The poetry of simplicity: an interview with Yves Behar

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While not yet a household name, Swiss-born industrial designer Yves Behar just might just become one. The founder
of Fuseproject, a San Fransisco-based design firm, has been making waves with his work for companies including
Herman Miller, Swarovski Crystal Palace and Puma. In Australia earlier this year for the launch of his SAYL chair with Herman Miller, Behar spoke to Vogue Living contributing editor Madeleine Hinchy about designing with the environment
in mind, the pursuit of beauty and meaning, and his perception of the role of the designer today.

MH: What was the brief for the SAYL chair?

YB: The brief was more of a question. I like briefs that are questions, because we [the designers] are the ones supposed to come up with the answers. It was about whether it was possible to create a more attainable Herman Miller product that would still be ergonomic and still lead in design innovation, and from an environment or sustainability standpoint.

Herman Miller is kind of number one in the high-end chair market; the way I went about it was essentially to see if we could take materials out and build it in a way that would be fundamentally different to what has been done before.

MH: How did you go about refining it to just a few key materials?

YB: One element that struck me was how all the chairs out there have either a plastic frame or an aluminum frame. First, ergonomically there is always a barrier to movement; when you move around, you get a hard area. The idea was to remove the frame, and therefore lower the carbon footprint of the product and lower the cost. One of the inspirations was bridges: suspension bridges. Essentially, the form we built in the beginning was a single tower and a cable system. By arcing or curving the span of the bridge, we could develop a 3D ergonomic shape. You can really move around the chair; it flexes because the structure is only based in the centre.

MH: Recently, you partnered with Puma and implemented a strategy to reduce the environmental impact of the brand. Are you making a point of only working with companies prepared to address that using cradle to grave strategies?

YB: I think sustainability is the biggest opportunity we have as designers to achieve massive change. If we want to change things on a large scale, the next 20 years will be a time when every process, every factory, industrialised product and experience will be rethought with sustainability in mind.

With Puma, basically that they had this beautiful red shoebox; they make 80 million of them a year. And they said ‘People love it, but – is there anything we can do to make it more sustainable?’ We went to three continents to look at the process and realised that printed cardboard, thick printed cardboard as a structural element to ship shoes, is problematic at best. We tried to remove all of the printing, all of the inks and reduce the cardboard to a skeleton that can be created out of a recycled material. Then we use recycled PT for the fabric bag. The Puma shoebox could never have happened if it weren’t for the fact that the sustainability approach was so compelling. Reducing materials used and energy used by 65 per cent is gigantic.

MH: In terms of economic savings?

YB: People think that ‘eco’ means to be more expensive. I am out to prove that that is not the case. There is a very simple equation in my mind: removing materials or using simpler processes removes costs. Less carbon footprint should equal less cost.

MH: You obviously think from a life cycle perspective – from the beginning to the end of a product’s life – what about the SAYL chair, is that easily repaired? I read it is 93 per cent recyclable.

YB: There is also a 12-year warranty. Pretty much every part is replaceable. The other thing is that every part has been hollowed out. There was a process of dematerialisation in designing the product, which made every part of the chair a lot lighter as well. We removed something like 50 per cent of the material in the seat pedal by hollowing it out, which turned out to be a very cool
design detail.

MH: Are you manufacturing the SAYL in different places around the world, closest to the points of its distribution, to further minimise the carbon footprint?

YB: Exactly. We manufacture it in three continents. For the Australian market, it will be manufactured in China. Australia is kind of far from everywhere! China though is closer than doing it in Europe.

MH: You have been talking about achieving sustainability in the next 10 to 20 years; do you think it is achievable in less than that?

YB: I think it’s achievable when companies have a philosophy of engagement with designers and outsiders that challenges the status quo. The kind of relationship I have been able to develop with some of my clients, like Herman Miller, are long-term relationships with much more of a sense of partnering together. It is hard, in general, for companies to open themselves up to this kind of outside view. When something seems to be working seamlessly, I can’t see how there would be an incentive internally to change it. Letting outsiders in to create this kind of change is probably the first step. Only a few companies I know think that way.

MH: In 2007, a reporter for Fast Company criticised you by saying that you work for these multinational companies but are talking about environmentally and socially sustainable ideas. That idea of multinational corporations versus agents for change – do you see those two things are reconcilable?

YB: They are reconcilable as long as both parties desire and are sincere about their aims. It is essential for me to be working both with little start-ups, small entrepreneurs that are challenging the status quo, and for us to work for large multinationals where the changes we are pushing will have a massive impact. There is no other way that anything will change unless you partner with people.

It needs to make sense for everybody. It needs to make sense for the consumer.

MH: Since that article in 2007, you seem to be doing more of these projects where sustainability is just an integral part of what you do. I loved Amplified, at the Swarovski Crystal Palace last year in Milan.

