George Yabu & Glenn Pushelberg

George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg are storytellers at heart.

Client: Forbes feat. Yabu Pushelberg
Date: March 16, 2017
Services: Profile
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A four-foot high polished bronze pumpkin is the first thing visitors see upon entering Yabu Pushelberg’s Toronto studio. Skylights high overhead flood the white-walled foyer with natural rays; the low, persistent hum of veiled activity wanders toward foreign ears. An oversized Anish Kapoor dish on the far wall, a Wolfgang Tillmans botanical print stretching from floor to ceiling and a lengthy, lightly-patterned occasional chair fit for a Wes Anderson film inhabit the space. The oversized pumpkin is the work of Yayoi Kusama—one of the most prolific artists on the planet today—and its inclusion here makes a definitive statement about the two men who founded their eponymous firm nearly four decades ago. When it comes to designing spaces, they permit only the best.

George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg are not your average pair of designers. In the 1980s, they designed copy shops to make ends meet. By the turn of the century, they had an array of retail spaces, hotels and restaurants under their belt. Today, their work is just as visible in Manhattan as it is in Bangkok, their unprecedented contributions to the world of design leading to their recent induction into the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest honor. They’re effortlessly entertaining, regularly erupting with laughter and completing each other’s sentences. Pushelberg describes Yabu, the more taciturn of the two, as “methodical” and “thorough” with the “ability to find alternative answers to things to make them different.” Yabu, in turn, notes that Pushelberg operates on the premise that “anything is possible in this big, big, big, big world.” They smile more than anyone else you know. A special sort of energy is noticeable in their presence.

To mention a place to Yabu or Pushelberg is to evoke a flood of nostalgia. “Berlin” induces gasps of admiration and delight; light chuckles and harmless joshing stem from “California”; “India” reminds of a recent evening spent crossing a small lake alongside two other boats—one for the chef, the other for the live band—all under the thunderous radiance of a private fireworks display. Name-dropping geographies in their presence should be approached with caution, as their travels are so broad-sweeping that it’s tough to identify a place they haven’t been, or at least considered. Of course, this breadth of experience is precisely what makes their work so enduringly relevant. Everything they create is rooted in the stories of their own lives.

George Yabu & Glenn Pushelberg
George Yabu & Glenn Pushelberg. Photo: RAINA+WILSON

A fitting example comes in the form of a recent hotel project in central London where, as Pushelberg explains, they “started by thinking about the streets of London.” Those streets, known for their inexplicable “curves” and “abrupt stops” followed by “something moodier and deeper,” were the inspiration for the resulting hotel interior, which engages playfully with areas of light and dark and a fluid transition between spaces. “You take people into a world of imagination,” Yabu says about the process of adapting London’s chaotically organic growth into the project. Yet it was hardly an imaginary experience for him and Pushelberg. Without personally encountering the intimacy of the internal ups and downs that accompany the city’s winding lanes, how would the notion even occur?

As Yabu says, selecting a suitable narrative like this one comes down to an intuition fine-tuned over forty years. “I can’t easily reference Gio Ponti anymore with our staff because the age difference is too great. After I leave the room they say, ‘Do you understand why he said that? Who is that person?’ Yet the huge advantage of someone our age is our vast knowledge, because not only can we explain something to them, but Glenn and I can actually feel these vintage places, these places that no longer exist. We’ve lived them.”

If there’s one feeling they understand well, it’s the sense—or lack thereof—of home that one gets when stepping into a hotel for the first time. This is where the pair’s deep acceptance of their own transience benefits them most; their designs speak so widely because they themselves maintain a uniquely expansive understanding of the human condition. They seek solutions that impact the soul, design in its highest form, a process that’s as aspirational as it is aesthetic. In Yabu’s words, “Our role is to design a place where people can feel they’re at home. And home is a state of mind.”

Though their final deliverable is as tangible as any—a physical space full of scrupulously selected textures, materials and details—the true value they deliver is in the breed of energy that such a physical space creates. George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg are storytellers at heart. Design is simply their medium of choice.

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