June 1, 2006
All About Yves
With a new lamp for Herman Miller—and an emerging role as an educator—Yves Béhar brings his story-driven approach to the mainstream.
In 1998 San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood was ground zero of the dot-com revolution. Millionaires were minted daily, brand was the buzzword, and virtual was the new real. Setting up shop in the midst of that heady optimistic mix was Fuseproject, a company that made, of all things, products. “It was very hard to be a designer at that time,” says Yves Béhar, who started the firm after stints at two other Bay Area design houses, Frog and Lunar. “You would go to these dot-com events and try to engage people in what you do, and they’d look at you like, ‘You’re making things? Are you nuts? That’s not where the world is going, dude!’” He laughs. “As an object maker, as a maker of physical experiences, I wondered for half a second if my craft was going to disappear.”
But as the millennium turned and boom became bust, one by one the Internet companies closed their doors and sold off their Aeron chairs. By 2003, Béhar says, Fuseproject was left with only two South Park neighbors—an architect/fabricator and a sheet-metal shop. Still, being immersed in the dot-com world brought a powerful lesson into focus for the 39-year-old Swiss-Turkish designer: the emotional connection between person and product is paramount. Béhar has created a mini-empire by performing that translation for larger companies, who seek him out for his combination of branding, strategy, and product development. Along the way he has earned a reputation as the design world’s master storyteller, with a philosophy that’s more accessible than Bruce Mau’s and a mass sensibility less whimsical than that of Michael Graves.
One of the most firmly held beliefs of the dot-com age was that of the first-mover advantage: be the earliest entrant in any market and you effectively block out the competition. Other designers may marry content and form, but, Béhar explains, “I said it first. In 1999 I said, ‘Design brings stories to life,’ and I don’t think there were a lot of people talking about narrative then, at least not in industrial design.” Since his pronouncement Fuseproject has used this approach to design a line of clothing and accessories for MINI; revamps of the Birkenstock shoe and HP’s Pavilion line; a Transformer laptop for Toshiba; the noise-canceling Jawbone headset for Aliph; and a Teflon-coated cashmere sweater. The firm has also been the subject of two exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
What are the stories Béhar tells? Does a shoe have a narrative? At Fuseproject telling a product’s story is similar to the way an actor builds a character. With the Footprints line—which they developed for Birkenstock in 2003—the story of the hippie icon’s commitment to the earth was literally embedded in the shoes. Stitched modern uppers helped to update the company’s look, but Béhar carved a little window into each sole to show that they’re still made of latex and recycled cork. Sometimes the story is less literal. With Philou, a line of hair products for teens, Béhar started off with the image of growth—teens growing up, changing in voice and appearance—which led to a leaning egg-shaped package that looks like it’s mid growth spurt. The final storytelling component, the thing that makes the tale worth telling, Béhar says, “is how people intuitively understand this story and complete it with their experience of the product.”
Impressed with this process, Herman Miller—the furniture company based in Michigan that gave birth to the cubicle, the Aeron chair, and generations of Eames lovers—sought out Béhar when it was looking for an outside voice to help develop a new lighting concept. “We had lighting in the past,” says Marc Gierz, the company’s concept development manager, “the Nelson stuff, the Bubble lamp—but in the recent past none of our innovations were in lighting.”
The 83-year-old company prides itself on never having employed an in-house industrial designer. Instead various research teams study everything from color trends and new materials to more abstract issues, taking the George Nelson dictum “Design is a response to social change” to heart. “We don’t want designers living in Zeeland, Michigan, trying to understand the rest of the world,” explains Gerb Kingma, a company lifer who serves as senior manager of customer experience.
Like the illustrious designers of Herman Miller’s past, Béhar brings together innovation, social responsibility, and a willingness to design something that is within the company’s style language. His quiet, open good looks—no self-consciously geeky eyeglasses here—don’t hurt either. In fact the Herman Miller team originally wanted to use his image in the marketing campaign for the lamp, a suggestion Béhar nixed.
With the lighting project, Herman Miller hoped to create a “new innovation” story. “What I wanted,” Béhar says, “was to give somebody the ability to modulate light and to allow the light to consider the different emotional needs that the human would have.” It is the synthesis between the lighting we love and the lighting we need, both the warmth of the candle and the efficiency of the bulb. His creation, named Leaf, can provide both—a first in lighting design.
It sounds so simple, so intuitive, that it’s almost hard to believe all of our lamps don’t do that. But when Béhar and Gierz first dreamed up the idea four and a half years ago, the technology didn’t quite exist. They came up with a series of concept lights—experimenting with fluorescents, halogen, and cold cathodes—but the designs needed work and were never put into production because of an industry-wide economic downturn. The delay turned out to be providential—and will doubtless become part of the lamp’s lore, just as tales of the Aeron chair’s initial rejection by focus groups have now assumed almost biblical import within the company. As Béhar and Herman Miller waited out the brief depression, LED lighting technology advanced, attracting Béhar’s attention. Early LEDs were red, but by 2004 chip makers had gone down the color spectrum until they figured out how to produce white light from a single diode rather than from a combination of colors. At that point the team brought in an engineering group, Gecko, and spent as much time and money working on the internal technology as they did on the exterior form. “We had to develop it as if it was kind of a start-up,” Béhar says. “I think that makes it a uniquely Silicon Valley project because it mixes technology with consumer products.”
