CWB August 1999

Furniture That Serves as Functional Art

Avner Zabari creates case goods with a primitive look and a colorful finish.

By Sam Gazdziak

Avner Zabari's artwork dazzles the eye with its bright colors, primitive-looking faces and mysterious pictographs. It can also be sat upon or store clothes or wine.

The line of furniture that Zabari has created is as functional as it is eye-catching. His cabinets, benches, wall-hangings and chests all reflect his interest in ancient cultures.

"When you start building your own pieces, you have to find your style," says the Israeli native, who now lives and works in

Many of Avner Zabari's pieces have hidden openings and small drawers in them. This cabinet, "It's a State of Mind," is designed as a wine rack, but the top opens and several panels open to reveal small storage areas.

Miami, FL. "I love the primitive, I love the simple things. The building is very simple. Where you really give a lot is the painting. If we describe it by percentage, painting is 80 percent, building is 20 percent. The coloring is very, very important."

Each of Zabari's pieces have between 5 to 10 layers of paint on them. The pieces are hand-rubbed to take off colors in some areas, so upon closer inspection, one small section of a cabinet can have three or four colors showing through.

To further set apart his work from standard furniture, Zabari has added his creative touches elsewhere. "I used to do everything wood," he says. "Two years ago, I added the metal legs. The metal legs are actually a traditional style of legs from wood, but I took it and made it metal. And most pieces have hidden cupboards, different openings and things that really aren't supposed to be in regular furniture."

Zabari draws inspiration from several areas. "I'm taking different cultures -- South American, Middle Eastern, proto-Colombian -- all kinds of primitive styles. I put them together, mix them up and create my own kind of style," he says.

The letters that decorate Zabari's works also appear to come from some ancient alphabet. In fact, they are just part of an imaginary language with influences from ancient Roman and Egyptian characters, among others.

One of the other trademarks of Zabari's furniture is the faces that decorate the front. The faces all have a similar look. The eyes are carved into the doors, and Zabari adds a material to bring the outline of the eye, the pupil and the eyebrow out of the wood. The doors of the pieces are cut with a slight curve, creating a nose for the face. Zabari sometimes adds ears and earrings (metal or leather hoops).

There are individual touches to each face. The Princess Daniela cabinet has a "hair braid" of rope extending from the top. One mirror, King Face, comes complete with a crown. Each standing piece that has a face also has metal legs shaped like a human's.

"You look at all the primitive cultures, they used faces," Zabari says "Everything where they wanted to symbolize something, they used a face, from war to happiness to sadness, everything."

The actual woodworking of a piece takes only a day or so. All of Zabari's furniture is made of pine, which is soft and easy to sculpt. The majority of the work goes into painting, which can take up to two weeks on a single piece.

After applying a primer, the layers of paint are added. Only one or two layers are added per day. Zabari says it took about four years to come up with the right paint. He went from powdered paint to pigments before settling on diluted acrylic paint. Zabari uses Pratt & Lambert paint products.

The layers of paint are all very thin, so the grain of the wood still shows through. "You see all the 'eyes,' all the damage, all the holes in the wood," says Zabari. "I'm using the character of the wood, which is the most important thing for me to use." To add to the piece's look, Zabari embeds things such as bent nails and computer chips into the wood.

When applying different colors, Zabari says he goes mainly by feel. He will apply more blue or yellow to the surface depending on the mood he wants in the green. If he wants a darker red, he adds more purple.

"I'm just working with my hands on my brush. I'm not even thinking about it," he says. "I know this color is supposed to be here, and that color is supposed to be there."

Each layer of color is applied over the entire surface. After all the layers are applied, then Zabari goes over the piece by hand, rubbing paint off certain places. "I take the colors off when I want to take it and where I want to take it," he explains. The result is that an area that is painted red will have streaks of yellow, orange or blue showing through. Once finished, the whole piece is rubbed with oil to make all the colors brighter.

The overall look, with the primitive influences, embedded pieces of metals and the many layers of colors, is that of a piece of furniture that has been used for a long time, which, according to Zabari, is exactly the look he is trying to attain.

A self-taught artist, Zabari started by making one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture. He started Avner Zabari Inc. four years ago and now makes a limited edition collection every year. His furniture is carried by more than 50 art galleries across the United States. Prices can range from $800 for smaller pieces to $3,500 for larger ones. Zabari says he is also looking to market himself more in Europe; within the last couple of years, he has shipped many pieces overseas.

Zabari makes the first edition of every piece and then instructs his five full-time and two part-time employees on his specifications. Once production starts, they make 10 pieces at a time. The employees construct and ship the pieces, but Zabari still does the painting and finishing touches for every piece. Each piece that leaves the shop is numbered and signed by the artist.

Zabari recently moved his operation into a 4,000 square-foot shop, with a separate room for finishing and construction. Employees use Delta and Makita tools along with a Ridgid panel saw from Emerson Tool Co.

Zabari approaches each piece as a box. From there, he starts sculpting it to the shape he wants, then sands it, and finally carves it, adding facial features or his pictographs. Unlike the method used by most other furniture makers, the piece is assembled and then sanded as a whole. "Usually, a person building a cabinet builds each piece and then puts it together," Zabari explains. "I'm working the opposite way. Or maybe they are working the opposite way."

For the first half of the year, Avner Zabari Inc. fills orders and ships products. Starting around August, Zabari starts to work on the next year's designs.

Though he cannot exactly say how his designs will change from year to year, Zabari says they will always be changing. "I don't see that I can stay in one place," he says. "It seems like something draws me to go somewhere, but I don't know where it's going to lead me. I don't think there's going to be a time where I say 'Here. This is what it is.'"


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