Philanthropy

It’s not all about Yves

By integrating not-for-profit projects into a flourishing design practice, Yves Behar is making the world a better place one gorgeous object at a time, says Helen Chislett.

May 11 2010
Helen Chislett

At this year’s highly influential Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, Fuseproject founder Yves Behar unveiled his fourth collaboration with Swarovski, a radical new interpretation of the crystal chandelier. Instead of a gigantic, glittering structure, visitors were introduced to the idea of sustainable crystal – a design oxymoron. Called Amplify, Behar’s design is an ingeniously simple concept that uses LED lights to reflect and magnify the effects of a single crystal within an outer covering of paper. The lights are flat-packed, a far cry from Swarovski’s usual glitzy image. As Behar explains, “The idea was to have a minimal amount of materials and use the smallest amount of energy, but still to express the beauty of crystal.” It is a notion that illustrates Behar’s own design philosophy perfectly, marrying as it does function with fun, sustainability with sophistication.

At the age of 42, Yves Behar has made the transition from young gun to design hero for a whole new generation. He has received more than 150 awards from organisations worldwide and his work is in the permanent collections of museums such as MoMA, the Munich Museum of Applied Arts and the Centre Pompidou. At London’s Design Museum right now, in the Sustainable Futures exhibition (till September 5), you will find a Fuseproject collaboration with Puma on show – an unsexy but potentially world-changing solution to the wasteful shoe box in the form of a reusable bag. Last year, Behar was invited to speak at the World Economic Forum at Davos, participating in three debates about what design means and can achieve. “I think there is a recognition that design is central to finding urgent solutions to some of the problems we face,” he says. “If anything, the economic crisis is accelerating those efforts, which I find cause for optimism.”

The range and diversity of Fuseproject designs is at first bewildering: underwear, motorbikes, phone headsets, lighting, furniture, watches, corporate identities, laptops, eyewear, even (ahem) vibrators and the official condom of New York City. A month before Amplify was unveiled in Milan, Behar was in Basel for the launch of his latest watch design, Vue, a witty and elegant collaboration with Issey Miyake for Seiko Instruments (from £309, available from September). Its most unusual feature is that only the current number is shown; as one hour fades away another one appears. “Why do I need to see all 12 numbers when only one is needed?” he asks. “The way the previous hour slowly fades from view as the next one comes into view is a reminder of time just passed and the surprises that still lie ahead.”

This ability to literally see things differently is at the core of Behar’s success. He is a designer of extraordinary innovation and inspiration, and he applies the same gifts to the way he runs Fuseproject. His business model is far from conventional, for built into its core are highly principled ideals that go far beyond the usual lip service many companies pay to eco and social awareness. Although he has undertaken many fruitful and profitable collaborations, Behar is also a champion of not-for-profit work, taking on significant projects that require thousands of man hours with no monetary reward other than basic expenses.

It would be easy to dismiss him simply as a liberal do-gooder, a West Coast relic of hippiedom – he fits the bill physically with his mane of curly hair and love of denim – but it would be a mistake, underestimating his power to force change. To Behar, it is obvious why designers should strive to make the world a better place: because they can. “Design is under-utilised in social causes, but there is a huge opportunity for design to make things cheaper or more efficient or more readily adopted. Design is not just about making new things, it is about showing what the future can be, challenging the status quo. I see it as a bridge to a world of hope and possibilities.”

The most notable example of Fuseproject’s not-for-profit success is Behar’s involvement with One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a massively ambitious initiative by renowned computer scientist Nicholas Negroponte to produce inexpensive, durable but technologically state-of-the-art laptops for distribution to the world’s poorest children. Negroponte had presented the concept to the United Nations and won the support of secretary-general Kofi Annan, but needed a designer with enough vision to make it a reality.

Behar leapt to the challenge, but admits that it was like moving mountains. “We had to do everything differently,” he says. “These laptops are not a hand-me-down from the developed world to the developing one; they are not less efficient, less technically advanced, less of something in any way. There is just as much design in this laptop as in a very expensive one – arguably more.”

Each OLPC XO laptop costs €100 to distribute to countries worldwide. It will have been received by two million children by the end of this year, and certain countries have shown a high commitment to the programme.

In Uruguay, for example, 100 per cent of children aged six to 12 now have an XO laptop – it has even appeared on a Uruguay stamp. Not that Behar considers his contribution over. The XO-3 is currently in development, a laptop in tablet form that is unbreakable, bendable and with many interactive features.

This year Behar is launching the next chapter in the not-for-profit arm of Fuseproject. In partnership with the Mexican government and renowned lens manufacturer Augen, he has designed a range of low-cost eyewear that will be given away to 400,000 children in Mexico each year as part of the See Better to Learn Better programme. The total cost of $10 per pair includes an eye test, prescription-made lenses and frame.

“This is the smartest investment that any government could make,” says Behar. “Half a million kids enter the education system in Mexico needing eyewear – that is half a million kids who will be in a better place with their education if they have glasses. But this isn’t just about designing low-cost eyewear, it is about changing stigma. We know the programme will only work if the kids love the glasses.”

From the first trials, it looks as though Behar has succeeded in that aim, with children choosing from five styles in a range of colours. And there is now interest in the programme from countries all over the world. “This is an idea that others can duplicate if they wish,” says Behar. “There is no intellectual property here and neither should there be. Part of what design can do is to show the way.”