YB: I wanted to give myself a new challenge. I had taken a material and made it as sensational and sort of visually emotional as could be. I thought, what happens when you use 20,000 or 30,000 crystals? Could I do the same with a single piece of crystal and a single LED light? Could I recreate that effect with a lot less?

MH: That idea of maximum effect with minimum amount of materials and energy is carrying through to your other work.

YB: Absolutely. To me, I call it the poetry of simplicity in a way. I’m not style driven in the sense that I espouse minimalism or other styles for style’s sake. What I try to do is bring together two notions that are sometimes in opposition. One, which is this idea of a well-engineered, very efficient product that is built with a minimal amount of materials and resources. Then I try to bring this notion of an emotional, visceral reaction and a bit of storytelling, that is encased in the project and the product and the final result. And those two notions pull at each other.

MH: You have said you are not interested in design that includes the kind of beauty that is a superficial skin tacked on top; how do you go about achieving beauty in your work while maintaining substance?

YB: I think reconciling those two is the single biggest struggle I encounter on every project. I have said before if it isn’t beautiful, it shouldn’t be at all. It also has to be ethical in the sense that it has to deliver on its promise with a level of material and resource honesty. I have to balance the two. I come from two different cultures –Swiss-German on my mother’s side, and Turkish on the other, so maybe I have reconciled those two [forces] in my life.

MH: You have been called a bit of a Romantic before. All of your designs have that sense of sparking some kind of emotion, what are your thoughts on that?

YB: I think being called a Romantic is good! For me it is so important; it is about recognising that your consumer is both emotionally smart and also rationally intelligent. I always wanted to be a writer when I was young. Writing is a big part of my process. We write down ideas and core notions, which we fall in love with at the early stages of the process and we make sure we deliver on these. We don’t lose those ideas, those stories.

MH: Humanism in your design is something you have also talked about a lot. What do you think it imparts to your work?

YB: To me, humanism is a philosophy that puts the human experience at the centre of any type of creation. When I talk about how we need to consider people’s lives and people’s desires, I think that’s what I mean. The sense that a chair has to fit within life in ways that aren’t just about the present, but about what we all aspire to be or to become. The secondary effect is that we have the opportunity as designers to accelerate the adoption of new ideas. Because we make those ideas palpable. We make people realise that actually good ergonomics, and good design and a good carbon footprint can mean attainability; it doesn’t need to be a luxury product that has an eco label on it, right? And that accelerates the idea that makes it possible; it accelerates the adoption of the ideal. You need to prove to people by doing I believe, because if not all that I talk about is just theory that other people are probably a lot better than I am at delivering. But I want to deliver the proof to the idea.

MH: That probably connects to the social activism that you are becoming known for in a lot of your design projects, like the project in Mexico to provide children who need them with reading glasses. Can you talk a bit about that project?

YB: It has been distributed now for about six months. I want to show you, I think I have a pair with me.

MH: Wow, they are really light!

YB: Not just that! [Grabs them and twists and bends them]

MH: I am sure kids love doing that!

YB: They are almost indestructible. So this project is doing amazing things. We can make these for $5 apiece, including the custom lenses. The eye examination costs the organization another $5. So for $10 we can really change a kid’s life.

MH: Any other projects with similar social aims at the moment?

YB: We are working very intensely right now on the next version of the $100 laptop per child. There are two million laptops in the hands of children in the world. In some countries, such as Uruguay, every single child between the ages of six and 12 has one of these laptops. The new version is this thin tablet with a plastic screen, which will make it nearly unbreakable.

MH: When you established Fuseproject, you said you wanted to create meaningful design; do these projects epitomise that aim for you?

YB: That’s the beautiful part of having some firepower. When I started, it was just me, in an office, with a laptop. Now we have about 45 people. It gives us the opportunity to take on projects that are extremely resource intensive but also extremely rewarding for everybody involved.

MH: You were given the opportunity to mentor Australian designer Adam Cornish through Herman Miller, what kind of things do you usually try to pass on to young designers?

YB: I have taught since I was 27 or 28, as a young designer. I really look at the students themselves. I don’t really have a dogmatic way to just impart knowledge or direction to young students. I really believe one of the key things any young designer can do is to develop their own perspective. This is, luckily, a field where people can have many different perspectives, many unique perspectives. That’s what I try to encourage and find in the work and the student work that I see.

MH: Thank you Yves for your time.

Yves Behar’s notable projects

  • The $100 Laptop, a robust, low-energy personal computer distributed by social welfare organisation One Laptop Per Child to children in the developing world.
  • Design of new shoebox packaging for Puma that reduces packaging waste by 65 per cent and a re-design of the company’s distribution systems to reduce water, energy and diesel consumption during manufacture by more than 60 per cent per year.
  • ‘Amplified’, a series of recycled paper chandeliers produced for Swarovski Crystal Palace that achieved maximum effect with minimal materials.=

Interview: Madeleine Hinchy
Video: Herman Miller
Images: Fuseproject and Herman Miller

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