Industrial design for the public good.

This month, Jennifer Morla caught up with Yves Béhar, the industrial designer who has worked with a variety of clients, ranging from Birkenstock to Herman Miller.

JM: Was there a pivotal point in your youth when it became clear that you wanted to pursue design?

YB: When I was 16 or 17 years old, the relationship between product and designer became very clear to me when I saw Philippe Starck’s Costes Chair in Paris. At the same time, I was making the connection between design and my own intuitive approach to things. For example, in order to satisfy my desire for skiing and surfing, I created a new experience that would combine the two. I bolted a pair of skis together and added a sail so that I could windsurf on frozen lakes.

JM: After graduating with a degree in industrial design from Art Center College of Design, you started your career by working for a few design studios – most notably, Frog Design, founded by Hartmut Esslinger, who transformed Apple from a start-up into a worldwide brand. Did you work with Hartmut? What was that like?

YB: We worked together on a few projects, which were always fast and furious. The Lufthansa project was a fun one. We redesigned the interiors of the planes and the furniture in the waiting area at the Frankfurt Airport.

JM: After a few years, you set out on your own.

YB: Yes. I started my own design company, called fuseproject, and I teach industrial design at California College of the Arts (CCA).

JM: Congratulations on your recent appointment as head of the industrial design department. Tell me a little bit about the programming you have planned.

YB: This is an exciting time to be studying design. Our role is evolving from being a stylist to being a problem solver faced with many different challenges. Students today don’t have to specialize in civic design, or sustainable design, or commercial design. There’s so much crossover. They’re all part of this magical toolbox that we should draw from in every project we work on.

JM: Is that your definition of good design – that it is a crossover of sustainability, accessibility and an aesthetic point of view, in addition to being commercially viable?

YB: Absolutely. That’s what we provide to our clients, and that’s what the students are drawn to doing as well. You have sustainability projects that are for profit, and some that are not for profit, but in the end, the goal is the same: to have that educational, democratizing effect. My students think less like specialists than I did when I was in school, but today everything is more integrated, more multifaceted. I think it’s a natural way for the students and the program to evolve. In my work at fuseproject, we’re engaged in many social projects right now, and those experiences are reflected in my program at CCA.

JM: I’m assuming you’re referring to the NYC Condom Dispenser project you’re launching. Tell me about the project.

YB: It’s been proven that New York’s free condom-distribution program is working to slow down the spread of HIV and reduce unwanted pregnancies. But there’s still room for improvement. How I fit in is as the designer of the NYC Condom Dispenser, which was designed to increase the impact of the program, get beyond the stigma of condoms and create discussion. That’s exactly the role that good design can play, and this client knew that from the get-go, so it was quite exciting. I designed the condom dispenser in much the same way you’d approach a fire hydrant. It had to be immediately recognizable, and it couldn’t be intimidating or preachy. The round shape of the dispenser is sort of friendly, and reminds you of a condom in its form and relief, but isn’t too literal.

JM: The form of the dispenser and the multicolored typeface make it very approachable. Where will the dispensers be in NYC?

YB: Last week, there were 125 installed in sites ranging from bars to bakeries.

JM: So they’re in commercial settings, too?

YB: Yes. Any business owner can call 311 in New York and ask to have one installed in their location. One is being added to the bathroom of a Kenneth Cole boutique next week. Of course, the dispensers will be in homeless shelters, clinics and social-services providers as well. So the design had to be able to migrate from fancy hotel to neighborhood bar.

JM: Good luck with the project. Now, switching subjects a bit, can you tell me how you describe the relationship between lighting and technology?

YB: Until recently, I would describe the relationship as quite limited. When I first started working on the Leaf Light in 2001, I wanted to explore the possibilities of lower energy consumption and more choices with lighting coloration. LEDs were just being developed, and until then, there wasn’t a lot of advanced technology used in lighting – especially not in residential lighting.

JM: Do you think LEDs are changing that?

YB: I believe in 10 years, all lighting will be LED. What’s exciting is that up until now, all lighting was designed around the light bulb. Once you go to LEDs, which are only an eighth of a millimeter thick, the potential is entirely different and new. With Leaf, we explored this new language, a new expression of light based on new technology.

JM: What is “green” about Leaf Light?

YB: It consumes 60 to 70% less energy than a light using a standard light bulb. It consumes 40% less energy than a light using a compact fluorescent light bulb. From an energy standpoint, that’s already pretty significant. Did you know that the European Union has mandated that task lights for EU offices be LED only? The other thing is, LEDs last about seven to 10 years. In the same amount of time, you’d use – meaning throw away – 80 incandescent bulbs. Leaf is also compelling in how it’s made. There’s a large percentage of recycled content in the aluminum we use; plus, it’s 95% recyclable and follows the Design for the Environment (DfE) protocol. It’s environmental on every level: the product, how it’s made, the materials used and energy efficiency.

JM: Tell me about the inspiration for the shape of the lamp.

YB: Because LEDs are so thin, I was looking for an expression of that thinness. The top and bottom are called blades – blades of grass, if you will – which have very low profiles. The width of the blade is important because it helps keep the LEDs in contact with a lot of air, which keeps the LEDs cool to the touch. Without this heat-dissipation device, the LEDs would get too hot and burn out. So the form was partially inspired by an expression of the light source, and partially inspired by a feat of engineering.

JM: Do you have Leaf in your workspace?

YB: Yes, lots.

JM: Finally, do you consider yourself a futurist?

YB: I consider myself a futurist. I consider myself a humanist. And I consider myself an environmentalist. For me, technology is an incredible enabler, but it means nothing if it doesn’t consider the human being, the human touch. In the end, all of what we create has to have the world and the environment in mind as it gets produced.