This article is a preview from Fast Company’s October issue, on newsstands September 18.
Yves Béhar is marveling at his electronic trapdoor. We’re in the fourth-floor master bedroom of his modern San Francisco home, a stack of loftlike boxes with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, which he spent five years meticulously crafting. It’s a hazy Sunday evening in late June, and Béhar, who is wearing jeans and a “Stinson Beach” T-shirt, has just returned with his family from their weekend surfing retreat in Marin County. Two of his four children (named Sky, Sylver, Soleyl, and Saylor) somersault on the Ubald Klug sofa set in the living room, as his wife, the art consultant Sabrina Buell, wraps up dinner.
As Miles Davis’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud purrs on vinyl, Béhar expounds on his unique approach to design after giving me the house tour. He calls the place “a living experiment,” one that treats technology like fabric and values “the things you love” over gaudy gadgetry. Yet the house, while a stunning exercise in minimalism, is also full of gizmos, a reflection of his two decades of work at his design firm, Fuseproject. “I can control the whole house with an app,” he beams. The front doors are wired with August Home, the smart-lock company he cofounded. In the kitchen, a television is attached to a motor, so at the click of a button from Béhar’s iPhone X, it lowers and disappears into a stylish dividing wall that separates the kitchen from the stairs to the basement, like a casket sinking into a grave. (He’ll soon replace it with a Samsung Frame, the new monitor he fashioned for the electronics giant to resemble a gallery portrait.) Upstairs, he’s lined part of the ceiling with what he describes as a deconstructed disco ball, a strip of LED lights he is working to connect to sound sensors so that the colored lights will automatically adjust to the music. “Technology [can be used] in creating and hiding surprise . . . it’s about learning technique and intent and limitations,” Béhar explains. “That’s the product designer in me.”
Then there’s the electronic trapdoor. Grinning, he picks up a remote control, taps it with his thumb, and a thick slab of wood—standing upright next to the end of the stairs—begins to fold down to hide the opening in the floor. The slab descends painfully slowly . . . then the wood starts to snap as the trapdoor bends.
Béhar’s smile turns to a grimace. “It cracks a little, but it’s still pretty solid,” he says.
The breaking sounds grow louder, like the crackle of a bonfire. A long splinter lands near my feet. “Uh-oh,” Béhar says. “That’s not so good.”
When Béhar launched his studio almost 20 years ago, he was trying to get the business world to understand the value of design. He advocated that enterprises should empower designers to be involved in every aspect of their operations. Indeed, design has since been embraced by all corners of the corporate world, so much so that global strategy firms are gobbling up design shops, including Fuse, as Béhar and his employees call the firm: The Chinese conglomerate BlueFocus bought 75% of Fuse in 2014 for a reported $46.7 million and as of December 2017 owns it outright. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley has gestated a generation of user-experience-focused unicorns. Airbnb (two cofounders attended RISD), Pinterest, and WeWork, to name just a few, are on the verge of going public, proving that design has become a crucial component in creating status quo–shattering private enterprises. Béhar, despite both his evangelism and his fame—he’s arguably the best-known working designer with the exception of Apple’s Jony Ive—has been associated with few success stories with this kind of cultural oomph. There’s August, which was acquired for an estimated $150 million last year, and 3-D printer Desktop Metal, which has been valued at $1 billion. Fuse has also done notable corporate work for SodaStream, Movado, Nivea, and Western Digital. He touts his work on the Snoo, a bassinet using AI and robotics. But Béhar has also contributed to some of tech’s notorious flops, from Juicero to Jawbone; he even designed the sheet-metal casing of Theranos’s Edison.
Business fully embraces design in the way that Béhar had long espoused, but Béhar has become an increasingly controversial figure in the design community. His detractors are tired of the glossy press profiles (Béhar is too, joking that “they’re all the same”), and criticize him as a celebrity willing to slap his name on anything: robots, smart turntables, body sensors—products that look sexy but rarely live up to the hype. “Yves certainly has raised the profile of design in San Francisco, but when I look at his body of work, I don’t see anything that’s moved the needle,” says one rival big-name designer, who is friendly with Béhar and asked not to be named so as not to offend him. This person stresses that design firms “have to go beyond helping [startups] develop, brand, and package [products], and get into, What the fuck is this thing and why do people need it?” The same critique, naturally, could be leveled at much of what comes out of Silicon Valley: so-called disruptive products, which, like a number that Béhar is known for, are marketed as innovations but more often than not prove to be nothing more than overwrought conveniences.
