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Yabu Pushelberg: Building a Better Life

Designers George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg of firm Yabu Pushelberg have helped define luxury interiors for decades, especially hotels. On this episode, the Toronto- and New York–based duo speak with Dan about how they got started, how their family experiences of hardship, their growing portfolio of products, and more.

Designers Glenn Pushelberg (left) and George Yabu. Photo: Courtesy Yabu Pushelberg


Designers George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg of firm Yabu Pushelberg have helped define luxury interiors for decades, especially hotels. On this episode, the Toronto- and New York–based duo—who are partners in life as well as work—speak with Dan about how they got started, how their family experiences of hardship informed their outlook on their careers, how they manage their ultra-prolific office, their unique brand of “high humble” design, their growing portfolio of products, and more.

Listen to this episode


Glenn Pushelberg: The thing is because we do interiors, we know what makes sense. And we are also not stylists, we make sure that each piece of furniture has a voice, that it has uniqueness, but it actually functions and it does something. It’s not just a crafted piece. And I think that that’s our strength. There is a kind of honest humor to our work, not slapstick, but there is a kind of implied humor, a lightness of being that the CC-Tapis carpets evoke to us.

Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for more than 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour through the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel, all the elements of a well-lived life. By my estimation some of the most prolific and dynamic designers are yes, creative, but the great ones also need a personality to match. After all, if you’re doing five-star hotel after five-star hotel, you better be pretty great to work with.

My guests today prove that idea. As one of the most influential studios and hospitality, they’ve designed dozens and dozens of properties that have come to define the 21st century look of luxury. George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg of Studio Yabu Pushelberg. I’ve known and written about this dynamic duo who are partners in life as well as work for years. Aside from being one of the most friendly and most fun, would it surprise you to know that they’re Canadian?

They’re also some of the most precise and consistent. They’ve been in business since 1980 and I literally cannot think of a single project of theirs that wouldn’t get high marks. Today their team has offices in both Toronto and New York and what a career it has been for these boys. They started with one of the first boutiques for an upstart brand known as Club Monaco, which eventually led to work in New York City for the new at the time, W Hotel. Their list of top-shelf properties, not to mention their oodles of other interiors work includes names like the Aman, Four Seasons, Park Hyatt, Rosewood, Ritz-Carlton, and many, many more.

And in recent years, they’ve expanded their product design business to great success, becoming the new go-to studio for that “high-humble look,” as they call it, perhaps the interior’s equivalent of the much-talked-about quiet luxury. One of their recent collections is Memento, a line of rugs from designer and editor favorite, the Milan-based brand, CC-Tapis. I caught up with Glenn and George from their studio in New York to talk about how the two met, how their own family histories of hardship made them the designers they are today, their ongoing pandemic-inspired creative fantasies and more.


The Moxy Downtown Los Angeles hotel, designed by Yabu Pushelberg. Photo: Courtesy Yabu Pushelberg

So I’ve known you guys for a while and while I was doing prep for this interview, I realized that you both started your firm in 1980, which was a different time.

George Yabu: It seems like epochs ago.

Yeah, exactly. Can you guys paint me a picture of that first year of practice? Where were you guys and what was it like?

GY: Unbridled energy. Unbridled energy and incredible dreamers of what we wanted to do. Well, except being Canadian, there’s that little Canadian DNA in us and we thought, yes, we are dreamers. Did we dream big? Probably bigger than we imagined. And I don’t know about you Glenn, but I always said, wow, sometimes I’m here right in Tribeca now and thought, how the hell did I get to Tribeca, these small town boys from Toronto Canada?

Glenn Pushelberg: Kids working out of our homes.

GY: So I thought maybe I’d find a connection, maybe a friend from… I grew from downtown living in the Lower East Side, comparatively speaking in terms of geography of New York. But there also, I went to a school, probably the best public school system that was bordering on a very, very affluent community. And the beauty of that was the economic differences, that broad span that made living in Toronto interesting when I was in high school and also in public school but particularly in high school because that particular school was the best academic school in the city of Toronto, where the kids that were booted out of private school, the bad boys and girls, they said, okay, you’re going to go to Jarvis Collegiate.

So that’s what the best academic rated school was and it just happened to be in the geographic neighborhood. So from that I was thinking, wow, maybe I could connect back to my high school connections, kids that I knew, friends, and maybe I can renovate their mother’s kitchen or powder room and start a business like that very, very modestly. And so although we dreamed about big things, I would never expect to be doing what we’re doing now in such a broad reach.

GP: When we were kids, we would design anything. We designed the dry cleaning depot, the place where you got copies when you went to a photocopy shop.

GY: A photocopy shop.

