The convention-busting superstar speaks to onoffice about responsible design and why he waited so long to attempt a task chair
It must be tiring to be Yves Béhar. The 43-year-old founder of fuseproject, a San Francisco-based industrial design practice widely renowned for projects like the $100 laptop and Herman Miller’s Leaf Light, looks like he could use an enormous cup of coffee.
“Hi, I’m Yves,” he says wearily, sliding into a booth in the St Martins Lane Hotel.
Béhar is in London for a whirlwind PR trip and, though he is perfectly lovely and polite, this is clearly not his first interview of the day. It’s a stark contrast to five months earlier when, surrounded by an army of marketing people, a rather more slick and sprightly Béhar gave a press briefing in Milan to promote SAYL, his first task chair for US furniture giant Herman Miller, which is due for global launch this month.
That day, Brand Béhar was in full effect: visionary design language and an unhurried West Coast attitude topped off with scruffy good looks. For an American company, fuseproject (and in this case Herman Miller) has been smart to take a more European approach by bringing the Swiss designer to the forefront of its business story. The Yves factor is very potent stuff.
But today Béhar is slightly less polished, a seemingly normal guy who has been working a bit too hard.
In a sense it rounds off a complete picture of the man, who has been held up as a kind of design saviour in the press and who, since starting fuseproject in1999, has made it his mission to produce “game-changing” design with the fervour of someone who really cares. And he has done. While so many designers are doing more of what we’ve already seen, or busying themselves with tongue-in-cheek, postmodern tat – Behar is forging new territory in nearly every design discipline.
“People tend to be either cynical or ironic when they feel disenchanted or a lack of power,” he says, quietly. “Droog did a lot of great ironic design in the 80s and 90s and it was an important phenomenon, but a lot of what I see these days is a cheap imitation of that.”
Béhar’s design ethos is more straight-forward: social responsibility, using new technologies on a human level and telling the story of products. What sets him apart from so many of his peers is that he’s strikingly earnest about wanting to change the world, yet savvy enough to balance his own agenda with the needs of clients. He gets things done.
The fuseproject business model sums it up: commercial jobs with corporations like Herman Miller, Puma, Birkenstock, ERCO and BMW Mini (there are too many to mention here) make it possible to be involved with the sorts of civic ventures that will foster postitive change.
This year, the firm designed customisable eyeglasses for See Better to Learn Better, a programme in partnership with the Mexican government that gives free specs to kids in schools.
In 2008, fuseproject designed a condom dispensor for a city-wide initiative with the NYC Department of Health. But the project that made Béhar a household name is the award-winning $100 laptop, which was designed for the ongoing One Laptop Per Child scheme, first introduced in 2007. It aims to bring education and technology to children in developing countries via a water resistant, low-cost computer. (The third generation of the laptop launches early next year).
“There is nowhere you can hide on the chair. Everything is visible and everything is felt by the body”
It’s true that there have been sceptics along the way – people who say these projects aren’t possible or questioning Béhar’s ego – but the bottom line is that in a supposedly creative industry that rarely innovates, he is quite a loud voice for what design can and should do.
“Some of these (civic) projects have been a lot of work but they’ve also been the most rewarding in my career,” he says. “When two million children are using these laptops, when in Uruguay every single child between the ages of six and twelve has a computer and they’re teaching their parents, that’s unbelievable. Those are the types of things that get you out of bed in the morning.”
But even with the corporate money-makers Béhar says his goal is to innovate and help a brand evolve responsibly – he doesn’t appear to be interested in things that don’t push boundaries in that sense.
“To a certain extent, the media has perpetuated the idea that decoration and styling is all design is about – they’ve simplified the goal of the profession. I see a lot of stories about very expensive limited edition pieces because that’s what tends to make the newspaper pages.”
More up Béhar’s alley is fuseproject’s Clever Little Bag for Puma, which cut the sportswear company’s packaging waste by 65 per cent, or the battery-fuelled motorcycle they designed for Mission Motors in 2009.
“I like to work on projects that have a long-term impact rather than another version of the same product that basically goes into obsolescence after a year,” he says. “My two big themes are Design for Good, because sustainability is going to allow us to transform every industry on the planet, and a new form of commercial engagement between designer and clients, which is based on a partnership model rather than a consulting and fee-based model,” he explains. “Those are the things that I’m quite passionate about and that help me stretch the definition of design.”