Béhar is sensitive to criticism. (During Fast Company‘s typical fact-checking process for this story, he hired a strategic communications firm to advocate on his behalf.) He suggests any carping is an inevitable consequence when you’re operating on the bleeding edge of innovation. Like the leaders of today’s tech juggernauts, it’s where he always wants to be–pursuing breakthroughs to “fulfill critical human needs”–even if it creates a few cracks in his reputation. “When it works, it’s amazing,” he says of his “super risky” approach at Fuse. “When it doesn’t, it’s heartbreaking.”
I am shadowing Béhar at Fuseproject’s headquarters, an airy office in San Francisco’s design district with vaulted ceilings that was once home to a coffin factory. It is difficult to explain exactly what Béhar, the company’s CEO, does all day. He’s an artist adrift in his own gallery, roaming, frequently eating a banana, stopping here to flatten out a crease in the seat of the electric motorcycle he designed for now-defunct Mission Motors (“It’s going into the permanent collection at SFMOMA,” he tells me matter-of-factly), or there to chat with a designer who catches his ear to ask for his opinion on a textile pattern. He doesn’t mind crashing a closed-door meeting simply to show me the Samsung Frame hanging in the conference room or skipping out at lunchtime to watch the World Cup. He operates at his own rhythm; after waiting for Béhar at one point for about 40 minutes, his PR person tells me, “We’re on Yves time for sure.” Mitch Pergola, who worked closely with Béhar as a managing partner at Fuse before departing last year, says, “Yves is a guy who is not going to do a damn thing in his day he doesn’t want to.”
At one point, when Béhar is giving me a personal presentation of one of his products, Fuse’s strategy director, Logan Ray, pops his head in to tell Béhar that they have an important call with Revlon, a client. “I don’t need to be on it,” Béhar says. Even after Ray hisses earnestly that “it’s with Debbie”–as in Debra Perelman, CEO of the multibillion-dollar cosmetics behemoth–Béhar brushes him off and continues on about his design process.
Design VP Qin Li says that Béhar was “really hands on” years ago but that his time is increasingly “very limited. He really enjoys sitting down and sketching [with us] but that’s happening less and less because he oversees everything.” Béhar seems to be juggling a number of side projects while also totally free to pursue whatever he pleases. He’s cofounded a high-end WeWork competitor called Canopy (which is also a Fuse client) as well as a new high-tech wellness startup; he says he’s also designing an RV. Meanwhile, he has just returned from a family vacation in Costa Rica and will head to Spain in a few days for a friend’s wedding. He will also take much of August off for his annual surfing excursion to Bali. (A spokesperson clarifies: “No matter where Yves may be traveling, he works every day.”) When he shows me his phone, it has 75 missed calls and 238 unread text messages. Asked how he has time for all his endeavors while running Fuse, Béhar chuckles. “People always ask me that question. To me, it’s like, I’m just in the flow.”
Li describes Béhar’s involvement as being “the final gate,” a bulwark for quality assurance. “When we put the stuff in front of him, it’s already pretty baked.” During my visit, I witness Béhar’s gatekeeping on a handful of occasions, and it’s genuinely impressive. His feedback is incisive, and he has a virtuoso-level aesthetic sense. Béhar also speaks in a seductive whisper, a sort of verbal vaporware that orients you to believe the next version will be even more amazing.
In this sense, Béhar acts less like a chief executive or designer than what his former colleague Pergola loosely defines as “the creative force.” Clients pay for the privilege of being in the vicinity of his design genius. Even if they, too, must live on Yves time. Béhar once kept a C-level exec from Coca-Cola waiting in a conference room, fuming, for nearly an hour. “Yves blows in wearing a scarf and talking on his phone, but in less than 15 minutes, he completely rights the ship and the client is charmed and beguiled,” Pergola remembers. “That’s the magic of Yves–I don’t know how he does it.”
