Meet the Locals: Emma and Ofer in Tel Aviv
In the oldest part of Tel Aviv, a pair of interior designers use houseplants and sustainable materials to create an Airbnb Plus Home with a timeless look.
Photographs by Laura Pannack
Emma Shahar, a Canada native and interior designer, was living in New York, working in the fashion industry, when she decided to make a change. “I just didn’t want to do it anymore. So I asked myself, ‘Do I want to reinvent myself in New York or in a whole other country?’” She chose the latter and in 2011 moved to Israel — a place she’d visited many times growing up, and where she had close family. She settled in Tel Aviv and opened a DIY studio (now closed), where members could come to work on their custom projects. “We had a bunch of tools and shared work table space,” she said. “It was a place where you’d go if you wanted to make a table but you didn’t have a jigsaw or a sander — you could come there and use ours.”
After a year in Tel Aviv, Emma met and fell in love with Ofer, an artist who was designing and creating bespoke furniture. “One of the things that brought us together is that we love hosting, which ties in really well to what we do with Airbnb,” said Emma. “We have this joke that we’re the mom and dad of our friend group. We’re always hosting parties, making sure everyone is taken care of, that everyone is eating, that kind of thing.”
After several years together, Emma and Ofer decided to combine their creative passions and open their own design firm, Craft and Bloom. “We’re a rare couple that does renovations together and we don’t fight — we actually like it,” she said. They now design spaces from restaurants to pop-up shops. “We have a clean, soft, minimal aesthetic. … Sometimes we jokingly say we’re minimalist wannabes,” Emma said with a laugh. “We focus on sustainability, so we choose local materials wherever we can … and we go for a look that’s timeless. That way, you don’t have to keep changing out your furniture because there’s something new this season. So it’s also economical.”
Designing their apartment in the north Jaffa neighborhood was one of the couple’s first projects together. “I had been trying to convince my mother to get an apartment in Tel Aviv,” Emma said. “She kept putting it off until I told her I was pregnant. Right away she said, ‘Okay, I need a place there now.’” The couple designed the apartment for Emma’s mother to live in part-time and now rents it out to travelers during the other months of the year.
The couple chose a neutral, earth-toned palette of creamy whites, subtle mauves, and rich orange browns for the interior. Houseplants and a green wall planted with shoots of lemongrass, rosemary, sage, and mint complement the cream tones of the walls and furniture. Everything in the house, from the teapot to the paintings, has been carefully chosen for its uniqueness and beauty. Knowing that some guests will pine after the furnishings, the couple provides a guide to the goods in the house, with details about who made the pieces, and where to find and purchase them. One of Emma’s favorite touches is a diptych painting on the wall above the couch. It was painted by a friend — a Berliner who lived in the apartment for a month for free in exchange for making art for the space.
“Every piece that has a history has the power to contribute to the sense of calm in a space,” Emma said. Those objects — the ones with history — are the ones she gravitates toward. But history can mean a lot of things. The diptych painting has a history because Emma knows who made it. Her neighborhood, Jaffa, has a history that goes back thousands of years, recorded in books and the crumbling structures themselves. But “history,” as she defines it, could also be as short as a conversation with the last person who owned an item. “It’s so much fun to buy your table at a flea market from some guy who you talked to for an hour beforehand,” because that’s history. “It creates a richer experience,” she added.
Located on the edge of the modern metropolis, Jaffa is an ancient port city that’s been absorbed into Tel Aviv proper since the 1950s. The town stems out from the harbor, which dates back to the Iron Age and King David, but there’s archeological evidence that people lived in the area several thousands of years before that, too.
Jaffa has gone through innumerable changes since that time, but its historical buildings and rich religious life have kept the district anchored in a sense of place and tradition as new galleries, hotels, and trendy cafes pop up. It’s one of the city’s most charming, hip quarters and sometimes called “the next big thing” … with an ocean view. “Jaffa is to Tel Aviv what Brooklyn is to New York,” Emma said. “It’s a little bit more artsy, a little bit more run-down, but being gentrified.” The apartment is close to the waterfront promenade and the city’s famous flea market, as well as one of Emma’s favorite spots, Gan HaPisga park. Named after the Jewish word for “summit,” it’s the highest point in old Jaffa; people come to relax and enjoy the view surrounded by ancient ruins. “It’s our idea of a perfect Saturday afternoon to go there and have a picnic,” she said.
“Everybody connects to a different ‘scene’ in Tel Aviv,” said Emma. “Jaffa is a bit more artsy, which I really identify with.” It’s the perfect neighborhood for Emma and Ofer, who create a sense of time-aged character in beautiful spaces around Tel Aviv and beyond.
Emma and Ofer’s Tel Aviv Picks:
Jaffa Flea Market: “This flea market is the main one in Tel Aviv, and it’s famous. It’s a good mix of old and new — new designers next to older men who are sitting around mending carpets. It’s a really cool place.”
Gan HaPisga: “This place is a beachside park and an amazing lookout point where you can see both Jaffa and the Tel Aviv skyline, plus there’s an amphitheater for summer concerts. One of our favorite things to do on a Saturday afternoon is pack a picnic and come here.”
Yoko Kitahara: “Enjoy the walk there through old Jaffa and find yourself in the most wonderfully designed Japanese spa with Moroccan architectural accents. Doesn’t sound like it makes sense, but it does. The attention to detail in this space is admirable and much appreciated — everything from the linens to scent to touch is impeccably executed.”
Alba Health Food Store: “The first thing on my list when traveling is to find our local health food store. Alba is yours when you stay at our apartment. It’s a two-minute walk away, stocks tons of organic produce and cleaning products, and is designed to make you feel like you just walked into the Bible — in the best way possible. You’ll have to check it out to see what I mean.”
Kalamata Restaurant: “Get a reservation just before sunset and watch the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea at this Greek restaurant. It’s also a must to enjoy the walk through old Jaffa in order to get there.”
About the author: Breena Kerr is a Maui-based freelance writer and journalist whose work appears in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Washington Post, CNN, and BBC, among others.
About the photographer: Laura Pannack is a London-based award-winning photographer whose work has been exhibited and published worldwide, including at the National Portrait Gallery, Somerset House, the Royal Festival Hall, and the Houses of Parliament. Her work has received the John Kobal Award, Juliet Margaret Cameron Award, Prix de la Photographie, World Press Photo, and the Vic Odden Award. In addition to her own practice, Pannack lectures, critiques, and teaches at universities, workshops, and festivals around the world.