At the height of influence, Yabu Pushelberg stay true to their roots

Through all the global success, the partners have stayed grounded.

Certainly among the most vibrant feathers in this country’s creative cap, Canada’s George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg have made it their business to exercise restraint as they toiled to develop their technical expertise and hone their striking creative aesthetic. Now, 40 years later, Yabu Pushelberg is arguably one of the most revered and in-demand design firms on the international stage, with untold residences, retail spaces and luxury hotels, to its credit.

Yabu and Pushelberg met while studying interior design at Ryerson University in the 1970s. By 1980, they’d discerned that two heads are better than one, and, as life partners, planted the seed for their small Toronto company that was destined to grow into a global design game changer. “Our DNA is Canadian,” states Yabu, across the lunch table at the duo’s glamourous Leslieville headquarters. “That helped us with a slow, continuous and constant rise in our work. We knew about these big flames that just sort of burn out and you never hear from the people again. We were very conscious of that and sort of pulled back.”

Pushelberg concurs. “We’re hardworking, hard-thinking… not just based on BS or marketing. We just keep moving and that creates a slower burn, rather than this quick burn out.” But Pushelberg is quick to point out that safety certainly doesn’t mean stagnation. “We’re always growing and changing,” he notes.

The couple reminisce about how The Power Plant contemporary art gallery asked them to do an installation about 20 years ago, but they declined, because they didn’t feel they had the chops yet. “In fashion, it happens very quickly, season by season, and you have to get it out there fast, fast, fast,” notes Yabu. “But in architecture it’s different. Think of Frank Gehry. He turned 66 when he was at his apex. So, it takes a long time. You have to hone your craft, develop your expertise.”

Yabu and Pushelberg are themselves now 66—but judging by their youthful demeanor and effervescent charm, they’re very much in touch with their inner adolescents and unlikely to have reached their apex just yet. As a matter of fact, their newest baby is an accessible-design collection of home products that oozes simple elegance, from coffee cups to tables and towels, called Departo. The line will eventually include hats, clothes, bicycles and maybe even their own Departo hotels, and is sold online and at various pop-up shops, with more permanent stores to come.

“For years, we were doing all these five-star brands, like the Four Seasons and the St. Regis, and it was becoming a formula, too easy,” admits Pushelberg. “So now we’re doing the ultra high-end brands and creating them. But on the other hand, we’ve also done these micro-hotel projects, like New York City’s Moxy, with 100- or 150-square-foot rooms, and we’ve been designing the furniture for these rooms. But they’re also really interesting projects, because they have very limited budgets with high design principles. And from those projects—150-square-foot hotel rooms—we thought, okay, let’s make collapsible, foldable furniture pieces that you hang on the walls and bring down when you need them so the room feels more spacious. And then we looked at this stuff and thought it had legs,” Pushelberg continues. They teamed up with a Japanese partner with factories in China, and the new affordable brand was born.

Yabu Pushelberg’s foray into actual product design began a decade ago. Adamant about trying to make interiors work better, they started hiring industrial designers to design furniture. After all, there was a dearth of Canadian industrial designers and great schools, and very few places for  them to go. “So, we kept growing the team, and now we have about nine or 10 people in New York and Toronto and we’re designing for the biggest companies on earth,” says Pushelberg, proudly. “We’re even designing faucets and sinks and beautiful kitchens that we’re putting into the Aman Hotel project in Tokyo.” The cogs kept turning and soon Yabu Pushelberg began hiring fabric designers as well. “And the patterns on the carpets got better and the fabrics got better. So now we’re doing custom fabrics and carpet programs for people.” Lighting designers came next. And now, the unstoppable team is masterminding entire buildings, even though they’re not licensed architects.

“We have a project in Singapore now,” says Pushelberg. “It’s kind of a new version of the famous Raffles Resort, on this little island. We’re doing the master planning, the architecture, the interiors, the uniforms, the whole guest experience. We have a more complete set of ideas, and this is what keeps us moving. It’s exciting and we’re learning and we’re teaching and we have this vast amount of experience.”

Now clients are coming to Yabu Pushelberg with entire chains of hotels, not sure how to reposition or program them. “So, we’re helping them as consultants with imaging and rebranding. That’s also exciting for us,” says Yabu. 

The eclectic variety of projects coming their way is really what ignites Yabu and Pushelberg’s enthusiasm. One of the jewels in their crown will be the private club that’s opening next year at the top of the Freedom Tower (also know as One World Trade Centre) for the presidents of the US and China to meet and greet senior diplomats. One can only imagine how fierce the international competition is for these weighty contracts. “We used to compete with a very high level of design, like the David Rockwells of the world,” says Yabu. “But now we’re competing against (famed British architectural designer) Norman Foster. At that rarified level, there are fewer jobs, which we prefer. We prefer to do fewer interiors now.”

“You do have to think harder,” adds Pushelberg, “because the challenges are greater.”

