Atmosphere | 2.7.03

Child's Play

Atmosphere, February 2003 by Nadav Schirman

With eclectic inspirations ranging from fairy tails and comic books to Modern art and African craftsmanship, Israeli designer Sarit Sahnai Hay creates unique furniture ad accessories for children and adolescents

Entering a room designed by Sarit Shani Hay, one becomes immediately immersed in a wonderful, lively world of colors and shapes, rich in playful details and wit. Shani Hay's design philosophy dictates that functional elements need also excite the senses and inspire the imagination. Her children's collection includes drawer-cases with hand carved handles in the shape of cars of astronaut figures; little sofas, fashioned and colorful mushrooms or sympathetic frogs; and a computer desk that looks like a friendly robot. Every little detail in Shani Hay's designs is carefully crafted to awaken curiosity and to evoke sensations of liveliness. "Children experience things on a more basic level," she explains, "so when you incorporate shapes and symbols into functional forms (such as knobs or handles) furniture takes on a whole new meaning."

Launched in 1995, Shani Hay Design in considered today one of the most exclusive and innovative design studios in Israel. After graduating in Plastic Arts from Ramat Hasharon College, Shani Hay attended the Parsons School of design in New York and went on to obtain a Master's degree in Philosophy of Modern Art from London's Chelsea College of Art and Design. With this extensive formal education in tow, Shani Hay moved to Africa' accompanying her husband who took up a post in Lagos. "Modern Art is very much influenced by African Art," says Shani Hay, who, while inafrica, attended workshops of local craftsmen, carefully observing their traditional ways of carving toys and functional items.

A Double Birth

After a year and a half in Lagos, Shani Hay's first child was born, marking a definite turning point in her life – and in more ways than one. "Through the birth of my daughter, I finally discovered my professional and creative calling," says Shani Hay, "suddenly it all made sense and I knew what I had to do." Upon returning to Israel, Shank Hay designed her daughter's bedroom, putting into practice all that she had observed throughout the years in matters of design, art and craftsmanship. "I wanted to make her room a pleasurable space to be in, I wanted each detail to be stimulating and playful," she recalls.

"The field of children's furniture is very developed in Israel," says Shani Hay, "parents invest a lot in their children." In her showroom, she employs only women designers, and she also prefers to delegate work to women carpenters and artisans. "I don't really know why I like working with women better," she explains, "I guess it is easier for me to appeal to their emotional side as well as to their professional experience… and that is very important, as my designs combine the rational and emotional."

An exception to her women-only policy is Shani Hays collaboration with Russian craftsmen. "The Russian "aliya" has brought a lot of new opportunities," she says, "these craftsmen have an academic background as well as traditional knowledge and it is fascinating to combine their work into innovative designs."

Indeed, the fusion of cultures and influences can be seen throughout her work, for instance in a bedside lamp mounted on a wooden figure, carved in African simplicity and decorated in the Eastern European doll tradition.

Play and Learn

Bearing in mind that children learn and express themselves through play, Shani Hay tries to incorporate playful stimuli into her designs. Her bed collection includes a built-in puppet theatre and ABC revolving cubes. "Most children don't like bedtime," she explains, "they experience going to sleep as a sort of separation from their parents…so I try to design beds which are playful and make this process easier."

The epitome of Shani Hay's pedagogical attitude and lively approach can be seen in "Baby Kofi," a cute little monkey doll which comes with a diaper and sports a pink penis, no less. Shani Hay explains this unusual feature: "One of my clients, a psychologist, ordered a drawer case with little carved bears on the handles, but insisted that the bears have penises, saying it was essential for the development of the child's natural understanding and acceptance of his body.

As Shani Hay's children mature so do her designs. Teenager furniture completes her children's collection and she has even designed office spaces for hi-tech companies. Her Internet site has brought her designs to a global audience, and she now has clients in New York, London, Amsterdam, Paris and Prague.

Although she is eager to expand her business abroad and respond to the increasing demand, Shani Hay is cautious to become too big. "I am not sure I want to compromise my standards," she says, referring to the usage of quality materials and hand-made craftsmanship, which distinguish her custom made designs.

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