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How Yabu Pushelberg conquered the design world with cinematic beauty

Legendary Canadian designers Glenn Pushelberg and George Yabu, founders of the Toronto and New York-based Yabu Pushelberg studio, speak to Effect Magazine about their unmistakable aesthetic and the design philosophy that continues to drive them

To understand why Yabu Pushelberg are held in such high esteem, just step into La Samaritaine in Paris, where the grande dame of department stores has been re-imagined as a jaw-droppingly stylish masterclass in interior and architectural design – design that seduces, not screams. It’s doubtless the muse of thousands of Instagram images, yet the experience will exceed every one of them.

A deeper dive into the work of the Canadian duo reveals decades of work at the highest levels – from Four Seasons hotels to furniture and lighting that stands among the mid-century greats. Their work has an uncompromising aesthetic edge that reveals itself whether though a retail, residential or hotel project, and it’s notable that their most recent work – including the Moxy and AC hotels in LA – show a team in their fifth decade who are still experimenting and innovating like new breakthrough artists. Effect Magazine sat down with Glenn Pushelberg and George Yabu to learn more about the acclaimed international design studio and to hear what’s next.

How did your partnership begin?
Glenn Pushelberg: George and I founded our practice 43 years ago, and today we remain woven into the day-to-day of the studio’s spirit and creativity. We met at university but it wasn’t until after we graduated and ran into one another on the street that we connected. We were both looking for studio space and did the logical thing of renting a place together. One day we were helping one another complete a drawing for a project and when we met in the middle, it looked like it was completed by one person. That was a defining, albeit clichéd, moment for us as partners both in work and in life.

How would you describe your aesthetic style?
GP: Exclusive and informal, refined and casual, with elegant and welcoming shapes. We are inspired by the places we go and the people we meet, the nature and the art that surrounds us, and the energy of our studio with an understated yet elegant design aesthetic. We’ve found resilience by remaining true to who we are and finding patrons who genuinely appreciate the art and creative process of design.

How would you describe your design philosophy?
GP: We always start with a story. The narrative behind each of our projects serves to shape every layer of design, from initial concept to opening.

Glenn Pushelberg and George Yabu, founders of Yabu Pushelberg, pictured in Effect Magazine
Glenn Pushelberg and George Yabu, founders of Yabu Pushelberg

George Yabu: We design things to spark joy, which comes in a variety of forms for us. With product, we are resolving a problem, likely one we have come across in an interior project. Through interiors, we can pinpoint what is lacking, what could be refined so we can make it better, and what has yet to exist. All our work sits at the same table and creates this ecosystem of thinking that you can see across our work. They all feed into making the other better.

GP: It is all about people. How they choose to live their lives and experience the world. That is the part that keeps us going and to explore how we can brighten their lives.

How did you approached your Samaritaine project, and what were the challenges?
GP: We were lucky because we had this beautiful historical frame that we worked from to imagine a contemporary interior. In retail you have to be brave enough to create or it just becomes nothing. A retail store should be explorable, with highs and lows. La Samaritaine is five storeys high, so it’s a matrix and you have to keep the customer engaged. It’s important to understand the space from their point of view, so there’s no fatigue.

The muse here was le flâneur, the wanderer of Paris. There’s a clear sense of architecture and a balance between the old and the new that really works in a very sensitive way. It’s not bombastic. The aisles aren’t deep and the floor plates are very shallow, creating an intimate connection with the product and the majesty of the building. You feel comfortable in the modernity of the stage setting around you.

We design things to spark joy

George Yabu, co-founder of Yabu Pushelberg

GY: In retail today, it’s trendy to create ‘Instagram moments,’ which we avoid in our approach. The star of the environment should always be the architecture. Creating one single moment is too much like instant noodles or fast food. It’s not responsible and it’s too obvious. At some point you learn when using restraint is necessary. In this circumstance we wanted to exalt the beauty of what is essentially a retail temple with a point of view.

Your latest Moxy and AC hotel projects in LA are some of your freshest and most immersive work to date. What was it about these projects that particularly spoke to you?
GP: Moxy Hotels have a loose and playful energy while DTLA AC is tailored and refined. They have their own unique personalities yet are tethered together. One responds to the extravert and the other responds to the introvert.

Evoking the iconoclastic romance and adventurous spirit of the California desert was the starting basis for Moxy DTLA. Inspired in part by Easy Rider, the cult 1969 film that elevated the counterculture and celebrated the great American road trip, the hotel’s interiors are sexy, irreverent and playful, with references to biker culture, desert reptiles, and the gritty romance of the open road.

In contrast, the interiors for AC Hotel DTLA resemble an artist’s loft, and bring the Spanish roots of the AC Hotel brand into conversation with the Latin heritage of Los Angeles. Warm, light-filled public spaces are contemporary and welcoming, while upscale, serene guest rooms provide a generously sized sanctuary for work or relaxation.

What’s next for Yabu Pushelberg?
GP: It is an exciting time for us! The coming year will be a big one: Aman Tokyo residences will be opening soon, and we have an array of brand experiences opening which we cannot name just yet. Our first resort project, Park Hyatt Los Cabos, will be launching in 2024, an F&B space in Greece…. In between, we have some beautiful product collections that will be released with cc-tapis, quilts we designed for Christopher Farr, Henge, and more.

Read more: Yabu Pushelberg | Interior Designers I Interiors | Vintage | Design | Mid-Century | Canada | New York | Hotels