Béhar is now a bona fide celebrity, a Bay Area statesman who sits on the board at SFMOMA and hosted a local fundraiser for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. He casually mentions to me that he once went on a two-hour midcentury house tour with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and he counts Kanye West as a dear friend. “We talk about ideas and creativity, sometimes for, like, three to four hours,” Béhar says.
The Lausanne, Switzerland, native has been pursuing creativity professionally for three decades, attending the Art Center College of Design and later landing prize jobs at design consultancies Lunar and Frog in the 1990s. “He was very passionate about design,” recalls his friend Dan Harden, who hired Béhar at Frog where he loved sketching with him and was impressed by his ambition. “I remember him saying things like, ‘I want to work on this project, we’re going to enter awards, and I want my name on the awards.’ I was like, ‘Take it easy, man—it’s your first week!’ ” says Harden, who now runs a design firm called Whipsaw. Astro Studios founder Brett Lovelady, who overlapped with Béhar at Lunar, says, “Yves catapulted to leadership quite quickly in his career. He’s a master self-promoter. I don’t mean that in a bad way–it’s good for design, and for him. Whereas other Valley firms were more about building design brands—Frog, Ideo, [and later] Astro, Whipsaw, Ammunition–Yves said, ‘Wait a minute, let me jump in front rather than be the founder behind the brand name.’”
Béhar launched Fuseproject in 1999, and the joke in the design community was that he must have hired as many publicists as he did designers—only this could explain the press’s fascination in the early aughts with such curiosities as an upscale line of Birkenstocks. Fast Company put Béhar on its cover in late 2007, praising him for pioneering a “ziggurat-like” business structure that encompassed strategic partnerships with the likes of Johnson & Johnson, equity deals with fast-growing startups such as Jawbone, and civic works including One Laptop Per Child. He was a reporter’s dream, provocatively contending that just 1% of American companies had any design DNA. (Today, Béhar figures it’s just 15%, and 0% in the home of Tencent, Xiaomi, and Fuse’s parent company, BlueFocus. “China doesn’t understand the value of design,” he says.) His persona has earned him fawning write-ups in Vanity Fair and The Verge, and his portfolio has scored him a TED Talk and a gaggle of industry awards and recognition, including from Fast Company, for such products as a Coca-Cola recycling bin and the SodaStream Source.
At Fuse, this attention also raised eyebrows. Talk to designers who have worked with Béhar over the years, and they’ll say he’s undoubtedly a visionary artist who demands the best from his staff. Béhar was “always challenging us to do something new and cool. He trusted me and other team members,” says former senior industrial design lead Naoya Edahiro, who worked at Fuse for more than a decade. “[Yves] is pretty tough. A lot of pressure.” But some former Fusers will also tell you that he can act impulsively and captures the lion’s share of credit for his team’s output. (“It is false to say that Yves takes undeserved credit for projects,” says his spokesperson. “This is contrary to Yves’s own beliefs, and Fuseproject’s policies and practices prevent this.”) Béhar isn’t afraid to tear aggressively into people’s work in design reviews or blow up a presentation the night before a client meeting—actions the press has romanticized as Jobsian, but which, in person, feel more like the Book of Job. “They were the most stressful moments of my career,” says one top former Fuse designer. “Yves was so unpredictable and direct. He doesn’t really yell, but he would be really cold and painful in his questioning, like, ‘Why did you make this ugly?’ ”
Some Fuse employees used to muse that they had two customers: the client and Béhar, who is spoken of at times like Fuseproject’s God (or “Godzilla,” as another former Fuse designer jokingly puts it). Once, during the development of his acclaimed Sayl chair, Béhar was at loggerheads with Herman Miller executives, who wanted to increase the height of his frame design by an inch. According to two sources familiar with the situation, when they tried to compromise at 6 millimeters–roughly two-tenths of an inch–Béhar wouldn’t budge, arguing that that “half inch” would destroy the chair’s ideal dimensions. His team tried to correct his conversion rate, but Béhar ended the meeting and later scolded his employees. “When I tell you 6 millimeters is a half inch, it’s a half inch!” he said.
