the scaffolding structure can be sculptural and be used by the builders at the same time, which would be much more fun than just to see a poster.
They are changing that. I don’t know if you noticed but the big advertising was taken away because they changed the laws.
The advertising was annoying. Who wants to see the world’s smallest iPad on a 20-meter billboard? It’s weird.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just launched these ceramic plates, the RCA06 series. Enid Seeney designed the original Homemaker series in 1958 and I’ve updated them. They’re produced by 1882 Ltd., made in the same part of England as the original Homemaker series. These plates and bowls are from a post-war, austerity economy – at the time people couldn’t afford to buy the furniture shown on the original plates, but it was also the beginning of aspirational purchases. The furniture was meant to improve the new housewife, the housewife who had just come back from working during the war. Very few people could afford the actual furniture icons at the time, but people could afford these plates. It became the most popular ceramic pattern of the time. They’re still very affordable because the world is awash with them.
On my version are the names of all the people whose designs are represented on the plate. There were a lot of wrongs going on at the time that I felt it needed to be corrected. Enid Seeney didn’t receive any credit or recognition for her design.
Are you going to continue making the plates?
We are working on making a full set.