And the idea of being a stake-holder versus a consultant allows fuseproject to partner with start-up companies like Y Water and PACT Underwear, who would otherwise have never been able to afford a name like Béhar.
“Essentially my interest in the project’s success is the same as the client’s, but that doesn’t compromise the radicality of it,” he points out. It also goes a way to explain why the designer is so involved with the delivery, from the marketing through to the press.
“I believe you can have quality and innovation at any price point, whether it’s a $100 laptop or a chair you’re going to use for many years”
Béhar was born in Switzerland to a Turkish father and a German mother, and he credits at least part of his design philosophy to his roots.
“There is that notion of Swiss quality mixed in with the more expressive Turkish side,” he says.
And after working in San Francisco for 18 years, there is probably a bit of California in there, too.
“I still feel like a European designer, but living in California has meant adoption of technology, adoption of new ways of living, new ways of consuming, the whole organic health movement, the whole sustainability movement has had a tremendous influence,” he explains. “I see those movements as the biggest opportunities we have as designers to make a difference.”
So, why a new task chair? Why now? Béhar dipped his toe into workplace design with a break-out range for HBF in 2008 but he waited 15 years to take up this particular challenge.
“I thought a work chair, a chair that matters, is something that I shouldn’t try until I felt ready for it. So I made a point of waiting until I was almost 40 because I knew that this was probably one of the biggest design tests of my career and it wasn’t something I wanted to take lightly,” he explains. “There is nowhere you can hide on the chair, everything is visible and everything is felt by the body. You have to resolve its aesthetic, its feel, its materials, structure, technology. You have to think in so many different dimensions at the same time to make it work. I was ready for this one but I didn’t feel it was something to rush into.”
It turns out that SAYL, launching at Orgatec after four years in development, has two unique points that make it a game-changing product: the first is that it has a suspension back with no frame, and the second is that is has been designed with the lower end of the market in mind. So for about half the price of Herman Miller’s flagship office chair, Aeron, punters can get hold of a well-designed product that meets the office giant’s exacting standards.
“Herman Miller came to me and said ‘let’s do a low-cost chair’, but we weren’t sure what that meant. This had never been attempted before – a high-end product with the kind of ergonomics you’d expect but with a low cost,” he says.
Which raises the question – how did they do it?
“Eco dematerialisation, meaning removing materials as much as possible,” says Béhar, rapidly scanning through images of the chair on his iPhone, and becoming suddenly much more animated. The back of the chair is made of an injected elastomer material and a singular spine piece inspired by the form and dynamics of the Golden Gate Bridge, but unsurprisingly what the industry is most revved up about is the price tag of $300 per chair for contract orders.
“To a certain extent, the media has perpetuated the idea that decoration and styling is all design is about – they’ve simplified the goal of the profession”
“Two years ago at Orgatec I sat in a lot of chairs at that lower price point and I thought: ‘Wow, is that all we can do?’” Béhar wanted to do something better, something different, but he needed Herman Miller to join him on the journey. There was an established level of trust, however, because the designer had partnered with the company on the celebrated Leaf Light and Twist LED Task Light – so it was just a matter of experimenting to get to the right chair.
“I believe you can have quality and innovation at any price point, whether it’s a $100 laptop or a chair you’re going to use for many years. Still, in order to do so you need to use the most advanced manufacturing techniques and most efficient production set-ups, and that costs money,” he explains. “Most companies don’t think that way. They think because it’s cheap, they’re going to invest less. Because it’s cheap, they’re going to make it cheaply. To me, that is the biggest disservice that design can do when you want to design for the largest group of people. When you want to design for all.”
Presumably it is difficult to convince companies to invest no matter how long-standing the partnership has been.
“You have to convince them there is a really exciting new place that nobody’s been and that design can take us there,” he says. “Sustainability and a smaller carbon footprint become very strong arguments if you show clients that they’ll be able to deliver at comparable costs or that they’ll be able to deliver a better consumer experience, and sometimes both.”
In the end, Béhar presents SAYL as a chair that is symbolic of the era we’re in. It’s small enough to translate to the European and Asian markets and he believes it represents the horizontal structure of the 21st-century office.
“It’s a transparent chair in that it is a lot more humble than other products of its type. We took every opportunity to remove stuff and yet incorporate technologies that weren’t available before,” he says. “People ask why we need another chair when there are so many chairs out there. The answer is: why do you need another book? There are subjects that are relevant for today, and there are new ways of doing things. That’s why people keep writing books and designers keep making chairs.”