GP: And I remember we had energy, we just wanted to design. It wasn’t about making a business. And we would sit and we’d work for 16, 20 hour days. And we would do a drawing and George would start at one end I would start at the other end and our linework would be the same. This was pre-computers of course. And it was fun. And we had energy. There was a time, George, remember when somebody asked us to do a proposal for a Korean restaurant, right?

GY: Barbecue restaurant.

GP: A barbecue, and we had this mental block that, oh my God, this is a breakthrough in our career, it was a barbecue restaurant for God’s sakes, a breakthrough in our career. And we were stumbling. I don’t know it was like four o’clock in the morning, we couldn’t decide what the design should be. And we had this kind of Egyptian-esque kind of drawing. We were late for the meeting and we were sweating all night.

GY: The perspective was all wrong. So we call that…

GP: We didn’t get the project, but you know what? We always had fun. We always had fun.

GY: Our enthusiasm won over that guy, that client. And he returned to us, what [inaudible 00:06:44] Stephen, he said, “Listen,” indirectly-

GP: He felt our energy.

GY: He contacted us, he felt the energy. And this is like 10 years later.

GP: No, five.

GY: Or less than that, five years later.

GP: Four.

GY: It was five. We started in ’80.

GP: 1984.

GY: Four? Okay. 1985, it was pivotal. We started in 1980, let’s say four to four or five years later, he said, “I mentioned you to Christine Ros, who’s going to head up and start Club Monaco in Toronto.” And it started in the Boho area, the gentrified area of Queen Street West, this new concept. So he remembered our energy even though we didn’t have our shit together, but our energy and drive. And I guess he did say your love of creativity. I haven’t seen in the other design proposals that were given to him by other designers that were wanting to design this Korean barbecue restaurant.

So that’s how we started in the retail world, retail design. And well, it really expanded from that one store Club Monaco, over the ages, and it brought the attention of Ralph Lauren, Mr. Lauren himself, and he ended up buying the whole company.

GP: But before that, George, the club thing moved to, oh, the people that owned Haute Renfrew, which is the posh Barneys of Canada, hired us to do Haute Renfrew. And from Haute Renfrew Carolina Herrera saw us in New York, Bergdorf Goodman happened and Tiffany’s happened. All that kind of came sequentially from Haute Renfrew.

GY: I remember we went to Madison Avenue Carolina Herrera, then somebody who was Christine Nakaoka had her own business with her ex-husband in the Bay Area, was hired by Bergdorf’s to make the expansion of putting the cosmetics and beauty products down on the lower level, which is never done in department stores, it’s always at the front door in terms of real estate. So from Carolina Herrera we popped over a few blocks to Tiffany and then Robert Burke recommended us to Tiffany’s across the road.

What I want to know is…when did the two of you first ever lay eyes on each other?

GP: Oh, university. We went to the same university in Toronto, 1972.

GY: We were teenagers.

GP: Yeah, we were babies. We were 17, 18 years old.

GY: I was 19, you were 18 anyway, it doesn’t matter.

GP: You were 18. I was 18. Okay honey.

GY: I was 19.

GP: Anyway, if we knew each other for school as friends, we didn’t get together as a couple until three or four years, actually, 1980. We met each other on the street we were both working from our homes. We said, let’s share a studio. And we fell in love at the same time we started a practice. So 43 years ago. Sweet.

GY: Although we were acknowledging each other of course, but we didn’t resonate. We didn’t really connect emotionally until years later. And it just happened to be walking, running into each other on a main thoroughfare in Toronto. And that day we were both looking for studio spaces for our own practices, budding practices. And that’s quite a bit of serendipity when you think of it. Looking for studio spaces on our own, not intending to run into each other and then we decided, God… It was a day that we said everything’s expensive or spaces are too big for a one or two person studios. Why don’t we share the rent if we find something?

So that’s how it happened. And we kept our separate businesses. It was Glenn Pushelberg Design Associates, and [inaudible 00:10:48] George Design. And we were working under the same roof and same space, different phone numbers, different logo, different entities. And we ended up helping each other with deadlines and cramming. And that’s how we sort of our styles, our sensibility of design linked our drawings, our drawing cells. This is before AutoCAD. We would do perspectives with pencil, with graphite. And you can tell, I’d start one side and he would start on the other side and perspectives with shade and shadow. And when our lines, our pencil lines, you couldn’t tell there were two people created this drawing. It was quite fascinating I thought. Interesting.

And Glenn, can you describe to me what Toronto was like around 1980?

GP: I was from a small town, so Toronto was like going to New York. It was great.

GY: Small town, boy.

GP: But Toronto had a vibrancy in the early eighties. It had a good night scene.

GY: Good energy.

GP: There was a lot going on in terms of cooking and food and restaurants.

GY: Risk taking.

