The prolific Yves Behar is an industrial designer by title; however, his talents are popping up in so many different disciplines he’s cementing a position as one of the most influential creative contributors of our time. In addition to working for brands such as Herman Miller, Nike, and Toshiba, Fuseproject, Behar’s San Francisco-based team, has further set itself apart from the industrial design world by innovating beautiful and relevant fashions. The company’s creations for Birkenstock have helped the German shoe giant shed its hippie image, and collaborations with Samsonite and Puma for Mini Cooper resulted in exquisite driving shoes and functional apparel. Behar’s Teflon-coated cashmere windbreakers for Lutz and Patmos are water-resistant while retaining the soft hand of untreated cashmere, and his current work with Swarovski has produced a collection of chandeliers, a move which truly brings his creations to light. The hard-working designer recently spoke with the JC Report about Fuseproject’s design philosophy, a love for all his children, and what industrial designers really think about fashion.
JCR: How did Fuseproject begin and is there a company philosophy?
YB: In 1999, when I started Fuseproject, I said, “Design brings stories to life,” and announced that products were the true agents of a company’s brand. I remember these were the virtual and advertising days, and this point of view differentiated us from the then-thought of the moment: most US-based design agencies were only focused on technology and medical products, two areas which never understood the value of connecting to consumers emotionally and building brands people love — with the exception of Apple, of course. So I applied our design and technical skills to exciting consumer brands such as Mini Cooper and Birkenstock, and we were able to grow our team in the technology downturn.
JCR: Does being based in San Francisco impact your work?
YB: San Francisco is the most visionary, diverse, eclectic, tolerant city I know on the planet. From the jazz-inspired beat generation poets to the summer of love that started the hippie movement in 1967, to the computer and Internet revolution of the ’90s, San Francisco has always shared beautifully democratic ideals with the world.
JCR: Your forays into fashion, such as the cashmere windbreakers for Lutz and Patmos and the neon clogs for Birkenstock, are design-savvy yet functional. Are you currently developing other products in the fashion space?
YB: In the old world of industrial design, fashion was almost a dirty word. Well, not for me. I owned a clothing line for awhile, and kept creating concepts that merged the notion of fashion and product. In the modernist design world, often comfort is also regarded as a dirty word. For me, combining elegance with comfort is part of what I try to do every day, while not losing the strength of a concept. We are currently working on sport-related apparel; [it will be] very technical, and yet you will be proud to wear it.
JCR: I saw your SFMOMA Learning Shoe about a year ago and was intrigued by the idea of customizing products such as shoes, clothing, or anything, really. Has the idea of customization played a factor in any of your recent designs?
YB: I like the fact that people are making their own choices, in an eclectic way rather than as fashion victims. That said, marketing has a lot more to learn to understand that diversity, not commoditization, is the way forward. I am also interested in the fact that technology is moving towards intuitive natural responses rather than having to rely on users pressing buttons. A good example of this is the Aliph Jawbone cell phone headset we designed: the product senses movements of the skin to differentiate between background noise and sound emanating from the user.
JCR: Do you see the idea of customization as a trend that will continue to develop?
YB: Customization will be part of good design moving forward; so will sustainability and products with a point of view.
JCR: You move effortlessly between design disciplines. Swarovski chandeliers and Toshiba laptops are worlds apart from one another. Does your approach to designing change with each project? Or do you approach each client with the same basic philosophy?
YB: I often say we are specialized in multi-disciplines. Cross-pollination means we criss-cross inspiration from the varied fields in which we practice. Designers can fight any battle with one methodology or point of view; scale, functionality, technology, and manufacturing processes can all be adapted to different projects. The only basic philosophy is that our approach has to be relevant, and our methodology is about building contents and ideas, designing from the inside out, rather than applying a style or visual signature to everything we touch.
JCR: What design are you most proud of?
YB: Very hard question to answer; can a mother admit to a favorite child? Usually it is the one project I am working on at the moment. You have to give it attention and even love, and that is what I am proud of. I give them all the attention they deserve!
JCR: Is there a brand you wish to collaborate with?
YB: There are many brands I admire, but usually we are surprised by being approached by the ones who want to be great brands, and strive for it. I am fundamentally interested in two types of projects: the comprehensive, all-encompassing projects that create complete experiences for their customers — environments like airplanes are a good example — and exploratory projects where we can express ideas — like Swarovski or the Learning Shoe commissioned by the SFMOMA.
JCR: What are the recurring themes in your work?
YB: Design is a medium for communication: A cultural medium, whether its intent is to reach the masses or the few, depends of the nature of the object, not whether design is present in it or not. Whether it is a $100,000 crystal lighting installation or a four-cent pharmaceutical bottle, both designs have to be relevant. We must not forget that the main reason for design is to be a part of culture, not just commerce. This connection is that it makes us better at what we do: touching the emotions and desires of the public.
JCR: Where is Fuseproject headed?
YB: I see us continuing to be relevant in culture and commerce, through even more exciting commissions.
This interview was conducted by Bradford Shellhammer
Photos: Lutz and Patmos Teflon-coated cashmere hoodie
Spacescent perfume bottle
Swarovski “Nest” chandelier
Friend store interior, San Francisco
Aliph Jawbone wireless headset with noise cancellation
Mini/BMW car backpack
Birkenstock “Birkies” gardening clogs