Interview by Jason Black
Photography by Alessandro Casagrande & Scott A. Sant’Angelo
Good design has the power to change the world; that’s the single compelling idea that guides Yves Béhar everyday.
Over his illustrious longstanding career, the 51-year-old Swiss industrial designer has focused his talent and vision on creating human-centric design, integrating popular innovations with sustainability and social good.
As the founder of Fuseproject, his award-winning industrial design and brand development firm, he’s worked to develop award-winning products for clients like Apple, General Electric, Herman Miller, Kodak, Movado, PUMA, Samsung, and many others. Currently, he’s got his hands into everything — healthcare, housing, transportation, education, robotics and beyond — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The way I see it, design is inherently meant to help people,” he opines. “Design
is about intent, so the question I ask myself is, as a designer, what is my intent for the world?”
For our second issue, we caught up with Béhar at his Fuseproject gallery / workspace in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill warehouse neighborhood to find out more about his lifelong love affair with design, where he draws inspiration from, what he’s working on next, and more.
Jason Black (JB) – Let’s start by exploring your focus on and dedication to humanitarian applications of design. What inspires you to use design to help others? Do you believe that design has the power to change the world?
Yves Béhar (YB) – The way I see it, design is inherently meant to help people. Design is about intent, so the question I ask myself is, as a designer, what is my intent for the world? Whether I’m creating a piece of furniture, building a brand or working for a non-profit, the human experience is always at the center. For me, the goal has always been to change lives, whether it’s a little bit or a lot.
JB – Have you always felt the need to give back to others? Are you truly a philanthropist at heart working as a designer?
YB – I don’t think of it as much as philanthropy — I think of it as purpose. If you have the ability to make a difference and to affect people’s lives, why would you not? As designers, it’s our responsibility create great experiences, whether it’s objects, brands, services, digital platforms…and to me there’s almost always an opportunity to provide better access to everyone, to make an experience universal and intelligently integrated in the fabric of our lives. I suppose I never thought there was any other option.
JB – Early on, when did you first discover you were creative? A designer? Was design / being creative a part of your daily life growing up with your family or did you find it on your own time in your own way?
YB – As a child, I wanted to be a writer — I loved storytelling. I began to see that objects could also tell stories, with how they’re made, how they appear, how we use them. In my teens, I started making furniture and other objects, and fell in love with the process of making. This was the most important discovery of my life.
JB – Let’s talk about growing up and design school — any interesting experiences or memories you’d like to share? How did Art Center in Pasadena shape you as a designer?
YB – Art Center College of Design was like training in a karate dojo: the discipline and hard work was so intense! At the same time, we would meet these incredible dreamers. Victor Papanek and Luigi Colani both visited and I had a chance to discuss design and their ideas. They both were so passionate and had forged such unique and original perspective. Forging your own path and designing around your own beliefs are two ideas they exuded, and that influenced me.
JB – Fuseproject — your office / studio / gallery space in SF is impressive. Can you talk a bit about how it came together and how it shapes your daily work? What are you working on / passionate about right now?
YB – Our current office is actually our third space — we began in much smaller settings with much fewer people, but moved into this space in 2013 when our team expanded to, now, almost 100 people. The current space is built for collaboration — every project is given space on the walls around the studio so that our work is out in the open. Designers can always draw inspiration from projects, learn from others and contribute their ideas. We even designed the furniture in the space — our partners at Herman Miller supported the design of an office furniture system while we were moving into our own space. This is how Public Office Landscape was born and developed. Individual desks have an extra seat attached, which we call the “social chair”, allowing for quick check-ins or work sessions at someone’s desk. It’s the first time a desk is designed both for one person and for meetings at the same time. The system is also modular and can fit together to create benching seating, meeting rooms, project spaces or more casual lounging areas. Ultimately, the space is impactful as it creates moments of collaboration in every part of the studio.
We recently launched a few robotics projects that are redefining how people experience robots — like SNOO, the smart bassinet that helps soothe a crying baby; we’re hearing incredible stories about it helping with postpartum depression, and even how for some couples, it makes the difference between whether or not they have another baby! It’s democratizing the unaffordable solution of the night nurse. We also launched ElliQ, a companion robot for aging adults to keep them active and engaged in the world. We also have some incredible innovations in the works like Seismic Powered Clothing — clothing with tech embedded to help you with muscular movement, and our latest collaboration with L’Oréal called UV Sense, which is the world’s first and smallest battery-free wearable that detects your UV exposure.
JB – What’s the one design project you’d love to take on if you had unlimited time, energy and budget to get it done?
YB – There are so many areas that desperately need design — healthcare, transportation, housing — and not just here but across the world. Actually, I have some exciting transportation and housing projects in the works… more soon.
JB – When you’re not in the City you spend time at your place in Bolinas. How does living out in Marin in the country near the ocean and surfing often inspire you and your work?
YB – Spending time in the ocean is meditative and gives me a refresh from the hustle of life. It’s also about instinct and quick decisions and reflexes… good training for design work too. I get inspiration everywhere — ideas will come to me and I have to sketch them on whatever is closest to me, and I get to draw and do more personal projects while I’m away at the beach.
JB – Being a busy dad with four kids, how do you find a work / life balance? Do you see yourself as a young man in your kids? Any future creatives / designers there?
YB – I’m always designing and I’m always a parent. You don’t have to worry as much about balance when none of it feels like a constraint, but rather an equal and mixed flow of creativity and responsibility. Often times, I find myself working on designs at home, or bringing my kids to the Fuseproject studio. I’m not encouraging them to become designers, but I do give them plenty of space for creativity, while they give me a unique perspective on life and making.
JB – What’s next for you?
YB – I have a few more robots in the works, projects that I think could change people’s lives for the better including people who are often overlooked by mainstream designs. I’m also working on a housing concept to deal with population density, which I’m very excited about. In the coming 10 to 20 years, the pace of change will continue, and designers have to be ready to co-create the world they want to live in. Now more than ever, we, the designers and the makers are needed.
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