Kakadu marries art to function in wood

BY WENDY ELLIMAN, IPS

A couple of years back, the hand-painted wooden placemats on a restaurant table caught the eye of a Disney World executive. They were, he discovered, from Israel, designed by a company called Kakadu. This past April, he opened the doors to Picabu, a funky 24-hour eatery in the Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., all of it conceived, designed and installed by Kakadu, from its wall-to-wall carpet to its three wooden faux-aquariums to its brightly animated central wooden character, Picabu, and his many ‘friends.’

While this placemat-to-restaurant trajectory is the most far flung yet for Kakadu, the distinctive furniture, mirrors, clocks, Judaica, hangers, carpets and containers it designs and makes are increasingly sought-after objects in Israel, Europe and in North America, where they’re sold through some 150 outlets.

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Kakadu is the child of a marriage between Aharon Shahar, a master carpenter who specializes in furniture production, design, wood treatments and finishes, and his real-life wife, artist and sculptress Reut Shahar, a Bezalel Academy graduate in art, jewelry design and classical carpentry. Each was a successful and accomplished artist, and the collaboration between them came about more or less by chance.

“Sixteen years ago, I was planning an exhibit for a large Israeli arts and crafts fair,” says Reut. “I included some wooden trays Aharon had made, replaced their solid bases with hand-painted plywood, and took them along.”

The trays sold out in less than an hour. Reut took orders for more, but was soon unable to meet demand. She sought Aharon’s help, and Kakadu — bizarrely named for a white Australian parrot — was born.

“In our creations, art extends beyond museum and gallery to merge seamlessly with design and become a functional part of everyday life,” says Reut.

Trays remain among the more than 150 different handcrafted wood products now made by Kakadu, each involving a painstaking 12-stage process. Dozens of other everyday items have been added — mirrors, placemats, office accessories, furniture and carpets (for which Kakadu holds an international patent), and all of which become extraordinary in the hands of Kakadu artists.

“In our workshop, a CD storage unit becomes a work of art; a simple soup bowl a treat for the eyes; a floor covering the focal point of a room,” says Aharon. “At the same time, each is totally functional. Our vinyl-backed wooden carpets are made to be walked on, our containers designed to contain, our stools built for sitting on.”

In 1994, four years after the arts and crafts fair, the Shahars opened their first store, a small gallery in Jerusalem. It was followed by a second in Tel Aviv, and then a network of Kakadu affiliates in Europe and the U.S.

Kakadu’s aesthetic, practical household objects have won their popularity, according to Reut, “because of the ideas they express through colors and symbols. We’ve developed a whole language of models, design, symbols and painting. The symbols we use are motifs from many places and traditions — including Jewish, Chinese and Indian — translated in our own unique way through our own artistic energy.”

A team of artists, mainly Russians trained in formal classical art, copy Reut’s designs in special water-based paints made by the company, which are then lacquered. “Every one of our products is hand painted with a signature Kakadu art motif,” says Reut. “I believe in the quality and energy of hand painting. It’s that which creates the emotional connection.”

Since 2000, all Kakadu products are made in the company’s state-of-the-art workshop in Zafririm, a moshav midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

“With the space this relocation gave us, we began conducting creativity workshops — one of my long-time dreams,” says Reut. “In a three-hour session, people are taught the basic techniques of painting on wood and, more important, they experience the process of creation. We also run year-long courses for women who’ve never touched a paintbrush or a sanding machine. By the end of the year, they’re opening their own studios!”

“Items ordered from the Kakadu website are shipped from our US warehouse in northern California,” says Aharon, who coordinates Kakadu’s management and marketing. “Special-order custom-designed items are shipped directly from our workshop in Israel.”

Prices range from around $20 (for napkin holders and placemats) to $100 and up for stools, mirrors, CD stands and small carpets, and $300 and more for large carpets and Chanukah menorahs. Most products, however, are in the $30 to $40 range (utensil organizers, folders, memo card holders, cutting boards, remote control holders, different-sized containers, tzedaka boxes, challa boards and address books).

The question then is, when you buy Kakadu products, what exactly are you buying — art or cleverly designed home furnishings? Kakadu’s answer is: You’re buying both.

Note: Kakadu is available in galleries and shops in 39 states across the U.S. and can be found in stores such as Iridescence in Quebec City, Canada, and the Kakadu Gallery in Harderwijk, The Netherlands. The company also has a well-designed, easy-to-use online gallery and store at http://www.kakadudesign.com/kakadu/shopping/shopping.asp?shopby.