sarit shani hay
Written by Zachary Vigna
Tel Aviv–based designer Sarit Shani Hay describes the birth of her daughter, Emmanuelle, as “a turning point—in a sense, a double birth.” Having spent several years studying and traveling abroad, she returned to Israel with a “professional and creative calling,” and assigned herself the first project in this new phase of her career: a bedroom for Emmanuelle. Since then she has compiled a broad portfolio full of simple, intelligently designed furniture, accessories, and spaces.
Influenced by midcentury modern design theory but also incorporating postmodern sensibilities, Shani Hay’s furniture is functional and appealing, especially to the growing number of consumers attuned to Scandinavian aesthetics. Her most notable achievements, however, have followed a direct line from Emmanuelle’s bedroom. For that project, Shani Hay put into practice a wide range of lessons learned and observations made during years in the fields of design, art, and craft in order to produce a pleasing space, each detail of which would be stimulating and playful. The multidisciplinary approach she developed lent itself ideally to the design of child-centered public spaces: children’s hospitals, libraries, and especially kindergartens.
Shani Hay’s academic background is in art and design, but her postgraduate studies included engagement with various theories of child development. She was especially drawn to Sigmund Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis and interested in the impact of the childhood experience on the evolution of the adult. Freud’s influence is clear in Shani Hay’s design motivations. She explains: “I began designing schools and educational environments to make up for my childhood experience, which took place in very strict and mundane spaces. People say that one has to connect to childhood to design for children, but in my mind I never stopped being a child and therefore thinking like one. Design is my excuse to continue living in an eternal childhood mind-set.”
With no formal training in pedagogy, she formulated an intuition-based design approach that echoes the theories of Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori, and is perhaps best exemplified by her recent design for the King Solomon School in Hakfar Hayarok, Israel. The school administrators’ pedagogy is holistic, and Shani Hay applied her dissatisfaction with “dull, limiting spaces” that don’t “allow or encourage out-of-the-box thinking”—a distaste that has been with her since her own school days—to the creation of vibrant spaces that stimulate various kinds of learning.
Reflecting Montessori’s view that children should be permitted to direct their own education as much as possible, the King Solomon School incorporates spaces that encourage many different levels of interaction and engagement with the surroundings. The library is open and spacious, and allows children to communicate with and learn from one another. Several private and intimate spaces are also available, granting children a sense of autonomy and an environment to reflect and digest the day’s lessons, in whichever forms they’ve come. Objects are interactive and made of sturdy, natural materials, also in parallel with Montessori’s ideals.
Above all else, Shani Hay values considerations of play in her design for children. She has learned through direct experience with her own children the extent to which, “through play, children can develop social and cognitive skills using their imagination and their creativity.” With this in mind, she was sure to include many opportunities for various kinds of play in her design for the King Solomon School. The library, for instance, features a wooden structure reminiscent of a camper trailer. Children take books inside and imagine themselves traveling to the places they read about.
Her considerations of play are also informed by her essentially modernist ideals, and her opinion that midcentury modernism’s “sleek lines and minimal realism make it inspiring and suitable for kids’ design.” She adds, “I believe that modernism suits design for children because of its use of simplicity, as children tend to see things in an elementary fashion.” This view is supported by Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, which emphasizes the importance of symbol manipulation in the play of children in the preoperational stage of development. These kindergarten-age children, according to Piaget, are still acquiring a concrete understanding of the world, and their sense of logic has not yet become rigid. At this stage, play is most beneficial when it is imaginative, when children are permitted to assign any meaning they like to objects under their control. These objects become symbols, and by manipulating them, children develop and strengthen important cognitive skills. The simple shapes Shani Hay prefers lend themselves to an especially broad range of significance, allowing a high degree of beneficial imaginative play. The hexagonal furniture pieces in the King Solomon School’s lobby, for instance, can be anything a kindergartner imagines them as.
Despite her affinity for modernism, Sarit Shani Hay sees herself “also connected to postmodernism and the freedom of creation that it allows,” and she acknowledges that “we live in a postmodern era, in which boundaries between different disciplines have melted.” With the freedom of postmodernism has come a whole set of issues, such as the ubiquity of digital technology, that are unique to the present moment, and she has not shied away from addressing them in her design. On each of her projects, she works closely with educators to ensure that current pedagogical standards are met, but, because of her belief that “educational environments should address this shift of era and provide peaceful and secure places to encourage free thinking,” she insists on including in her design opportunities for children to escape the technological press of the twenty-first century. The hexagonal recesses in the wall of the King Solomon School’s lobby (the negative-space complement to the positive-space hexagonal furniture) allow relaxation while stimulating creativity.
Through a combination of multidisciplinarity, flexibility, and commitment, Sarit Shani Hay has achieved a rare thing, an effective contemporary yet referential design sensibility that can be applied universally to children’s pedagogical spaces. Perhaps the most valuable characteristic of her approach is its demonstration of the power of design over theory. By her own admission, she doesn’t have a formal background in pedagogical theory, and much of her “activity comes from intuition rather than pedagogical planning.” Nonetheless, she designs successful pedagogical spaces, and in so doing makes a strong case that a space can be maximized around its specific and general needs without pointed deference to the underpinnings of those needs. In a Shani Hay kindergarten, children learn, interact, relax, and play in a comfortable, functional space—in contradistinction with the dull spaces that stifled her when she was young—and this is what matters.