GP: Risk taking. And there were a couple of big design firms, but they were doing office design and stuff. But it was a time of possibilities, I think. And this is early seventies, and by the late seventies we started, we had no money, so we would drive to New York ten-hour drive to New York. And New York was similar, was the late seventies, New York was going into recession or it was kind of bankrupt, but it was vibrant. That was one of the club scenes we went to Studio 54, [inaudible 00:12:33] we went to the Chelsea Inn and it was-

GY: Son of Sam, the serial killer. It was kind of creepy.

GP: Running through the Bowery because it was dangerous and stuff, but it was all good. It was all good times. They all good times.

GY: And it’s interesting, Glenn around the corner now, there’s a Peter Hujar exhibit Life in the West Village and the docks during that time of the gay scene. And it’s kind of funny going in there a couple of weeks ago and reliving it. It was really amazing the transformation or sort of like our lives continue and keeps morphing. But at the core it was still there from the beginning.

And George, just to rewind a little bit, your parents immigrated to Canada in the thirties from Japan and they both kind of worked in craft-related fields. And tell me a little bit about what they did and what your life was like at home as a child.

GY: My God, I realized that life is different. You look back the traumatic experiences, the good, the bad and the ugly. But what came out of that, I realized my roots were informing what I do or what Glenn and I do together. And what I mean by that is just the fact that my father was a master craftsman in his prefecture, they call them prefectures rather than states in Japan. He was selected as the best craftsman to represent that prefecture. And they built the Meiji Shrine in the middle of Tokyo. It was a Buddhist shrine. And that was quite an honor to do that.

Subsequently, that shrine was bombed from World War II and they rebuilt it the same way. But that sense of detail and quality sort of permeated and I didn’t realize it. Even the way his tools that he brought from Japan, like in Western woodworking tools, a simple saw, wood cutting saw, you push the handle and in Japanese saws you pull the handle with the serrated blade. And so that simple act of reversing the movement of pulling to cut the piece of timber, it was more accurate. Whereas when you’re pushing and if you don’t get push right, the blade wobbles and you get an inaccurate cut. So the pulling technique of Japanese wood cutting saws far more accurate and precise.

And so those are the things really comes through in our work today. And the rigorousness, especially now that we’re going into product design, which is turning out well from us, we’re doing a lot of furniture design and things like that. So it’s really informed me. Well, my mother was trained as a tailor, seamstress, like a high-level tailor and almost like, I wouldn’t say Savile Row in Canada by any means, but there was a precision that she was trained in. And that informed me well too of how even textile seams would go together. And that precision, I was a real stickler for that and drove a lot of our manufacturers and upholsterers crazy. But those things really did inform us then and I didn’t realize it.

And Glenn, your parents worked at an auto factory. Did your home appreciate good design when you were growing up?

GP: Well, I helped pick my mother’s drapes. I think my parents also were crafts people, came from craft, people from there were weavers and leather toolers and stuff. But I think both our families came from a point of economic hardship and they provided for us as children. I’ve been talking on both on behalf of both of us because we’ve talked about this many times, but what it gave us was ambition I think. It’s like we need to prove ourselves, we want to prove ourselves, we want to achieve things and stuff. And ambition is this kind of thing in the back of your head. I think that’s what drives us, George, a little bit

GY: That yes also, and like your parents, there is a parallel with my parents, but also the added, I guess motivation would be coming from another first generation coming over from Japan and settling in Canada. And my parents knew that, especially my father, you have to be better than neighbor because you’re going to have it tougher. So you have to compensate and achieve at the higher level because you can be chopped down. You’re not part of the establishment. And so that’s what drove, I guess whether I was aware of it or not, it drove me and it’s still driving me.

And they were incarcerated in the World War. I was born much later and was a mistake. I have five siblings and four siblings were born when they were put in these internment camps. And my father’s boat building business was taken away and my mother’s livelihood was taken away. And it’s really quite shocking. But then I thought, well, dad is right. You got to be a little bit better because it could happen again anytime. And here we are in the issue when the covid came and there was blame it on the Asians or Chinese in specific, but I relate to them. And so he was saying this and it wasn’t really clear. He was a rigorous tough guy, really, really a hard ass but he was trying to protect us and prepare us for the world ahead.

GP: Yeah, my father grew up in the depression and was in a farm and his parents told him to leave when he was 14 because he couldn’t afford to feed him. And it kind of leaves a thing in your mind. It’s like I need to be secure and I need to show my parents, they provided it for me and I need to show them that I can do this. There’s something about that I think. But we were lucky in a way.

GY: Yeah, we became self-sufficient


The Centurion New York, designed by Yabu Pushelberg. Photo: Courtesy Yabu Pushelberg

And going back to one of those early projects of yours, that Club Monaco store, which I didn’t was originally Canadian myself. Big fan, by the way. Big fan of Club Monaco. I think I’m wearing Club Monaco pants.