When I later ask Herman Miller CEO Brian Walker about working with Béhar on the chair, he tells me, “Look, I’d say this if he was standing in the room, because I consider him a really good friend: Yves, like all great designers, is a very challenging guy. . . . Ultimately, as Charles Eames often said about how constraints are what makes great design, I think Yves responds really well to challenges and constraints.”
Earlier last spring, I meet up with Béhar at the Wall Street Journal‘s Future of Everything conference in New York City, hours before he jumps on a flight to California to present at the invite-only Near Future summit. Béhar is always in-demand on the conference circuit–“I could be speaking three times a week, 52 weeks in a row,” he says–and on this sunny May morning, he’s on stage auguring about the new UV-detecting wearable sensor that Fuse designed for L’Oréal.
Béhar says he has been obsessed with the future ever since he was a kid writing sci-fi stories. Later, he studied Syd Mead’s neo-futurist work in design school where he code-named his concepts after his favorite films, including Metropolis. His earliest products at Fuse were a nod to this fantastical worldview and imbued with a technological soul, such as the so-called learning shoe he prototyped in 1999 before wearables were even a thing. Béhar’s output has continued to exist in the world of tomorrow in his effort to accelerate “good for humanity” ideas. “When I look at my projects,” he says, “I’m like, Oh my God! These are all firsts! The first robot that takes care of your baby in a crib!”
Béhar’s commitment to futurism seems to explain several projects he has taken on in recent years, several of which neither address a critical human need nor pass muster for what might reasonably be considered good design. There’s Aesir’s AE+Y 18-carat gold mobile phone that cost almost $60,000 but could not do email. There’s the original Vessyl smart cup, which used sensors to ID the liquids poured into it. (As Stephen Colbert satirized it: “Is there any aspect of being a cup this cup can’t do?” The $199 device was never released.) Then there’s the internet-connected garden sensor that Fuse developed for upstart Edyn, which one HomeDepot.com customer called a “useless” and “gimmicky” gadget you’d find at a “school science fair.”
Since Béhar sold Fuse in 2014 to BlueFocus, with a three-year buyout, some observers have wondered whether pressures from the deal compelled him to pursue all kinds of questionable partnerships in order to meet the ambitious profitability goals BlueFocus set for Fuse. “The first year was definitely the most challenging because we were already one full quarter into the year when I came on board and things hadn’t really been done correctly,” says Fischer, the CFO/COO who joined the company in 2015. “So it’s, like, middle of May and I’m going to Mitch and Yves: ‘You’re already almost halfway through the year and this is where you’re at.’ It was a little surprising to them. It wasn’t as good as they were expecting.”
When asked if Fuse was less precious about the work it chose, she agreed, saying, “We would be like, What can we start that’s a six-week quick sprint?” Béhar denies that the sale to BlueFocus is pushing him to accept assignments, and Fischer later told Fast Company through a spokesperson, “I’ve never seen Fuseproject take a client to meet any numbers goals. That’s not how we work.”
Fuse still maintains its multifaceted business model, but Fischer says it currently makes its revenue mostly from project-based fees and product royalties rather than on risky equity deals in companies that may or may not pan out. Now, when Béhar pursues a venture he’s personally passionate about but that might not improve Fuse’s P&L, “I’m just like, ‘Yves, you’re killing me here,’” Fischer says with a laugh. “Usually we’ll have a little negotiation.”
Yves Béhar is locked out of his smart door-lock company. It’s a cloudless Tuesday afternoon, and he and August Home cofounder Jason Johnson are stuck outside the red door of August’s South of Market headquarters. Béhar’s head—crowned by his black trucker’s hat, his curls shooting out the back like gray-blond solar flares—is buried in his iPhone, but Johnson, perhaps sensing that this is an awkward moment, tries to explain why their door sensor isn’t functioning properly, rationalizing that the lock failed because we “crossed the geofence” in our walk here. Nearly 45 seconds later, following a few corrective clicks on the door lock’s keypad, we’re inside.
This is not how Béhar had scripted our visit. “Treat it like: You went to August, it was cool, blah blah blah,” he told me the day before, outlining how he’d envisioned the scene playing out in this narrative. “Yves ran it for five to six years, Yves is still doing stuff with August, [and you’ll] see next-gen August locks I’m working on.”
