"Designers have a responsibility to show the future as they want it to be—or at least as it can be, not just the way an industry wants it to be," says Yves Behar. Brash words, especially coming from a 37-year-old designer who works as a hired gun for major corporations. Then again, John R. Hoke III, Nike's vice president and global creative director of footwear design, calls Behar "a fantastic design force . . . [who's] about to explode onto the world scene."
Through fuseproject, the San Francisco-based design and branding firm he founded in 1999, Behar has quickly gained notoriety for radically innovating the products of such well-established consumer-goods giants as Herman Miller, Nike, Birkenstock, and even Microsoft. But the Swiss-born Behar views his role as reaching far beyond mere product improvement.
"Too many design firms operate like a law office, where their approach has more to do with how much service they can provide for a client," he says. "But our responsibility is also to influence how design permeates culture." Design's purpose, he adds, is to not only show us the future but to bring us the future.
Consider the hooded windbreaker Behar fashioned for Lutz & Patmos's fall 2001 collection. Manufactured out of cashmere fibers that are bathed in DuPont Teflon, the garment is more resistant to wind, water, and oil than regular wool or synthetic fleece, yet retains the supple feel of untreated cashmere. His futuristic aesthetic is most apparent in his new design for a Toshiba laptop, dubbed the Red Transformer. Done up in a red lacquer, the casing opens in two parts, revealing a sleek, ultrathin com- puter that's been buffed to a metallic silver. Employing a collapsible hinge, the Transformer's 17-inch screen extends up and out toward the user, turning the computer into a presentation display that closely resembles a flat-screen TV. "I had the idea of an envelope," he explains. "As you open it up, the technology reveals itself in a magical way."
In a world where gadgetry is ubiquitous and at times overbearing, Behar envisions a future in which technology can be present when we want it to be—and invisible when we choose to be free of it. At heart, he's a romantic. His designs are driven by emotion and a desire to connect viscerally with those who see, touch, and ultimately use his products.
There's a sharp business rationale to this thinking. To have lasting impact—and to win enduring customer loyalty—innovative products must make an emotional connection to users, changing the way they think about wearing a parka or using a laptop. In other words, Behar believes, businesspeople should think about how they want their products to make their customers feel instead of how they want their customers to feel about their brands. If the emotional association with a product is good, the association with the brand will be good, too—and longer lasting.
Behar's growing body of work is so distinctive that he is now being honored with a solo exhibition (running through October 3) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. No small feat for one who has been in business for just 10 short years. "But it's not a retrospective," he insists, suddenly humble. "Our practice is too young." Behar calls the show a "futurespective." It spotlights his renderings of new things to come.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.