Israeli design isn’t ‘monkey business’

Monkey Business offers “practical yet humorous” ideas like ‘Dolica the sheep to keep’, an aluminum cast ‘Plughole Ashtray’ that replicates a drain stopper, and of course Oprah’s favorite, the Doorganizer.

You can’t get a stronger endorsement than Oprah Winfrey’s – and Oprah recently gave her seal of approval to Israeli design company Monkey Business’s flagship product the ‘Doorganizer’.

“Are you one of those people who have trouble getting out the door in the morning? This extremely smart organizer holds bills that need mailing, keys, grocery lists… and there’s even a flap in back for stashing a book or your DVD rentals. Hang it on the front door knob to keep one step ahead of every mini-crisis,” gushed Winfrey in her magazine O.

Not that the Tel Aviv-based family-run business was desperate for the plug. Monkey Business has been designing fun & functional products for the
home and office since 1994, providing original perspectives on the little things
that make up most peoples’ days. And they’ve succeeded in penetrating the market in dozens of countries, including the US where Monkey Business designs are sold leading design centers including The Container Store chain.

“When you usually go into stores with items like this, everything is expensive. The idea behind Monkey Business was to design products at a reasonable cost – for everybody,” explained Oded Friedland who founded Monkey Business with his brother and wife. “The initial concept of the brand was to be the least expensive products in the expensive stores.”

Their modest Tel Aviv studio, located in a nondescript apartment building, which also contains Friedland’s home a few blocks from the beach, is a mixture of yuppie startup and old fashioned clutter. Design books and catalogues stuff the shelves, the fridge is stocked with chocolate and the cappuccino machine looks like it’s been put to good use.

It’s there that Friedland develops “practical yet humorous” ideas like ‘Dolica the sheep to keep’, a plastic sheep shaped container, ideal for cotton buds and cotton wool (also used for paper clips, pens, hair pins, candy…), tasteful magnet notes and door hanger pads, the old man in rubber ‘Otto doorstop, an aluminum cast ‘Plughole Ashtray’ that replicates a drain stopper, and of course Oprah’s favorite, the Doorganizer. Friedland’s goal is to “make the ordinary extraordinary,” an idea he’s had since he was a child.

“I was always in the ‘decoration committee’ in my high school and when I was in the Scouts, I designed special T-shirts,” he told ISRAEL21c. “After the army, I started designing T-shirts for the Gazoz Surfing company [Friedland is an avid surfer]. I applied to study graphic design at the Bezalel School of Design, and someone who saw my portfolio recommended that I also apply to industrial design department. I didn’t get into the graphic design school which I was sad about then, but I did get in to the industrial design major, even though I didn’t really know what that was.”

Friedland found out quickly enough, and upon graduation in 1994, he started Monkey Business where he provided design services, and also began developing his own products.

“The first product was the plughole ashtray that I had designed during my studies. I made one and sold it, made another and sold that… until we started mass producing them,” he said.

Monkey Business now distributes over 40 products – about half from other Israeli designers, and half Friedland originals.

“Normally, I come up with the idea and together with our graphic designer and product designer, we work on the development. We then share the initial concept and design with our distributors around the world and get their feedback. Then we’ll decide which products to continue developing. Many nice ideas have fallen by the wayside because the consensus was that they didn’t have the commercial potential,” said Friedland.

Monkey Business products are sold almost exclusively in stores, rather than online or in catalogues (“The shipping would cost more than the product,” says Friedland.) And while the company has secured distributors and partners around the world, it still retains the feel of a small family-run business.

“We have a five person staff and showcase another 10 designers in our catalogue. Omri, my brother and partner, takes care of all the export and finance. My wife Liat is head of the local market where we sell in more than 100 stores. And I take care of the design and production.”

While all the designs are Israeli-grown, Friedland, who was just honored as one of three promising Israeli designers by Israeli business journal The Marker in their January 07 Design and Business issue, said that he’s come to the conclusion that there’s no distinct ‘Israeli style’.

“Most designers today are inspired by more or less the same triggers. Besides Scandinavia or Japan – places where design culture has strong roots – you really can’t tell where most designed items come from, including Israeli-designed ones,” he said.

Friedland was delayed in returning to the studio for an appointment due to rain-caused traffic jam on the way back from Jerusalem where he teaches a weekly course at his alma mater Bezalel entitled ‘Including VAT’ (value-added tax).

“It’s a course about design and entrepreneurship. It’s basically about what Monkey Business does. We have some design exercises and some small projects. At the end of the course, they actually develop one of the designs and produce a limited edition series of the product,” said Friedland.

“The students are involved in the procedure from the initial idea to the sale. It’s something not many designers experience.”

But with his own vast experience through Monkey Business, Friedland is making it his business that one day, there may indeed be an ‘Israeli style’ to design.