Béhar and Johnson teamed up in 2012 hoping to take advantage of the craze for smart-home devices. The engineering-minded Johnson tells me that he and Béhar jammed together like “Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds” after getting to know each other better at TEDxSF, which Johnson organized. They created a door sensor that could be unlocked via mobile device and detect a nearing homeowner’s smartphone in order to auto-open the entranceway. Fuse did the design work, in exchange for a stake in the company.
Béhar helped pioneer this equity model in the design industry. His peers followed suit, often guiding such partnerships toward multibillion-dollar acquisitions or IPOs: see Robert Brunner’s Ammunition Group with Beats by Dre, Gadi Amit’s NewDealDesign with Fitbit, and Fred Bould’s eponymous design firm, which worked on Nest. Such blockbuster exits have so far proved elusive for Fuse. (When asked by phone what the equivalent of Beats, Fitbit, or Nest would be for Béhar, a Fuseproject spokesperson was unable to provide an answer.) Nor has Béhar been associated with products as culturally impactful as Jony Ive’s iPod, iPad, and iPhone. When later asked by email what products should be identified with Béhar in the way that Ive is often identified with Apple’s portfolio, a spokesperson answers, “Yves would say there are several: the [Herman Miller] Sayl chair, the Snoo [robotic baby crib], the Frame TV for Samsung, and August.”
The first-gen August lock was met with mixed reviews from media outlets including Wired and the New York Times, which cited the pricey device’s poor reliability–it only needs to fail once, as it did for us outside August’s headquarters, to raise questions as to why door opening required reinvention in the first place–and recommended sticking with “dumb keys.” Subsequent iterations grew more dependable and cost-efficient. After it raised $73 million, August was acquired last year by Swedish lock conglomerate Assa Abloy, reportedly for $150 million.
Over lunch, I ask Béhar why he sold the company, especially if August’s sales were as strong as he and Johnson suggested. After all, just months ago, Amazon acquired a similar smart-home security startup, Ring, for $1 billion. Béhar says it was “a great exit—all the investors made money” and that Assa Abloy’s scale would enable August to blossom into a global brand, a “diamond” in the portfolio. “The money is not important,” he says. “It’s about the legacy. What’s the legacy of this beautiful August experience?” (Johnson later shows me next-gen Assa Abloy products that are integrating August’s technology but not its designs.)
It sometimes feels as if Béhar is chasing that historic exit. He estimates that he gets roughly 15 pitches per month from entrepreneurs. While he says he agonizes over potential investments and can only cofound one startup every five years due to time constraints, during our brief rounds, I visited three startups he cofounded in that timeframe, one of which he joined after an initial 40-minute meeting with its creator. “It’s like speed dating,” he says.
In a way, Béhar has staked his reputation on being the guy you go to when design is not baked into your startup’s recipe. While a cohort of young, already-iconic brands such as Warby Parker and Square count design as an essential ingredient in their growth and have hired talent accordingly, Fuse’s partners tend to be the ones who view design more as icing. Johnson says that every expertise at August, where he’s still CEO, “is in-house now except product design. I don’t need it in-house because my [design] partner is a mile away.”
One chilly evening, over deviled eggs at Octavia, a sophisticated American restaurant in Lower Pacific Heights, Béhar seems to be opening up about failure. It’s a subject he’s been preoccupied with of late, perhaps because he recognizes the catalog of crashes he’s been associated with in recent years. Several are so notorious that they’ve even been depicted cratering in the title sequence of HBO’s Silicon Valley, which Béhar says he can’t watch. “It hits too close for comfort,” he says.
Béhar is relaxed at Octavia, a regular date spot for him and his wife, where the waitress remembers his dietary preferences (no dairy) and we bump into his friend, WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg, at the door. So it surprises me when he voluntarily shifts the conversation to the uncomfortable subject of his many flops. Between sips of Kölsch, he talks about his “business adventures,” as if they were fun, edifying experiments, rather than disastrous enterprises that have cost investors more than $1.5 billion, to tally just a few of the duds we touched on during dinner. “As designers, we fail every single day, and every failure is a way to learn,” he says.
