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Yabu Pushelberg on Favorite Places and What Defines Their Work

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Welcome to Dining & Designing, a new column in which Curbed National joins with the forces of Eater National to profile and explore the design of restaurants. Your fearless leader through this untamed wilderness will be Julie Earle-Levine, an Australian, NYC-based writer who has contributed to The Financial Times of London, New York Magazine, and the New York Times, among others. She has both a passion for real estate and a passion for eating. This will be fun.

Photos courtesy of Yabu Pushelberg

The design firm Yabu Pushelberg is everywhere these days, splitting its time between NYC and Toronto. Helmed by principals George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg—professional and personal partners—the studio has collected one James Beard Award nomination (for NYC's Blue Fin) and multiple awards from Interior Design magazine. With the new db Bistro Moderne in Miami having just been favorably reviewed and two other big projects about to launch around that region (the Ian Schrager/Marriott boutique project Miami Edition, as well as the St. Regis Bal Habour), the duo has plenty to look forward to. Here now, we catch up with them to chat about their own home, their dream project, and what we'll never, ever see in one of their restaurants.

After 30 years in the design business, how do you stay relevant and ahead of the curve, so to speak?

Glenn Pushelberg: Oh my goodness! I ask myself that question, too. Now they check my ID to make sure I am not 60 to get into a nightclub. I guess we are inspired by traveling, meeting people, and by working with younger people and drawing inspiration from them.

George Yabu: Yes, I think we try to find talent that is greater, better than ours. We surround ourselves with new ideas.

Glenn: We look at trends and stuff and say, oh, we don’t need to do that, or there is something in that we can do. We are always open and aware. When you look at your own work and are self critical, you are never really satisfied; it could have been a little bit more perfect. I think it’s important to be self critical of your work. And to look at different trends and what they mean, and not to get sucked into that stuff. We travel so much don’t get stuck in a design rut.

You have four homes, one in Toronto and three in the U.S., including a killer apartment on Perry Street in NYC—we love your cocktail parties and the fact that Hugh Jackman is your dishy neighbor, not to mention your unique art and furniture. What items at home might you incorporate in to your restaurant designs?

Glenn: When we finished Daniel Boulud's db Bistro Moderne in Miami, much like our homes, we wanted to fluff it up some more. We looked for artifacts to make it more interesting—such as a vintage Eiffel tower and some ornaments—more personal, and less designed or synthetic.

What amenity should every apartment absolutely have?

Glenn: A grandma.

George: Within your means, to provide things and make it gracious for your guests. This can be a small touch. Also, everyone should have a grandmother.

What do you consider special about your own designs?

George: Someone told me they thought our design has a level of complexity, but looks simple in execution. I agree with that. I spend time in the studio on idea and concept. I also spend a lot of time editing out strange design; too much design because of the concept, and the end result gets so crowded. To be a great designer you have to be a great editor, too.

Glenn: Many designers just look to magazines. They flip through them, and there is no essential concept. There is a lot of that that goes on.

We liked Edition [the Ian Schrager/Marriott project] in Waikiki. It felt very fresh, comfortable and inviting. We heard you based it on a 1990s trip to Maui, and wanted to recreate the experience of untouched rural towns, almost like "paradise" Hawaii. Can you tell us more?

Glenn: The first time we ever went to Hawaii, we were much younger. We had over leveraged our firm by buying real estate. We over-borrowed from the bank and our families, and it was a big mess. We needed to figure it out, so we took our airline points, rented a car, and went to Hana, on the remote side of Maui, which is a very simple place.It was so untouched—very beautiful, with no one on the beach. We bought the kind of simpleness to it. We thought the hotel should feel like the beach and recapture the innocence.

What and who are your major design influences?

George: I am Glenn's, and Glenn is mine! I highly admire designers and architects who are able to get design built the way we see it should be built. There are these forces working against you—an uninformed client or bad contractor or building codes—and you can spend so much energy on the politics of it. I admire those who make it happen. Like Tadao Ando, Peter Zumthor, or Herzog & De Meuron. Those that help you to make your job, your project be realized and in perfect form, with breathtaking results.

Glenn: There is not one person. But you can draw from people. From those who did wonderful things or have a quiet way in their work—we can learn from that.

What's your favorite hotel in world?

Glenn: It’s hard to choose! The Tawaraya in Kyoto in the classic ryokan, or Japanese inn. It probably hasn’t changed in 200 years. It is a place you can go, take your shoes off, and put on slippers. You get a grandmother. She is invisible but she knows exactly when you are leaving, in the toilet and everything else; there is a private garden, and the bath is ready at time you want it drawn, and at right temperature. But you never see her.

Our other favorite hotel is in Puglia [Italy]. It is a converted convent called Il Convento di Santa Maria di Constantinopoli. It’s 10 rooms [and run] by a man who used to be the treasurer of the [Margaret] Thatcher conservative government, and he met his second wife. She’s a vivacious woman. Charmed by her, he bought her this inn as a wedding present. If she likes the sound of your voice, you are welcome to stay. It’s an enchanting place. It has 14,000 books; it is incredible. You pay one price, and she shows you where the chef is, where the laundress is, and you are invited to use this as a home. It’s very gracious.

How do you decide which restaurants/hotels you will do?

George: It’s a tricky business. One client right now, a potential client from India, they're insisting we do a restaurant, and insisting on all these conditions. I don’t think so. Before commission, you have to suss out the conditions—can you be creative? The concept—is it valid or not? If the concept is feeble, you don’t want to be associated with that.

Glenn: Anyone who wants to do thematic restaurant shouldn’t come to us. We don’t do traditional designs. Sometimes it can work, such as a landmarked hotel—maybe it could be great if we could juxtapose something that's modern. It really depends on how far the client wants to go or not. In Italy we are working on 15th-century building. The client hired us to do something modern against something old. That is an interesting challenge for us.

Do you ever squabble over design decisions? Who wins?

Glenn:Never! George always wins. George is a Leo so he always wins. We come from different strengths. We do debate and we are ruthless debaters in front of design teams. And they know us. It doesn’t matter. That makes sense for them.

Is there anyone who haven’t worked with yet who you would love to?

Glenn: Bill Gates. Because he’s the ultimate philanthropist and the ultimate philanthropist would be the ultimate client wherein there are no illusions of grandeur.

Head over to Eater National for the remainder of the interview. >>