NEW YORK, United States — “A couple of Toronto boys, I didn’t think we’d ever be working in the epicentre of luxury retailing,” says George Yabu, who, together with partner in business and life Glenn Pushelberg, heads up internationally-renowned design firm Yabu Pushelberg.
Founded in Toronto in 1980, the luxury-focused firm has created interiors for restaurateurs including Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud, as well as major hotel groups like Four Seasons, Hyatt and Marriott, for which, in collaboration with hotelier Ian Schrager, they recently designed the interiors of the newly opened London Edition.
“In a digital age, the store has to be more special. Shopping is many people’s form of entertainment and socialising. I think that’s the future.”
But, in particular, it’s Yabu Pushelberg’s fashion retail projects — for clients including Lane Crawford, Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Louis Vuitton, Carolina Herrera, David Yurman and Kate Spade — that have been a key driver of the company’s growth.
The duo, who first met while studying interior design at Toronto’s Ryerson University, both fell into the subject. Yabu, an inner-city kid and the son of Japanese immigrants, chose interior design “because I wanted the courses that required less term papers.” Pushelberg, who grew up in a working class suburb 65 miles outside of Toronto, picked the program because he “wanted to escape the small town.”
In school, “we were buds, but we weren’t that close,” Yabu recalls. A few years after graduation, they serendipitously ran into each other on the street and decided to share an office. “We hadn’t seen each other for three years,” Yabu says, “but we were both looking for studio space. I had seen one that I really liked, but it was too big and I couldn’t afford it alone.”
After a year of informally helping each other on their separate projects, Yabu and Pushelberg decided to officially combined forces. “We ended up helping each other with design and then meeting each others’ deadlines,” Yabu says. “The synergy worked and our design philosophy and aesthetic were so dead-on similar that it made sense to join our businesses together.”
In the early days of Yabu Pushelberg, “we started out at the very bottom,” Pushelberg remembers. “We really didn’t have a lot of contacts, so we would design anything, from somebody’s coffee shop to dry cleaning depots. Anything we could find.”
They scored their first major project in 1984: Club Monaco’s debut store in the company’s hometown of Toronto. “We helped come up with the concept,” Yabu says. Pushelberg recalls: “The [founder] Joe [Mimran] had seen Muji in Japan — Muji at that time was just in Japan — so he was designing basic clothes. The inspiration for the [store] environments was a piece of kraft paper, and all the fixtures were very simple.”
“It was through those simple stores that we kind of leapfrogged,” Pushelberg continues. “We built them in Japan and Korea — and then we ended up doing a lot of work in Asia.”
For the first ten years of Yabu Pushelberg’s existence, “we had certain little breaks here and there, but we never really made a lot of money,” Pushelberg says. “We sort of had a devil-may-care attitude,” Yabu notes. “We weren’t thinking about it as a viable business, we just wanted to have fun and see how far we could push our design taste.”
At the end of the decade, “there was a catharsis when a recession [hit] and we almost lost everything,” Pushelberg says. “We had to get serious about it, make sure it was a more solid practice.”
“By the 1990s, we started to roll, but it was a step-by-step progression,” Pushelberg notes. Then, Bergdorf Goodman came calling in 1999 — and gave the firm its first luxury fashion project: transforming the basement of its Fifth Avenue flagship into a beauty floor, a move that was initially met with skepticism. But, Yabu points out, “[when] you go back to it today, they didn’t change it. It’s still there.”
The project helped prompt the duo to open a studio in New York. “Toronto’s a great place to start, but it’s not a great place to end,” Pushelberg says. “And we were doing about half our work outside of Canada at that point. From a business standpoint, it wasn’t the smartest thing to do at the time, but it did change the perception of who we are to the world.”
These days, the duo splits their time evenly between the two offices. “There are 45 people in New York and there are another 70 or 80 in Toronto,” Pushelberg says. “We migrate between the two cities at least once a week.”
In fact, Pushelberg travels a lot. “I’ve been to Asia ten times this year; I’ve been to Brazil twice; I’ve been to Europe six times. I’ve been around the world four times. I’ve got two more trips to Asia, one more trip around the world, and I’m going here and back to Brazil two more times.” Indeed, It’s Pushelberg who “gets first-hand information from the client — he goes and meets them initially,” Yabu says. “I don’t actually meet the clients until later, so Glenn is the eyes, ears, nose and face of the client to us.”
Together, both men lead the company’s design teams. “I feel like a doctor sometimes — a doctor of design,” Yabu says. “Our studio is broken down into teams of 8 to 12 designers and each team has a meeting space, so I usually go from meeting space to meeting space like a doctor going from one patient to the next patient. Glenn’s doing the same thing, reviewing the design and helping the design come along and progress.”
The firm is known for its employment of artists and craftsmen (the latter a nod to Yabu’s father’s occupation) and a timeless, trend-averse aesthetic. “When customers aren’t aware of when [something] was built — recently, or ten years ago — I like that,” Yabu says. “Some people want to make the big, bombastic money shot when you open the door. But then there’s the big flameout, where there’s huge media attention and then people forget about it. It’s almost like fast food — they’re on to the next thing. Our sensibility is a bit more nuanced and layered. You might not catch all the details and the elements on your first visit, but when you come back for a subsequent visit you might think, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t see that last time.’ It starts to build up — I like that idea that it’s not quickly consumed.”
Indeed, with their retail projects, the firm is careful to strike a balance between highlighting product and “making [the shopping environment] something compelling and memorable,” Pushelberg says. “As a retail environment, it’s supposed to support the product, so if it’s too overwrought, you kind of lose the point. It doesn’t have to be about the most expensive materials on the walls. At some point, it’s distracting — it kind of says that the product isn’t really as good as it’s supposed to be because we need to reinforce it through the environment.”
Storytelling, too, is key to the Yabu Pushelberg design process. “It’s really important to give every project a voice,” Pushelberg says. Thus, the duo often create elaborate fictional characters to help inform, guide and communicate their projects. A recent one for a restaurant in The Peninsula hotel, for instance, involved an Upper East Side-born woman named Chloe, who moved downtown to go to New York University before returning uptown and bringing her newfound, edgier values with her. “It’s good for the clients, because it helps them focus and objectifies the process,” Pushelberg explains. “[It’s] also [good] for our internal teams — it’s sort of just, here’s what we’re designing to, here are the objectives, in an interesting way. I mean, if you’re designing a restaurant for Jean-Georges, there’s a real person there; [with retail] you usually don’t have [an embodiment of the] client.”
Storytelling and romance is also increasingly important to a compelling brick-and-mortar store experience in today’s digital age, Pushelberg says. “The store has to be more special. Shopping is many people’s form of entertainment and socialising, so [stores] need to become not just where you can buy a sweater, but where you can have a place for lunch or you can have a coffee or somebody can look after your bags or your clothes. It’s not just about the racks of clothing. And I think that’s the future.”
So what advice does the duo have to impart for aspiring retail designers?
“It’s important as a designer to lead,” says Pushelberg, while Yabu adds: “Don’t get trampled over by the client, because the client isn’t always right.”
“At the end of the day, to be successful, you have to truly believe in what you’re doing and you have to lead it,” Pushelberg continues. “We wait our time to find the right partnerships.”