The business adventure that made Béhar most famous was Jawbone. The consumer electronics company partnered with Fuse in 2002, and Béhar served as the company’s creative director starting in 2006. Wireless headsets and audio accessories made Jawbone a hot startup, positioning it well to enter the nascent wearables market in 2011. Although Jawbone helped set the standard for what a beautiful wrist-worn tracker could look like, durability problems prompted a recall and persistent user complaints. Increased competition from Apple, Fitbit, and others eventually led to eroding sales, and ultimately, Jawbone, which had raised more than $900 million in funding, was liquidated last year.
Fusers are adamant that they aren’t to blame. “It’s sad. There’s a limit to our influence,” says Logan Ray, Fuse’s strategy director. “We can feed them the greatest ideas in the world, but if the team running the business isn’t operating in an effective way, the business won’t succeed.” He adds that Jawbone “got a bit lazy.” Béhar, who still wears an Up2 wearable tracker on his wrist and says he remains friends with Jawbone CEO Hosain Rahman, says, “There are many reasons for failures in new enterprises, existing businesses,” he tells me. “And a few of them, I can now identify in advance. What makes you diverge from the original vision are things like outside pressures . . . to launch fast . . . to show revenue . . . from investors because you’ve raised so much money that they don’t let you scale over three to five years. They want to see results within a year. Ideas die from you not having control over your destiny.” I ask specifically if these lessons apply to Jawbone, and Béhar replies, “Yes, everything. Jawbone, Juicero, even more obscure ones people don’t know about.”
Catch 22: Yves Béhar Can Design Anything
Béhar’s version of events doesn’t acknowledge any role Fuse might have played in Jawbone’s downfall. One knowledgeable source close to Jawbone says Fuse’s team of designers was impressive, but that Béhar “didn’t have a clue technically.” This person recalls how several Jawbone form factors originally designed by Béhar were “virtually impossible” to build, including one early concept for a Mini Jambox speaker that required more than an hour to manufacture the patterned exterior on a single unit, an “impossibly expensive” process that took “forever.” (Jawbone later managed to reduce this process to just minutes.)
When reached for comment, Rahman says, “Yves tried to push the boundaries of what is possible, and that’s a push-and-pull thing, and sometimes you push things too far.” He stresses that he’s proud of their “category defining” work together, and although he generally agrees with Béhar’s view that investor “impatience” distracted from “focus on pure product” advancements, Rahman heatedly takes issue with Ray’s assessment, telling me, “Logan is completely wrong and full of shit and I’m going to call Logan and tell him to shut the fuck up.” (In a statement provided later by email, Rahman clarifies that it’s “unequivocally false that Yves’s design work had anything to do with the failure of Jawbone” and adds that “Yves has a deep technical understanding.”)
During my dinner with Béhar, it becomes apparent that he rarely sees himself as part of the problem. When I inquire more about his design of Juicero, the Wi-Fi-connected juicer released in 2016 that was lambasted as a cautionary tale of Valley excess–the company shuttered in the fall of 2017 shortly after people realized hand-squeezing the juice packets was nearly as effective as the $700 machine–Béhar smiles and says, “Nobody ever complained about the industrial design.”
In the case of Juicero, he continues, “The lesson for me is that the original vision when I was in a restaurant in New York with [founder] Doug [Evans] was a $200 to $300 machine. But suddenly you raise $120 million to $150 million, great fundraisers, and then you get bigger teams that have really different opinions.” When reached for comment, Evans says, “Yves’s design was beautiful and it brought juicing to a new level. He turned [my original design] into a machine that Oprah Winfrey bought 365 of [for gifts] and that [Goop’s] Gwyneth Paltrow called ‘the coolest invention of 2016.’ I love Yves, and we’re in the very early stages of discussing another food-technology hardware product.”
More recently, Béhar says his friends have been “giving me shit” for having helped Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes design the sheet-metal casing for its blood-testing product, Edison. (Béhar’s work for the company first became widely known with the May 2018 publication of Bad Blood, John Carreyrou’s book chronicling the medtech company’s rise and fall.) His contribution was purely aesthetic: “I saw all the cables and tubes and everything inside,” Béhar recalls. “How do I know whether it works?” He tells me that Theranos is an example of a startup that “didn’t have the science and was too early.” I counter that Holmes was actually a scam artist who misled the public. Béhar, who admits he hasn’t yet read Bad Blood, clarifies: “I mean, she sold the vision without having the goods.” When I press further, calling this an understatement, Béhar almost sheepishly says, “I don’t know if she believed she’d never have the goods. She just thought it didn’t matter if she didn’t have the goods in 10 years or 20 years; if she kept trying, she would have the goods. She never did. She sold people as though she had them, which is a fraud.” Later, he adds, “It was hubris, which is pretty much par for the course in Silicon Valley.”
