Ask the most discerning of jet-setters which hotel brand holds their loyalty and you might discover that they swear by the names of two interior designers — George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg — instead.
Whichever of a city’s five-star properties their eponymous firm has worked on, that’s the one worth checking into. It’s no wonder, then, that seasoned travellers have started looking to bring the elegant YP experience back home with them.
Over the past decade, a small catalogue of domestic furnishings introduced through luxury furniture retailer Avenue Road — including the laser-cut steel Park Place counter stool — offered them a few options. (Those designs are now among the pieces on offer from Man of Parts, a furniture brand recently launched by Avenue Road owner Stephan Weishaupt.)
Then, at last year’s edition of Salone del Mobile in Milan, Yabu Pushelberg debuted no fewer than six collections for a who’s who of tony manufacturers, unveiling the Elio range of outdoor furniture for Tribù, dining chairs and side tables for Henge, a modular sofa for Molteni&C and a table for Glas Italia. Suddenly, the ultimate globetrotters had become gods of domesticity, too. And with bathroom fittings for Salvatori and a chair for Ligne Roset in the works, their prolific streak is just getting started.
But perhaps Yabu Pushelberg’s most unexpected product reveal came this past fall, when the firm launched its own furniture and homewares brand — Departo — in collaboration with Stellar Works founder Yuichiro Hori. (The duo also recently designed several collections for his company.) Appropriately, Departo was an idea born from an observation about changing travel habits.
“The younger people we work with still want to own nice things — just not if it means compromising their big trip to the Galapagos or wherever,” explains Yabu. Recently, he and Pushelberg sat down with Azure to discuss their shifting focus, their collaborations with other top brands and the philosophy behind Departo (for which they’re now designing, appropriately enough, a travel bag).
What made you decide to make industrial design a bigger focus for your firm?
- George Yabu:
Glenn and I don’t like to stay still. Our core business of interior design is doing extremely well globally, but there are really only a certain number of top-level interiors commissions left in the world. And we are always competing with the same few names: Piero Lissoni, Peter Marino, Norman Foster, Vincent Van Duysen and so on. So that’s our impetus to be a one-stop shop.
- Glenn Pushel-berg:
It’s not just industrial designers that we’ve hired. We’ve added lighting consultants, extremely talented fabric designers to make our carpets better, graphics and communications people for wayfinding — and architects, even though I once said that [architecture] was a whole different ball of wax.
We like to change it up. You need a little frizzante in your life.
How did this expanded scope evolve into debuting furniture collections for six brands in Milan last year?
The CEO of Glas Italia was so enthralled by the pieces that we did. He asked us, “How long have you been doing this?” We said, “One or two years.” He thought that we had been doing it for 20. But as I explained our background, he said that it made sense, because in Italy, they train architects very well, but there’s no opportunity — most of the architecture is in restorations or refurbishments, rarely modern interiors — so they end up doing industrial design.
Do all of these new avenues of design come as naturally to you?
A classic architect will tell you, “I’m a renaissance person, and I can design anything.” To me, that’s a truism that’s not really true. The truth is that we recognize there is different design talent with different training and rhythms and ways of working. We’re good at absorbing that information and then coming up with a narrative and directing, editing and nurturing people. We listen and learn from the strengths and expertise of our team.
You’ve described your furniture as a balance between emotional and rational design. How do you blend those two approaches?
Molteni’s one condition when we brought the company our sofa design was that it had to be modular. Carlo Molteni had actually dared me to design a sofa for him 11 years ago after I called one of his out because a button from my jeans got caught in one of its lasercut diagonal slits. At the time I told him that I wasn’t ready — that it would be my dream to do so — and we went back to him when we were. But did we really want to create another modular Italian sofa? They can be so rigid. They’re all just these 90-by-90-centimetre squares that you rearrange. Our design, called Surf, is based on the sandbars in Amagansett, but we still managed to make it something that can have the different arrangements he wanted. And he presented five versions of it at the [2019 Milan] show.
It’s a piece of sculpture. And yet you can sit on the back and it doesn’t tip over.
And Molteni loved it. He said, “You know, this is so beautiful and unique from every angle.” A lot of sofas look generic from the back. Of course, then he asked Vincent Van Duysen, the creative director of Molteni, what he thought, and Van Duysen said, “It’s nice, but it’s not Molteni.” But Carlo Molteni said, “I’m doing it anyway.”
