Design team Yabu Pushelberg brings a little Toronto flavour to the world’s best hotels

At 4:30 p.m. on a Monday, the pace at Yabu Pushelberg’s Toronto studio shows no sign of slowing. Entering through the heavy ceiling-high door, shoes clicking across the concrete floor, only the reception desk is visible. But around the corner to the right, members of the design team stare intently at their computers, George Yabu is engrossed in a meeting, and Glen Pushelberg is sitting in his office at an imposing glass desk. Every detail in the studio exudes stylistic perfection, but one would expect nothing less from Canada’s most successful interior design firm, which has built itself an international award-winning portfolio.  

Yabu and Pushelberg met at Ryerson University while studying interior design. The two were always friendly, but they went into business together almost by fluke. Three years after graduation, both men were trying to establish their careers and burning out on freelance projects, when they ran into each other on the street. They vented their frustrations. Then they found a solution: they decided to co-rent a studio on King Street, a relationship that over time, developed into a business and life partnership.

By the late 1980s, with a few projects under their belt, such as designing the Toronto’s flagship Club Monaco on Queen Street West, YP was ready to purchase its own space. “In 1989 we bought this real estate and it almost killed us,” Pushelberg says, gesturing to the space around him. The Booth Avenue property is still the one they’re in today, though there was a brief period during the recession where they thought they might lose it. “The mortgage holder went bankrupt before we did.” And it’s a good thing too. The world of design could have missed out on something big.

Being on the brink of bankruptcy taught YP valuable lessons. “We did make mistakes at the beginning,” Pushelberg admits, “because we weren’t business people — we were designers. We are designers. But we’ve learned business by trial and error.” In order to become more business savvy, Pushelberg began focusing on finance management and client relations, while Yabu stayed at the drafting table. Pushelberg has no regrets. “I like the speed.”

Indeed, a typical design project can be years in the works, which could feel slow moving for someone with Pushelberg’s boundless energy. While Yabu’s creative momentum is offset by a superficial calm, Pushelberg’s is visibly kinetic. He can’t sit still in his chair for more than a few seconds. But their combined energy, even after working together for 27 years, is what propels the design firm.

It was 1998. Following almost a decade of designing retail and restaurant spaces, YP craved change. The duo had just won a James Beard award for their design of Toronto’s Monsoon restaurant, when they caught the attention of Barry Sternlicht, then-chairman of Starwood Hotels & Resorts and founder of trendy W Hotels. (Since 2001 YP has won at least two design awards per year.) He asked for their portfolio and they got commissioned to design the W in New York. “That was our first hotel,” Pushelberg says.

Then a month later Four Seasons called. The Toronto-based, world-famous luxury chain had a young entrepreneur building a hotel in Tokyo, and asked if they would be interested in competing for the contract. They were, they did, and they won. Before that, Pushelberg says, they were “neophytes” in the hotel business. He says breaking into it was the age-old chicken and egg dilemma. “You want to design hotels but it’s impossible to get into, because unless you’ve designed hotels people generally won’t hire you. Now we’ve become kind of hotel experts.” Today, they have 25 projects on the go — including 16 hotels in 14 different countries — and all with price tags between $1.5 and $3 million.

Yabu and Pushelburg spread their lives between two offices, in their home town and in New York, and three homes: one is in Toronto, and the other two are in Manhattan and East Hampton, N.Y., though it’s a wonder they have time to set foot in any of them. “I’ve been on 120 flights so far this year,” Pushelberg says. “This weekend I’m going to New York and on Sunday I’m going to Delhi and from Delhi I’m going to Beijing. Then I’m back for a week and then I go to Dubai.” A demanding schedule, which they clearly thrive on.

Pushelberg says rising to the level of a leading luxury design team took hard work, great clients and faith. “We believed in what we wanted to do and it was always about making something that was good or beautiful or interesting — it wasn’t necessarily about business,” he says, adding, “we only grow [if] we can teach others in our firm to grow.”

Some designers have been at YP for 10 or 15 years. Pushelberg believes the extra vacation time, great benefits, salaries some 30 per cent higher than the industry average, ongoing education through seminars, trade shows and international travel, and the level of confidence Yabu and Pushelberg invest in their staff are reasons why people stick around. “They know when they can make decisions without you and they know when they can’t. That’s really the key to producing so much work.”

Of their numerous projects, they can’t identify one that stands out as the best. “It’s hard because it’s like asking which child is your favourite,” Pushelberg says. Each is unique. “We draw our inspiration from the place, the context of the place, the brand, the building or the architecture and to some degree from the client.”

Toronto’s Hazelton Hotel in tony Yorkville — a $100-million project completed earlier this year — is a perfect example of their approach. Peter Cohen, the hotel’s co-developer, says, “They shared our vision for what the hotel could be for Toronto.” Cohen and his partner Bruce Greenberg liked YP’s work on other high-end hotels, blending traditional and contemporary styles, but more importantly, Cohen says, “We wanted the hotel to be part of the fabric of the arts and culture of the city.” What better way to ensure that than by hiring a local team with an international presence. “They did a magnificent job.”

Yabu and Pushelberg are thrilled, as well. “We had such lacklustre hotels for a long time in most Canadian cities,” Pushelberg says. (The Hazelton is Toronto’s first true five-star accommodation.) “Toronto can be a bit of a conservative city — [the hotel] is a little bit glamorous.” A little is a whopping understatement, with materials like mother of pearl, Pakistani marble, African walnut, cowhide, suede and stone lavishing its interior. And they’re scheduled to raise the bar in Toronto’s hotel scene a second time. Construction of the new Four Seasons, designed by YP, is set to begin in 2008. This past September they also opened a 3,000-sq.-ft. showroom next door to their Toronto studio. Called Avenue Road, it features collections designed by Christophe Delcourt, Konstantin Grcic, ClassiCon and, of course, Yabu Pushelberg.

Obviously international acclaim hasn’t impeded their appreciation for where they came from. “The great thing about Toronto or Canada is it’s a great place to start something. I think you can start from nothing…be whatever you want to be, because there are fewer restrictions than there are in many other countries,” says Pushelberg. But he does admit there are limitations in size and scale.

“There can only be so many five-star hotels being built here so eventually you have to go beyond your own margins. But that’s also good because when you come back to work in Toronto you always bring something else back.”                


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