The night after our dinner, I join Béhar and his wife at an opulent home in Russian Hill for a catered farewell party for Max Hollein, the director of the de Young fine arts museum, who is leaving for New York to run the Met. The scene is Old Money San Francisco, blazered octogenarians and Stanley Tucci look-alikes. “The person who moved in next door to us paid $9 million [for his house],” one white-haired guest tells me over white wine. “He founded Slack. What in God’s name is Slack!?”
Béhar, who is friends with Hollein, floats around the light-filled space, telling friends that I’m shadowing him for a magazine profile. “Ten years ago, I was on the cover, and now they’re doing that story of, ‘Whatever happened to Yves Béhar?’ ” he jokes.
Béhar, who recently turned 51 and says he took up surfing after having a midlife crisis, has been talking more and more about how his work will be remembered. He mentions various museums that have displayed his technology products, which he says are becoming “artifacts, the memorable experiences of our age.” At his home office, he has a cherished photo collage from the studio of Charles Eames, his design idol and the inspiration for his own multidisciplinary studio, of iteration after iteration of one of his furniture pieces. It’s a reminder of the effort required to create lasting work.
Where does Béhar fit in the pantheon of designers? His industry friends and competitors aren’t so sure. They mostly tell me he’s a net-positive for the design world and that his signature style is beautiful (his portfolio with Herman Miller receives more praise than his tech work). But they also decry his oversaturated celebrity and the projects where his work detracts from the products’ performance. One well-regarded designer CEO who competes against Béhar finds it ironic that he idolizes Eames, who was “absolutely grounded in the betterment of the middle class. All the greats of the golden age of American design were.” Eames famously once said that “ideas are cheap” and that designers must only “innovate as a last resort,” eschewing inventiveness for the sake of inventiveness. Given Béhar’s penchant for high-priced gadgetry–$229 smart locks, $700 internet juicers, $1,160 robotic cribs–this designer agrees that Béhar isn’t ascribing to Eames’s legendary mantra, “The most for the least,” but rather “The most for the most,” an elitist approach increasingly at odds with mainstream society and one that makes Béhar the “opposite of Eames.”
If Béhar truly feels that design ought to accelerate good-for-humanity ideas, then perhaps it should decelerate bad ones, too. “You can create a parallel between the out-of-touch tech bubble and the phenomenon of Yves,” the designer says. There’s a “brash, fuck-everybody type” that represents “[Béhar’s] approach to design and the Valley’s approach to societal issues.” Through a spokesperson, Béhar cites his design of low-cost eyeglasses for children in Mexico as “the most meaningful work” he’s done. “I aspire to create meaningful designs for many different clients and have worked hard to design life-changing projects for those without resources. My record reflects that.”
Dan Harden, the Whipsaw founder who has been close with Béhar for three decades, has more empathy for his work. As a designer of tech products himself, he knows they “end up becoming novelty items in computer-history museums, like, ‘Oh, I remember that phone!’ ” In Harden’s view, a designer’s career should be judged by “many different product solutions, new ways of looking at problems that have collectively touched your life in a manner that’s positive.” Put another way, it’s about creating not just “firsts,” but “lasts,” advancements that improve an industry, or even the world as a whole.
Béhar is currently finishing up designing a permanent space for Hollein at the de Young. During one of my visits to his office, Béhar reveals that a number of world-class museums have recently inquired about his $2,000 Samsung Frame, the TV modeled to look like a work of art. In a conference room, staring at a Samsung Frame displaying a photo of himself staring at another Samsung Frame hung at the Louvre for the product’s launch, Béhar tells me that even “people from the Charles Eames collection [are] reaching out. They are like, ‘This is very, very interesting.’”
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