Almost all of the projects that Béhar’s 28-person firm takes on require a level of technological innovation that sets them apart. The San Francisco setting, Béhar says, means that innovation and technology are almost expected. “I can apply something that probably every European designer thinks of—this emotional connection, designing from the inside out, creating great space—but I can push it further by using technology as an asset rather than a constraint.” According to Gierz, other lighting designers using LED technology were still putting it into traditional fixtures, but by working to create their own version of the LED chip “we could leverage the technology and change the form.”
Leaf is a sculptural-looking creation made of two slim torqued aluminum parts. The arm is anchored by a solid disk containing a PC board; atop it are controls similar to the iPod’s touch wheel. Slide your finger along the edge one way and the light glows golden; slide it the other way and the lamp emits the sort of pure white light that graphic designers need to run color tests. (In technical terms, it goes from 5500 to 2500 Calvin on the heat spectrum.) The dimmer works the same way; and a tap at the center, right on the backlit Herman Miller logo, turns the light on and off.
A grid of LEDs is fixed onto the head of the light. Heat—the number-one problem with using LED technology—is dissipated using a series of “chimneys,” little holes that allow it to escape. A three-layer heat sink—backed by copper and aluminum—keeps the temperature below a manageable 60 degrees Celsius. The only other high-design LED light currently on the market uses a fan as a cooling mechanism. “We think of this as a tech product,” Gierz says, “so we can’t wait and take a year to plan out a launch.”
This rush to production—the light debuted at ICFF in May—meant that when I visited him three months before the launch, Béhar was buried under marketing concerns. Fuseproject had a hand in the Web site, the packaging, the photography, and even the launch party. “It’s not because I’m a power freak,” Béhar says. “It’s because I got used to it. Every project we’ve done, I’m always asked to go all the way through.” In other words, when you’re telling a story, it’s not complete without an ending.
For many, determining whether a consumer product story has a happy or sad ending comes from a glance at its sales figures. Béhar’s are not stellar. “Design is a process you have to engage in,” he explains. “Sometimes designers sell well, sometimes they don’t. But when done right, it always leads the company to the next step, to the next thing you can or should do.
“The Jawbone headset, for example, isn’t doing great in sales,” he continues, “but because of its impact, because they crammed this great technology into a lifestyle product, it’s suddenly creating all these avenues.” He explains that Aliph is producing two new versions using Skype, software that enables Internet-based phone calls, and Bluetooth technology. Béhar points to other examples in the industry, like the Nike Shox. The shoe barely sold at all in its first few months; but after Nike did a few rounds of redesign, sales boomed. Even the almighty iPod didn’t catch on immediately, Béhar recalls; but the new Nano sold a million units in its first 17 days on the market.
Not long after the designer’s defense of poor sales numbers—in a moment so perfect that it should have been scripted—Alex Asseily, cofounder of Aliph, came bounding into the office, hugging Béhar and shouting, “Congratulations!” A large wireless company had just decided to pick up the Jawbone headset—a virtual guarantee that sales figures would jump.
Béhar got his start as a designer for the most elemental of storytelling forms: the theater. “The only thing I was good at in school was writing—not drawing—and doing work in the theater.” He did costume and stage design for small productions in his native Switzerland. “[On stage] it’s the content that always drives the style,” he says. “There’s more humility in the theater because you’re subservient to the text.”
That early training, the emphasis of content over style, is apparent in all of Fuseproject’s designs. They’re clean; they’re memorable. They feel smart, as if they have a life beyond the moment of use. But there’s no obvious style signature, nothing that throws out its arms and shouts, “Yves!”
“Our style is the ideas we bring to the table and the way we approach those ideas,” Béhar says. With Leaf, Herman Miller was trying to create “the Aeron of lamps” with a design that conveyed something specific about the product. The aluminum was selected for its ability to dissipate heat; the stamping process, which helped determine the form, was chosen for its relative lack of waste and its lower cost. “It’s simple,” Béhar says. “There’s no enclosure, no counterweight, no mechanics. This is like a candle; it’s an efficient light.”
Yet according to Gierz, it’s also “compelling in a way that makes you want to touch and understand it. It reinforces Herman Miller’s tech side and its sculptural side, but not in a retro PT Cruiser kind of way. There’s an honesty of materials and form.”
These days South Park is starting to bounce back. There’s a new generation of dot-coms, wiser and less likely to run out and buy an office’s worth of Aeron chairs at the first flush of venture-capital cash. But seven years after its precarious start in that neighborhood, Fuseproject has moved to a brand-new office south of San Francisco’s financial district, right next door to the Mexican consulate. While the firm was settling in, Béhar was appointed head of the industrial design department at the California College of the Arts (CCA), where he taught for six years before taking a recent three-year hiatus. The new role and the move have been instrumental in shifting and refining his approach. No longer just the young head of a gutsy start-up, Béhar sees his role at CCA as “more a thinker and an enabler” than the one who has to come up with all the ideas. For the first time in the school’s history, a group of students exhibited projects at Milan’s Salone del Mobile (next to Andrée Putman), thanks to a collaboration Béhar set up with Gaia & Gino. He says he is trying to train the students to be involved in all aspects of object making, to instill a global sensibility, to teach them to be good storytellers.
Starting with a narrative, Béhar says, “gives a completely different meaning to the work. A lot of people think it’s bullshit, but that’s how I do the work. I can’t go back. I have a story to tell pretty much about everything I do. That’s where I find meaning. Without it, it would be just a job.”