Of course, Fuseproject does need to pay its bills – “to keep the lights on”, as Behar puts it – and most of its profits come from a mix of prestigious consultancy work for big-hitting names and what he terms “adventure” design. This is the work it undertakes with start-ups or very young businesses, helping them integrate design into their strategy from the beginning.

“We have stretched the idea of what design can do,” asserts Behar. “It is about the very foundation of a business, how it is going to interact with its customers, how it is going to treat the planet, how it is going to be socially involved and sustainable, and how it will achieve all of that with maximum efficiency.”

Behar is reinventing the very business model of design by thinking about the lasting impact of his work as a designer. He feels the current business model for design does not make sense: “Essentially, it is to finish the work as fast as you can and then move on to the next project. We need to find an incentive system that offers different rewards. The best work comes out of partnerships and relationships, so at Fuseproject we try to accompany businesses on an ongoing basis, providing long-term impact to what they do.”

Behar’s business partner, Mitch Pergola, is as creative as Behar when it comes to finding the right model for each company with whom they collaborate, aware that every penny counts to a start-up. Does he ever take issue with the not-for-profit work? Not according to Behar. “But he does make sure that we keep it under control and strike the right balance, that we are responsible. What you have to remember is that there are benefits to non-profit work. Both the XO and the eyewear have taught us so much, and that is expertise we can take to other profit-making ventures.”

Although he would not describe himself as a luxury designer per se, he enjoys the creative opportunities that projects such as the Swarovski light or Miyake watch offer. In 2009, the Mission One electric superbike ($68,995) that he designed for Mission Motors set the land-speed record for electric motorcycles at a top speed of 161mph – on a single charge of the high-energy lithium ion battery pack. Riders can also power-wheelie at 70mph, proving Behar’s conviction that you can have just as much fun on an electric motorbike as you can on the gas-guzzling variety. “It is important to make people realise that green does not necessarily mean less of something,” he says. “Mission One’s focus is on performance rather than overt references to eco-friendliness.”

You don’t need to be in Behar’s company long to realise that the connecting thread between Fuseproject’s many diverse undertakings is his strong belief that design should be seen as a power for human good. “Design is at the intersection of sustainability, social good, ergonomics, business and beauty,” he says. “Everyone is going to have to rethink how things are done, but doing things differently is key to human evolution.”

Behar was brought up in Lausanne, a place he describes as “like a room with four walls”. His German mother and Turkish father met in London before moving to Switzerland: “I suppose I took my passion for the discipline of how something is executed from my German side, and my love of expression and storytelling from the summers we spent each year in Istanbul.”

The eldest of three sporty boys, he remembers childhood as intensely competitive, “like being in a gladiator arena non-stop for 15 years”. At school in the 1970s, a liberal establishment by Swiss standards, Behar thought first of writing for a career and then began to draw his stories instead. By the time he was 16 he knew he wanted to be a designer as “it brought together the aesthetic, the conceptual, the philosophical and the storytelling. The complexity and the challenge of what it involves was also intriguing.”

Behar studied first in Europe and then in San Francisco, the city that has now been his home for nearly 20 years. He describes himself as a “triad personality” – German, Turkish, American – and has not yet taken formal American citizenship. His first language is French, and he speaks fluent English and Italian as well as excellent German. Of his move to San Francisco, where he has a house in Pacific Heights with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, he says, “I saw a whole new way for businesses to be created and the role that design could play in that. San Francisco is a mix of idealism and entrepreneurship, where everything seems do-able and possible.”

He founded Fuseproject in 1999, with a view to bringing together many different design disciplines under one umbrella: product, graphic, packaging, web, engineering. To begin with, however, it was just him and a laptop, but slowly the business began to take shape. The rapid expansion of the company is testament to its commercial success. There are now more than 30 staff in the San Francisco HQ and eight in the Manhattan studio that Behar shares with British architect David Adjaye.

Behar admits that for the first few years of Fuseproject’s life he had no social life at all, but he has learnt to take time out in the past four years. He lives with a girlfriend and shares custody of his three-year-old son, Sky, who spends half the week with him and who “confirms everything I think about when designing, because his instincts are pure instincts”. He has even found time to take up surfing in earnest.

If Behar seems too good to be true, then maybe that says more about us than about him. After all, San Francisco was the epicentre of the cultural evolution that gave us flower-powered hippies and everything they stood for, and Behar is at ease with the idea that he is part of that heritage. “They say Steve Jobs is a hippie reincarnate,” he muses, “so that label is fine by me.

“Designers are given a unique talent, which is to see what other people can’t see and to draw what other people can’t draw – to make ideas real. We are doing a lot more than, say, making eyewear available for half a million kids in Mexico – we are influencing others to use similar principles and to have similar goals. We want other people to start thinking that what we do is interesting and to encourage them to think this way.”

His ambition to reach out to the millions could be perceived as arrogant, but what turns him on is the euphoric experience of getting something back. “The fact is it is quite selfish, really,” he confesses. “When I wake up in the morning and find someone has e-mailed me pictures of kids wearing my eyewear or using the €100 laptop, that feels great. There is no better reward for a designer than people using your stuff.”