How fairy lights, X-rays and ice-skating all inspired a 19yr old art student to design our new smartphone

When Picasso made his “light drawings” in 1949 most people in the world would still have been excited to have a landline, and the Twentieth Century’s most renowned artist could not have imagined that 63 years later a teenager, wearing a baseball cap with the word ‘Obey’ on the peak, would take his inspiration and turn it into an award-winning piece of industrial design on a mobile phone.

Nineteen-year-old Gaby Sahhar from Streatham in South London won a competition run by Vodafone and Tate to design a limited edition cover for the Vodafone Smart II phone, by draping fairy lights around his neck, turning off the lights in his bedroom – and photographing the movement in the dark.  It was the technique that inspired Picasso when he saw shots taken by lighting innovator Gjon Mili who photographed ice-skaters jumping in the dark with tiny lights attached to their skates.

Gaby opens the box“It looks like streaks of light shooting through space,” Sahhar says, “but it’s really all about energy and movement, which to me is what mobiles are about too”

The theme of the competition, which was open to members of the Tate Collective, was ‘Another World’. For Sahhar, who is about to start a degree in fine art at Goldsmiths College, the ethereal nature of light and movement was a perfect meeting point of inspiration, material and function.

“I think most mobile phones are quite boring. We carry them around all the time, they are practically a part of our body, but we don’t care what they look like.”

Energy and the body are already key themes in Sahhar’s work, and last year one of his biggest projects involved taking full body x-rays of his mother and turning the results into light streams replicated in plastic.

“I love plastic, and that made this project so interesting for me,” he says, “It’s such an intriguing material because you can’t see how many layers it has, or how deep it is.”

Sahhar, whose parents are French and Palestinian, started painting when he was ten years old and his mother provided enormous canvases for him to work on. “Those canvases were bigger than me. At first I copied and copied, I drew what I thought an Impressionist would draw – but later I developed my own inspiration and style.”

Winning the competition, and designing the limited edition phone, has been his first experience of working with a creative team in a more collaborative process.

The Vodafone Smart II phone Tate Edition“I’ve never had to sit down with other people before, and see how I could transform my idea into something that could be mass-produced. I flew to Dusseldorf and met the Vodafone creative design team – and they had quite a few suggestions about how to adapt my design.”

The Vodafone designers showed Sahhar how his design would look on the back of the limited edition phone and suggested various changes to colour and tone.

“We introduced more white, because that looks like a younger colour on a phone, and we also introduced swirls of red.”

Sahhar joined the Tate Collective last year, and he says meeting award-winning artist Grayson Perry further fired his interest in pursuing a career in fine art. Even so, he admits to being intrigued by the possibilities of industrial design:

“I started to think a lot more about phones. The shape of the keys, the weighting of the handset, the colour and finish. Designing a handset is an amazingly long, detailed and painstaking process.”

The-limited-edition-phoneHe may yet do more in the world of mobile. In the meantime he says that he hopes that other people, including his Mum, will be buying one of his limited edition designs: “She says she is!”

The Vodafone Smart II phone goes on sale in select Vodafone shops and online on the 16 August. Find out more details at the Vodafone shop.