With projects for some of the world's biggest luxury brands under their belts, Toronto designers George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg fly the flag for Canadian design globally. In this interview, the duo discuss how their home city is now becoming an important creative hub, and their plans to help it along.
"There's something amazing happening in Toronto," said Pushelberg. "The music scene – Drake, The Weeknd – the culinary scene is happening; the design scene."
The city is also attracting international talent, according to the duo, who say their Toronto studio is currently employing designers "from around the world".
With the current political climate in the US, the duo said that the impression of Canada as a progressive, liberal country – helped by prime minister Justin Trudeau's recent endorsement of creativity – is proving particularly attractive for designers from south of its border.
"All of a sudden people are going 'I can't stay [in the US], let's check out what's in Toronto' and they realise there's stuff happening here," said Yabu.
"[Toronto] is a kinder, gentler place," added Pushelberg. "There's a lot of people migrating here."
While acknowledging that there is plenty already happening in their city – including a host of ambitious urban developments – the Canadian designers believe it still needs a little help to compete with other creative nexuses.
"We want to put Toronto on the map as a creative place to come to," said Yabu who, with his partner, plans to help establish the city as a design hub as a way to "give back" to Canada.
Up until now, said the duo, the country's design scene has struggled because home-grown talent has moved away to cities like New York, which offer better platforms for establishing careers. The lack of competitive projects that would attract highly desired studios like their own is another problem Canada has so far faced, they added.
"Canada is such a small market, so the opportunities for exploration and experimentation are far greater outside," said Yabu. "We don't have any work in Canada, only because there are so many great [projects] outside of Canada."
Yabu and Pushelberg met while studying at Toronto's Ryerson University during the 1970s, and established their eponymous studio in the city in 1980. The pair, who are also romantically linked, then set up a second office in New York in the 1990s to capitalise on the success of their interior for the Bergdorf Goodman store in the city.
The studio's understated yet elegant design aesthetic has become a go-to for luxury brands across the world, with projects including Four Seasons, Marriot and Park Hyatt hotels, and world-famous stores: from Paris' Printemps and Hong Kong's Lane Crawford, to New York's Barneys and Tiffany & Co.
By gaining international recognition, the pair credit themselves with boosting Canada's reputation as a place of design interest.
"The curiosity was never there about Canada," Yabu told Dezeen. "We made people ask 'what's going on in Canada?'"
Yabu Pushelberg was the guest of honour at this year's Interior Design Show Toronto, recognising their contribution to the country's design industry and making them the first Canadian designers to receive the accolade.
The design duo spoke to Dezeen during the four-day event, which took place 18-21 January 2018. Read on for an edited transcript from our interview below:
Eleanor Gibson: Congratulations on being picked as guest of honour at the Interior Design Show Toronto this year. Why do you think you were selected?
George Yabu: It's kind of significant for us to do this year, not only with it being the 20th year of the show being established, but we don't have any work in Canada and we want to give back. How do we give back when we haven't done anything in a long time?
Our last Canadian project was the the flagship of the Four Seasons hotel in Toronto. Ever since that we never had the opportunity, because there are so many great ones outside of Canada.
Only because Canada is such a small market so the opportunities for exploration and experimentation are far greater outside. But at the same time we still tell the world that we started from here, and so it was nice to be asked.
We don't have any work in Canada and we want to give back
Eleanor Gibson: Why is it that you aren't finding much work here?
George Yabu: The better projects are elsewhere, it's just by social economics that when you're New York-based as well as Toronto-based the budgets are greater. The philosophical outlook or project goals and problem solving are more complex and challenging [in New York].
Eleanor Gibson: So you are the first Canadian designers to receive this honour, is this a special moment for Canadian design?
George Yabu: Very special, because Canadians are hard on Canadians. Canadians are tough critics of our own peeps and so when you think of not just design, the world of architecture, industrial design, you think of other creative arts, like theatre, like acting, you have to leave.
A lot of great Canadian talent leaves the country to make their mark and then they come, or they come back forth and they do their thing. I guess it's sort of what happened to us too.
We sort of left, but we didn't leave Toronto, as we have a presence here, we have our studio.
New York was a stage, as they say in that song "if you can make it there". It's a really important city, everyone wants to be at their best, there's no time for resting, they're always on it to be on top. That's the challenge that we like, we like the rush, that adrenaline rush that motivates us.
A lot of great Canadian talent leaves the country to make their mark
Eleanor Gibson: Do you think there is a Canadian design aesthetic?
George Yabu: There is, I think that traditionally it has been a very young country and it has been based on industry and commerce. And then we ship the timber out to make hardwood floor planks and then they are imported again. And so we have limited resources to add value to the products that we produce on our own ground.
There's a parallel to that in Scandinavia, there's limited resources and limited materials, limited ways of making things. So there's a Scandinavian aesthetic, there's a parallel Canadian aesthetic.
It's a little dry, so it may not have too many bells and whistles on it, but we would consider the surface of it, or the cut of the grain, so it's not, maybe as effervescent as. Sometimes it may not have that editorial wow to it, but there's a lot of integrity and thought to the modesty of design.
Glenn Pushelberg: I think our work has more emotional content than a lot of these northern climes, Nordic designers. To me there's a sensuality to it.
Eleanor Gibson: There seems to be a big wave of emerging Canadian designers, is there a real moment here?
Glenn Pushelberg: I think so and I think that we helped generate that moment because of our stature in the world today.
George Yabu: I think we made people ask "what's going on in Canada?". The curiosity was never there about Canada. I think it was a 10th of the population of the US. When you have 300 or 350 million people you have the opportunity to make things for people. When you only have 30 or 35 million people spread across it's hard.
We helped generate that moment because of our stature in the world today
Glenn Pushelberg: There's something amazing happening in Toronto, the music scene, Drake, The Weeknd, the culinary scene is happening, the design scene.
George Yabu: Google city, this huge park they've been planning to cover all the railroad.
Glenn Pushelberg: It's kind of an ugly city today but there a lots of community-minded people thinking about how to make it beautiful and diverse. People have civic pride but not through physicality.
George Yabu: There's no civic pride in Toronto. There's no Las Ramblas or Champs-Élysées. We have nothing so we're going to get into urban scaping and stuff like that. We're going to try and do that with one of the best boulevards.
We want to put Toronto on the map as a creative, resource place to come to.
Glenn Pushelberg: We want to help.
Eleanor Gibson: Why do you think that Toronto is just catching up now?
Glenn Pushelberg: Because it's a young city. It's a kinder, gentler place. There's a lot of people migrating here.
There's no civic pride in Toronto, there's no Las Ramblas or Champs-Élysées
George Yabu: It's a young city and it's a reaction to the current political situation in the US. All of a sudden people are going I can't stay here, let's check out what's in Toronto. And they realise 'oh there's stuff happening here'.
Our newest employees and designers are all coming from around the world, from France, from Syria, Lebanon, Australia. They're coming from everywhere and a lot of them are applying specifically to come to Toronto.
Americans, everyone is asking for transfers from the New York team to come to Toronto – there's something going on.
Portrait of Yabu Pushelberg is by Shayan Asgharnia.