Business

Taking on the retail world

Savvy international merchants are turning to a hot Toronto team for designs with a difference

Kimberley Noble November 29 1999
Business

Taking on the retail world

Savvy international merchants are turning to a hot Toronto team for designs with a difference

Kimberley Noble November 29 1999

Taking on the retail world

Savvy international merchants are turning to a hot Toronto team for designs with a difference

Kimberley Noble

It is 10 o’clock on a clear November morning, smack-dab in the centre of the upscale retailing universe. Glenn Pushelberg and George Yabu—known around their cutting-edge interior design studio simply as “the guys”—are striding across the plaza at the southeastern edge of New York City’s Central Park on their way to inspect the lastminute work on their latest crossborder project. A little over a year ago, the tiny (by New York and London standards) Toronto design firm beat the world’s stiffest competition and won the coveted job of redesigning two floors of that mecca for old money and

good taste, Bergdorf Goodman. This puts Yabu Pushelberg in charge of the most extensive renovation since the exclusive Fifth Avenue retailer opened in 1928 on the site where the Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion once stood.

The past couple of months have been tense. On top of all the usual pressures, debate raged about when to unveil the stunning changes—which start on the main floor and include a circular staircase leading down to a cosmetics department located on the so-called plaza level. (“The client,” says Yabu, the firm’s creative director, “won’t let us call it a basement.”) Should they make a splash on U.S. Thanksgiving, the muchhyped ceremonial start of the Christ-

mas shopping season, or open a few weeks later, when the first phase of the $20-million overhaul is finished? “The yin and the yang of it is that it has to be complete, or appear to be complete,” says Yabu. “But what’s at stake is hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.” Then, in mid-October, Bergdorf management opted to open on Nov. 22, and the push was on. The U.S. executives grew increasingly antsy. Pushelberg, who manages the business side of the partnership, says it was clear the retailers wondered whether they had picked the wrong design team. “I told them, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to get finished and you’ll forget all the angst and the anguish, it will all wash away.’ ”

Meet Manhattan’s new odd couple. The two make a strange but striking pair: Pushelberg, of southwestern Ontario Mennonite stock, is tall and blond, with a tendency to make big

gestures that involve rotating his arms from the shoulder; Toronto-born Yabu is small and fine-boned, like his Japanese ancestors, and, when he talks, uses his fingers like brushes, drawing delicate patterns in the air. Stranger still is the way the two 46-year-old entrepreneurs have ended up reassuring executives from a U.S. retail legend like Bergdorf Goodman that all will be well because the Canadians know what they’re doing. But that’s what Yabu and Pushelberg do: and, if their growing international client list is anything to go

by, the two Ryerson Polytechnic University design grads do it as well as anybody in the world.

For the better part of a decade, Yabu Pushelberg, which operates out of an old National Grocers warehouse in Toronto’s industrial east end, has been the largest and most successful of a new generation of Canadian commercial interior design firms. On this side of the border, its clients read like a who’s who of the corporate elite: Weston, Bata, Mirvish. While not exactly a household name, people in many of Canada’s urban centres will—whether they know it or not—be familiar with

the work of the two men and what is now a 50-person team of designers, architects and graphic artists. The firm’s curvy, retro-looking forms and subtle washes of colour can be found across the country in locations ranging from Clearnet phone retail outlets to a new chain of jean specialty stores, XX/XY, that the Thriftys division of Dylex Ltd. is opening across Canada. Its high-end work includes the austere yet cosy interiors of many of Toronto’s trendiest restaurants—Canoe, Monsoon and Sottovoce—as well as The

Princess ofWales theatre and its awardwinning washrooms.

They have won international praise for their work in Asia. Until a couple of years ago, however, Yabu Pushelberg had not ventured south of the border. In the United States, even the most talented design firm is handicapped if it operates outside of downtown Manhattan. “Call it cultural myopia,” says Mayer Rus, editor-in-chief of New York’s Interior Design magazine, “but most people who want something sexy and fabulous and chic are not going to hire a Canadian designer. They will look to Europe, but they won’t look

north.” That said, Rus adds that a growing number of savvy merchants are looking for something different from what is available from “the usual suspects.” That search now often leads to Yabu Pushelberg. “They have an approach,” says Rus, “that is not duplicated by any other design firm.”

So far, the firm has designed a trendy new Manhattan hotel, devised a concept to revamp 150 Victorias Secret stores, and is renovating the cosmetics, jewelry and accessories departments for Bergdorf Goodman. This is all very high profile—at least it is in the incestuous, insanely competitive world of international interior design. And there is more to come. High-fashion designer Carolina Herrera has just hired Yabu Pushelberg to design her first store, which will open next July in the old Givenchy building on Madison Avenue.

And whatever Pushelberg said to reassure the brass at Bergdorf Goodman and its owner, Neiman Marcus Group Inc. of Chestnut Hill, Mass., it worked. The Toronto team is in the running to do all or part of the next phase of the Bergdorf Goodman renovation. In the meantime, the firm has just been chosen to design the multimillion-dollar Neiman Marcus store to be built after the company rips out its existing 14,850-square-metre emporium in Las Vegas.

What are the secrets of this success? For starters, the guys are the first to admit what the Canadian design establishment has said for years: Yabu Pushelberg is not for everyone. They also acknowledge they are ambitious, hard-driving—but not hard-selling— and, on top of it all, shameless cosmopolitan snobs. They once ignored a potential client for weeks because his phone messages carried a 905 area code,

According to Yabu Pushelberg, architects and designers should stay small and charge top dollar

indicating that he was calling from outside metropolitan Toronto. “George said to Tara [Browne, the firm’s marketing director], ‘Just get rid of him,’ Pushelberg confesses. But the suburbanite persisted, and turned out to be the heir to a famous design fortune—so famous they cannot reveal his name— who subsequendy talked Yabu Pushelberg into designing one of their rare residential projects, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home in the Ontario countryside.

