Yves Béhar On The Spot

Yves Béhar, founder of San Francisco design agency Fuseproject, began creating products at the age of 15, when he invented a windsurfing board to work on snow. “I wanted to create ways to live my passions any time of the year,” says the Swiss-born 38-year-old. His vision has since helped contemporize Birkenstocks, re-invent Swarovski crystal, and express BMW Mini as a lifestyle, with a product line of luggage, watches, shoes and apparel. The shop, which recently sold a minority equity stake to Crispin Porter + Bogusky, is currently working on new ways to package cereal and medicine. —Q. Why sell part of Fuseproject to CP+B?

A. We’ve worked with them on Mini and Burger King. Their unconventional approach has really allowed us to do our best work. They are very much regarded as a breakout creative shop, unique in their field. We are regarded in the same way in design. Since we very much feel the message of a company can be bottled into a product, we feel we’ll be able to do great projects with them, especially.

How often do you work with ad agencies?

Typically, the product lands on some creative at some ad meeting, and people go, ‘We want to say this this and this about the product,’ and we’ll come up with an advertising campaign for it. But fundamentally, does the product really say that? Was the product built for the message that is being cooked up in that room? I would say, 98 percent of the time in the product development process, no thought was given to what the product is going to say and what the message is going to be. We want to be in the situation where the message and the product are conceived at the same time.

What does the CP+B alliance bring you?

This convergence of branding product, communication and advertising. It gives us the opportunity to do it now. I don’t see it affecting our day-to-day very much. What it will change is this ability to always come early on a project before the product or advertising campaign has been conceived. The tricky part about product is that it takes two to four years to get done, whereas advertising can be done quite quickly. So we can bring to the table realistic expectations of what can truly be done.

Is the ad business recognizing design?

I don’t think business in general has looked at design in a strategic way in a long time. I think business and advertising have forgotten that design [has been] a tool for communication in the last twenty years of American industrialization. Apple is the exception. They are certainly showing the way. But on a whole, there isn’t great strategic thinking there. But we could be at the start of a resurgence. It’s important that it be done with great ideas at the center of these efforts and not just a superficial, let’s-put-some-shiny-objects-out-there type of approach.

How do you balance your artistic and commercial endeavors?

We do very commercial, consumer-oriented projects, but we also believe in participating in culture. We do a lot of projects for museums, galleries, installations. We really feel that whether you are a large business or a small design firm like ours, you need to participate in culture in order to participate in the world of commerce as well. You need to touch people on an emotional level. What triggers people’s interest and passion isn’t commerce; it isn’t more product. In fact, it’s been statistically confirmed: People don’t want any more product, they don’t want more stuff. They want new experiences.

You’ve said building brands through product design is more effective than TV. Why?

The product is by far the first layer of that experience. You can put as much advertising as you want that such and such car is revolutionary, but I’m no fool. If it’s using the same door handles and doesn’t give me a new experience, then it’s not revolutionary. There is so much advertising, so much product push that people will believe what they touch … what they experience.

Who’s influenced you the most creatively?

Some of the leaders in fashion and architecture, sculpture. People like Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons) in fashion, Achille Castiglioni in design, people who have transformed how their field is seen. I come from two cultures. My father is Turkish and my mother is German, and I grew up in Switzerland. The two cultures, the Ottoman, the warm intricacies of that culture, mixed in with the dogmatic Swiss approach. It’s wanting to resolve something really, really well, as well as leave a deep emotional question. In product design, you need to resolve a lot of hard problems, but I try to resolve those problems along a story.

What was your smartest business decision?

Starting my own company. Second one was to not handle the business day-to-day myself. Third, to believe in collaboration.

Anyone you’re dying to work with?

What’s most irritating to me is the poor state of air travel. I would love to intervene and do something about the experiences that we put people through, the ones you can’t walk away from. Since they have an audience literally captive, the airline industry would benefit from better ideas.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I have this interesting duality where on the one hand I’m very comfortable in Paris, Milan, New York, where I am all the time for creative meetings. I’m in between the love of the urban life and then being on top of a mountain or riding some big wave. San Francisco has the advantage of offering you both.