Profile: Yves Béhar

Yves Béhar creates desirable lighting and products, but it is the budget XO laptop – created for the developing world – that has the potential to change lives. Sarah Verdone asks him about his plans for the future

Designer Yves Béhar is telling us about the television show he watched as a boy in Switzerland. He rolls some footage of the Barbapapas and the blob-like creatures transmogrify into musical instruments, letters, or whatever they wish. Somehow it makes perfect sense that we’re watching cartoons with the founder of Fuseproject, a consultancy ‘dedicated to the development of the emotional experience of brands through storytelling’. The story we’re hearing involves transformation and optimism – two tenets of Béhar’s work. The designer is in New York for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair and he is squeezing in a talk amid the trade show hoopla. His sleek Fly bench is debuting for US manufacturer Bernhardt and he’s also plugging a new line of high-end pooch products designed by California College of Arts students for the Turkish company Gaia & Gino.

Béhar and Fuseproject have a hand in the design of revamped Birkenstocks, accessories for BMW’s Mini Cooper, and the $100 (£50) XO laptop for the One Laptop Per Child project. Nike, Toshiba, Cassina and Microsoft are also on the consultancy’s client list. Béhar is the chair of industrial design at CCA, and at 36, international awards dot his resumé and his work sits in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, among others.

Despite these achievements, spotting a Fuseproject design can be tricky. Béhar does not do ‘signatures’. ‘We look at each project and ask, “What’s a relevant conversation to have?”‘ he explains. His 28-employee, San Francisco consultancy works like a lab. ‘Experimenting with technology, materials and craft gives us the opportunity to try and fail and explore,’ he says. He leaves out the phrase, ‘and succeed’.

Take the Morpheus chandelier from Swarovski’s 2006 Palace Collection. Béhar turned a static and often stuffy centrepiece into a fluid, interactive display. Viewers controlled the undulations of a 4m mobius strip of light via remote. With the touch of a finger users can also slide Béhar’s Leaf LED lamp (for Herman Miller) from white work lighting to a warm, off-duty glow. Another of Béhar’s products cushions the blow of cutting-edge technology simply by virtue of its bold design. The Jawbone mobile phone headset for Aliph, which launches in the UK in July, looks like a modern piece of jewellery – not another anonymous chunk of plastic and wire. This portfolio, along with Béhar’s stool for Danese Milano, tells a story of Old World civility versus New World hyperactivity. Named after a relaxed island off Istanbul, the Kada’s triangles of plywood and neoprene ship flat, then join together like the Barbapapas to serve as a table, stool, or a hub for gadgets.

However, it’s the story of the humble little laptop that captivates Béhar’s audience. The non-profit OLPC initiative, started by Nicholas Negroponte and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, will bring five million computers to the world’s poorest students this autumn. Fuseproject designed the hardware, and 5000 children are currently putting the XO prototypes through their paces. ‘Everyone thought it was a crackpot idea in the beginning,’ Béhar says of the XO, which is manufactured by Quanta Computers. ‘Computer design is usually 90 per cent legacy and 10 per cent innovation. This is more like 80 per cent innovation,’ he adds.

The XO may be cute as a button as well as water, dust and kid-resistant, but it also has features that most adults would gladly pay for/ a solar and/or human-powered, long-life battery; a screen that reads vertically or horizontally, in colour or black-and-white, and is legible in sunlight; and a track pad that doubles as a writing tablet. When asked if the West should be sending food rather than computers to developing countries, Béhar states emphatically, ‘Education is just as critical a need!’ It’s the only time his composure – a mix of Swiss politesse and West Coast ‘chill’ – cracks. For him, the pro bono project is about sharing – the operating system is open-source, the powerful Wi-fi antennae can connect entire villages to each other, and the Internet brings the world to the children.

Béhar cites two other areas that ‘need to be fixed, badly’ – the hybrid electric car and airplane interiors. ‘Part of our role is to envision the future,’ he says optimistically.

We can’t wait to see – and hear – all about it.

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