Boiled down to its essential elements, the Yabu Pushelberg manifesto would read as follows: Stay small. Take risks. Travel. Eat out as much as possible. (This is what makes them such inventive restaurant and club designers, says Canoe co-owner Peter Oliver: “They probably eat one meal a week at home.” Home, in Yabu and Pushelberg’s case, is a penthouse apartment in downtown Toronto and a house in Miami’s hip South Beach.) Do only the work that

really interests you. Never do the same thing twice. Charge top dollar. But most of all, respect, and challenge, the customer. “I think architects and designers are their own worst enemies,” Pushelberg says. They decide ahead of time not to challenge their clients. “They end up designing down. But nine times out of 10,” if customers are presented with choices, “they’ll choose to do something better because they know it will take them further.”

They practise what they preach. Yabu’s parents, a Japanese farmworker and fishing-boat builder who were relocated during the Second World War, and Pushelberg, who grew up near Kitchener, Ont., met at Ryerson’s interior design school in the early 1970s. After graduating, they landed jobs in their field but found the work less than satisfying. In 1980, Yabu and Pushelberg struck out on their own, designing a lot of small stores and kiosks. Right from

the start, however, they pushed clients to explore the impact that light, colour and the arrangement of space has on employees and customers. Their big break came in 1984 when Club Monaco, one of the great Canadian retail success stories of the past 15 years, hired Yabu Pushelberg to create a look for its flagship Queen Street West store in downtown Toronto. The project provided the firm with a reputation for being fresh, fun and ultrahip.

Maybe too much so. Big corporations balked at hiring what one financial ser vices executive called "disco ce designers." So, in 1987, even

though business was still booming in Canada, they accepted an assignment to design a department store in Taipei, Taiwan. “It was an incredible risk for a company six or seven years old to dive into unknown turf,” says Browne. “But we have always had this going-forit attitude. And it led to other commissions.” That included the South China Morning Posh new Hong Kong headquarters, a hotel complex in Shanghai and, in 1995 and 1996, the complete design, from retail space to bags, cards and accessories, for a Japanese department store chain called Ciaopanic. Back in Canada, the bottom dropped out of the economy and Yabu Pushelberg was forced to lay off half its Toronto staff—but concen-

Some potential clients see the design duo as too avantgarde or too expensive—but they are too busy to worry

trated their remaining resources on what is still, to this day, their signature project: The Princess of Wales theatre. “I thought they did pretty special work,” says owner David Mirvish, who believed that their light touch and attention to detail would be perfect for the new theatre. Mirvish ended up being perfect for them. More than any client up to that point, he let the firm follow its vision. “They push you to the limit,” Mirvish says. They wanted terrazzo tile in the front lobby. Mirvish said “it would look like 1950s high-school floors.” They told him to go look at New Yorks Rockefeller Center. He did. The result: Mirvish agreed to installing the astonishing mosaics in the theatre lobby—wavy lines and sparkling blue stars, made up of tiny squares of tile hand-cut and coloured in Venice under Yabus supervision. “It was a great success in the end,” Mirvish says. “I didn’t save money, but I got something beautiful and original.” Of course, you can’t please everybody. Yabu Pushelberg, known colloquially as “Yabba Dabba Doo,” still strikes a lot of potential clients as too avant-garde—or simply too expensive. The Globe and Mail and Indigo Books & Music Inc.

are among companies that commissioned proposals from the guys but could not justify paying what they charge for fees and custom-made materials. So, for that matter, did Bloomingdales, after Yabu Pushelberg submitted a proposal for a New Jersey pilot project. They do not, however, have either the time or inclination to fret over what is not happening—because so much is.

As the retail market changes—divided between consumers who shop for the lowest possible prices and those who shop for stimulating experiences—national chains like Holt Renfrew & Co. Ltd., Bata Ltd. and Dylex have begun to enlist Yabu Pushelberg not just for its expertise in choosing fixtures and floor coverings, but in creating an environment that will provide some competitive edge. “They understand the flow of customers, and how they want to be treated,” saysThriftys president Mickey Maklin. He hired Yabu Pushelberg to help launch the XX/XY concept, as well as to work alongside him on a sweeping transformation of the Thriftys chain. Galen Weston had them redesign his Holt Renfrew stores and help showcase their private-label merchandise. The

privately owned chain “has a monopoly in its niche,” Pushelberg says. “There is absolutely no reason it shouldn’t make pots of money. Our job is to help make that happen, without losing any of its top customers or cachet.”

Much the same can be said of Yabu Pushelberg itself. Now that they are such a big fish in such a small pond, they worry about having enough challenges to keep from getting repetitive or complacent. These days, they talk a lot about working in Australia, which has a robust and adventurous commercial design industry, and they are finally bowing to pressure to set up shop in the United States—something they resisted for years. They are looking for loft space in Manhattan to open a branch next spring. “If they are at all serious about getting onto the radar screen of most New York clients, they need at least a satellite office,” says Interior Designs Rus. But the guys insist that their headquarters will remain in Toronto. And that’s not only because the Canadian dollar makes their work more affordable, but also because Canadian employees and suppliers play such a large part in their success. “We have talent and resources here that nobody else has,” Yabu, the minimalist, says simply. After all, he and Pushelberg are in a position to know. EH