It is definitely a new look for the company. How do you consider a brand’s identity as you design?
I’m not going to call us pure artists, but we design things that we like. And then we say, “This belongs to Glas Italia, or this should go to Henge.” We don’t design to brands. Well, if it belongs with Glas Italia, then it’s probably made of glass. But even then, we’re doing bathroom fittings for Salvatori and they said to us, “You know, you don’t have to use stone.”
We are cognizant of the lives that brands have lived. But even yesterday, we were talking with Tribù, for instance. They have a lot of trust in us now, after two collections, but it got to a point where we told them, “You’re too tight with who you are.” Brands need to start focusing on more forward things, because furniture that has a point of view sells better than the basic stuff. It’s more modern, and it reaches the next customer.
What do you feel differentiates that next customer?
A sea full of beautiful furniture isn’t enough to resonate with a consumer anymore. Today, people want to know about the romance behind something – what’s the inspiration, what makes the details special? There’s got to be a story, and it has to be portrayed in a setting.
You’ve partnered with Stellar Works founder Yuichiro Hori for Departo. What led you to create a brand dedicated to lower-cost furniture and homewares?
It first came from some of the collapsible furniture we’d created for the Moxy hotel in Times Square. We realized we had a chair that was beautifully engineered but inexpensive, so we thought, “There’s something to this.” There’s Ikea and Muji, and there’s Hay and Muuto, and then there’s the uber-high end. And we realized that there are a lot of people younger than us who travel and see a lot of the world and are discerning, but save their big dollars to invest into experiences and in electronics. We realized that offering something affordable yet beautiful, something that they’ll always keep, is a strong idea. Portability, scale and duality of purpose are parts of that because people are living in smaller environments and moving around a lot, and this age of throwing away and trading up is just not appropriate anymore.
How difficult was it to design at a lower price point?
Ben Watson from Herman Miller test drove this stuff and was perplexed that it was so complete. He said, “Not possible — there’s got to be something wrong with it, because you don’t understand that level of design. You’re at the high end.” We’re selling a dream, but we’re also embracing a problem: How do you get something stylish at $18 rather than $80? The answer is: We studied everything to find a happy medium. With the colours, we wanted them to feel multi-generational, that you could never make a mistake by mixing them. When it came to the weights, we were really looking at half millimetre increments to find something substantial but not clunky. Then we studied dishwashers, looking at the wire baskets from various manufacturers to see how things would fit into them. We can’t fit everybody’s, but we can fit the majority.
And on the other side, as good sourcers of manufacturers, we have quality control, and it’s a fluid thing — we adjust based on our makers, modifying the design in a way that still protects its beauty. And then there’s no distributor — it’s maker to user.
With Departo, your name isn’t front and centre in the branding, even though it carries a lot of clout. How did you make that call?
It’s a nice surprise to find out that it’s by us.
We recognize that our name will help to get it going, and we’re proud to be the creative directors. But we don’t want to muddy the two different brands.
It’s important to us that we’re not just putting our name on an existing SKU or recolouring something and calling it our design.
Although that’s quite a good gig — a lot of designers do that.
We have a prot.g. of Bruce Mau doing our branding now and he’s brilliant. We see the Departo UFO symbol like the Kitsun. fox or the Acne face logo — something that could work with fashion, too.
Coming full circle, what are the benefits to the interior-design side of your business from this work in product design?
Well, the conclusion to the story of why we’re doing all of this other stuff is that we’re looking to do fewer interiors, but more special and complete ones. We don’t necessarily need to do another five-star hotel, so we are instead doing the interiors of a private jet, or a private club for the government of China. And with a project like the latter, the scale is so big that you do want to start with the rigour of architecture even though it’s an interior, and then apply industrial design with a chair and weave in our own carpets. Those kinds of projects deserve that.
You can tell a hotel that is designed by someone in interiors and one that’s designed by an architect. When an architect lays it out, you have to stand up just to put your cocktail on the coffee table because it’s five feet away. It looks good as a space, but it doesn’t function. If you have everything covered, though, it really does become the most complete, conceptually tight hotel in the world.
Long unmatched at luxury hotel design, George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg have been finding fresh success as product designers. And how’s this for a twist: many of their latest pieces, geared toward global nomads, cost just $25.