With only two active projects here in Canada out of their 40 active projects around the world, Yabu and Pushelberg still remain proudly Canadian. Out of approximately 125 employees, two-thirds of their staff is based in Toronto, with the other third located in New York. And while the company’s two visionaries seem to spend most of their time on airplanes, they do relish their three disparate personal nests—a Toronto house nestled in Bennington Heights, backing onto a ravine; a 4,000-square-foot space on the second floor of a Richard Meier building in New York’s West Village (which they call a “modern, horizontal home);” and their most beloved beachside respite between Montauk and East Hampton, New York, with doors that open up and present a panoramic view of the ocean. “It’s our kind of barefoot luxury,” explains Yabu.

It’s precisely this kind of “barefoot luxury” that’s driving a lot of Yabu Pushelberg’s design aesthetic these days. “At the high end of design, where you have these super luxury, very rarified clients, we’ve kind of gone from layers to more ‘high humble,’” Pushelberg explains. “Make sure it’s all high-quality, that the scale and proportion of things can be grand and spacious, because space is luxury, and the attention to detail and ease of use is luxury, and the impact through colour and pattern is kind of more distilled.”

“Our aesthetic is more straightforward,” pipes in Yabu. “It’s more straightforward. It’s luxurious, but not according to the old notions.” The key here is design that is never ostentatious. “And no ‘shiny shiny,’” Yabu elaborates, “with marble and gilt and all that detail. But it still has that powerful impact, like using solid timber in one piece.”

 “We have a bunch of projects for Aman resorts, and we think that a multimillionaire or billionaire has seen everything and done it all,” says Pushelberg. “All they want to do is go to a tropical forest, take most of their clothes off, and have the most comfort possible—especially this new generation. It’s a kind of barefoot luxury…. They don’t need more of what they get every day, which is a lot of everything.”

Redefining luxury is on everyone’s mind these days, and as we move away from this age of excess, a kind of simplicity and purity is creeping into the fray. “That’s why our furniture works so well,” says Yabu. “It’s not designed by an architect or interior designer. It’s gone beyond set design. You can’t fake it at that level. Everything has to be done to a T. I knew if we going to go into designing a sofa, it had to be the best engineered sofa, using the best Italian workmanship. We were asked to design a sofa 10 years ago, but we said we weren’t ready. So, our design aesthetic hasn’t really changed, but we’re just trying to get closer to a qualitative kind of perfection. Everybody has a different definition of perfection—but as for ours—we’ll never achieve it, but the goal is to get there in a straight and consistent line and not take a shortcut. We’ve never veered from our roots in Toronto. We always had that thought of just staying the course. Our aesthetic hasn’t changed, it’s just become refined.”

Of course, the other big conversation today is about sustainability. Yabu and Pushelberg are of the opinion that less really is more, and that great design should not be disposable. That is definitely at the core of their new Departo line. “If I buy that beautifully designed coffee cup, or a well-designed piece of furniture, why would I ever throw it away?” asks Pushelberg. “Instead of this notion about getting something cheap and cheerful until you can afford something better, we’re giving great design at an affordable price. And when we want to keep it, when we want it in our homes, that’s the test.”

But success can be an intensely delicate balancing act. And picking and choosing directions to pour one’s passions into can sometimes be overwhelming, especially when you don’t want to lose your momentum. “We’re trying to reinvent ourselves to keep relevant and maintain our curiosity,” says Yabu. “We want to wake up and still have a sense of wonder about what we’re going to discover or decide to do.”

“Without bragging,” continues Pushelberg, “do you know what our biggest problem is right now? The buffet table is way too huge. There are so many opportunities.”

But both Yabu and Pushelberg are very grateful that the world is their oyster. And that they found each other at such an early stage of their careers. “We’re lucky we have the same aesthetic and drive and passion,” opines Yabu. And Pushelberg adds, with a twinkle in his eye, “Two makes it so much easier.”

When it comes to dishing out practical advice as to how we can create our own ideal spaces, Yabu and Pushelberg urge us to be true to ourselves, because there’s almost too much interior design around these days, too many options. “It starts by asking yourself what is your emotional self and what gives you peace, serenity, happiness and joy?” says Pushelberg. “And how do you emotionally translate that? Forget about what the trappings are and what they represent to other people. What brings you emotional joy? Is it a big kitchen, ’cuz that’s the heart of the home? Is it a big place with a fireplace that you feel good about? Is it looking out at nature? Is it the cocoon of a bedroom? What gives you happiness? And then if you go to the root of what you want, you forget about whether you’ve made the right decision. Nobody cares! If you just think about what gives you and the ones around you happiness, if you start there, you’ll find your solution.”

We’ve figured out not to get attached to things,” says Yabu. “We love beautiful things. But we’ve trained our brains to experience it and enjoy it while you have it but when it’s gone, don’t be morose about it. It’s just a thing, an inanimate object. People and relationships and dynamics are more important and that’s what keeps you living and gives you longevity.”