Yves Béhar’s résumé features a dizzying roster of established global brands and potentially world-changing ideas. But among a handful of hits is a long list of failed and forgettable Silicon Valley-bankrolled products, some of which—a $700 juicer for pouches which reviewers discovered could be squeezed by hand—have become poster children for design’s extravagant knack for solving the wrong problems.
In a new Fast Company feature deftly reported by Austin Carr, Béhar laments the fact that he hasn’t achieved the same level of fame—or, perhaps, respect—as his peers. At a posh San Francisco event, he tells his fellow partygoers: “Ten years ago, I was on the cover, and now they’re doing that story of, ‘Whatever happened to Yves Béhar?’ ”
Béhar is undoubtedly a very well-known designer who elevated the profession along with his own profile. But for all Béhar’s big-time commissions, media appearances, and speaking engagements, writes Carr, he’s regarded by his colleagues as someone who is “willing to slap his name on anything: robots, smart turntables, body sensors—products that look sexy but rarely live up to the hype.”
Once a darling of the design press, Béhar’s newest product launches—a smart lock, a robot crib, a flat-screen monitor for displaying art—have been met with growing criticism about their usefulness (as well as their price tags). Here are seven excerpts from the story that might explain why.
He’s not so hands-on anymore
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.”
But make no mistake, he is famous
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.
He might be tough to work with
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.
He’s solving problems few—if anyone—has
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.”
Fuseproject changed the way designers worked with brands, but...
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.”
He designed a product without knowing if it worked
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.”
Charles Eames is his hero, yet he’s not really like him
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.”
Read the whole story at Fast Company.