GY: We all have a little bit in our closet.

We all do. Looking back at that early work, could you look at it and be like, oh yeah, that’s definitely our work. Do you think that your DNA is still in it?

GP: Yes. So when we started Club Monaco Joe, the guy that started it was inspired by Muji and Muji was kind of very also a young brand from Japan. And it was all about creating basics. And the first meeting I remember going to them and he took a square piece of brown paper bag, brown paper, he said, “This craft paper, this is the concept, basic.” And we started making, okay, what are you talking about here? But we also were doing, it was all about materiality and was also about using artists, which we still do. We did these big murals of the Monaco Casino as storefronts and stuff, and it had humor to it and a lightness to it. And there was an area called The Beaches in Toronto. We did a store there and it was the Monaco Casino but with sand around and stuff. But there was humor to it. It was a different-

GY: It was a sand castle iteration of the palace in Monaco. So it was clever little visual tricks and puns that we enjoyed.

GP: It was a funny thing when the first store opened, there was a big advertising campaign and Joe said, oh, we’re over budget. And we said, let’s not put in air conditioning. So the first day it opened, it was hot as hell in September, and it was a real… Lineups everywhere [inaudible 00:22:32] it was an instant hit, [inaudible 00:22:34] Well, weeks later there was air conditioning. But it was a funny way. We were, again, naive children.

GY: And I don’t know that store, one store, Dan, the first [inaudible 00:22:44] store, it was done like this is a piece of craft paper, get inspired of it. It was the first notions of humbleness in retail. But we displayed all the shirts that were, a beautiful cotton Oxford shirt for 19.99, but they were on fruit stands like the grocery store or the open markets, the organic markets. Those basic stalls with just timber legs and the tiered angled stepping that you see the peaches or oranges and the grapes and all that. But there were shirts and another one was pants and another one was underwear. And it was all on casters. And it felt like really just going to, it’s the beginnings of it felt like a pop-up or the beginnings of, oh, this is the outlet stores, because it was already outlet priced. So it was in a good part of the city instead of going to the suburbs. It was a game changer.

GP: George, we were so crazy, the night before the store opened, the first store, we were there folding shirts with the staff to make sure it was perfect. Up all night.

GY: Yeah, perfect. [inaudible 00:23:59] Well, in Europe, all the oranges and the grapes and the peaches are in order in these little shops in Italy or somewhere and we didn’t want it in, I don’t know, d’agostinos are here on straw, they’re all messy and all that. We wanted absolutely perfect. Everything perfect.

And you’ve also said that there was a project with Bergdorf Goodman, the famous store here in New York to those that aren’t from New York, that was your first real luxury project and made a big difference for you guys. Can you recall what you did there and what it looked like? If you can just explain it?

GP: Well, it the interesting thing about it was, as George said earlier, it was the first department store that considered putting cosmetics in the lower level, the basement level, which was storage area. And Bergdorf’s is a kind of special store where you don’t have to follow the prescriptions of the cosmetic brands, looks images. And so I remember it was George, you had to go to the Estee Lauder and all of these brands and tell them, no, it has to be the Bergdorf image. And it was and still exists that it was various rooms that had different concepts to it and the brands plugged into it. But it was a challenge. But again, we had this kind of naive positivity about how we approached everything in life. And it was like, sure, we can do this. We could help convince Estee Lauder that they can only put their name on our design.

GY: Basically, they were afraid when Leonard Lauder found out that they were putting all his brands into the basement, he wants it at the front door like Saks or Neiman’s, it’s always comes out front. They said he flipped out and threatened to pull all his brands out, including the ones that he just bought, like Jo Malone, I think he was in the integration.

Anyway, so they were freaking out. They asked us, Glenn wasn’t there, I was going regularly, I had a little office upstairs and they wanted to keep me there as long as possible days if they could. So I’d commute. So I had to do three days and in New York every week, and I was ensconced in the offices in the executive levels at Bergdorf. I had to present the concept to every brand from La Ferie, La Mer and this and that and to tell them that it’s going to be incredible together and you’re going to love it and you’re going to not get your logo, your font, you’re not going to get your counter finishes and you’re going to have to pay for it too.

And they were outraged and I was stressed for six weeks. I had to do 10 a week or something and they put it on me and I was sweating bullets. I said, “Glenn, if this store does not work, that is the end of our career in the United States of America, do you understand?” But I was like sweating bullets and I was dealing with Linda Fargo, not the easiest person to work with either by the way. You can edit or leave it in, I don’t care. But she was like, oh my God. She was like, tough.

But she didn’t have the balls. Well, at that time, she wasn’t the creative maven of the Bergdorf empire. She was head of visual. But because visual is such a strong element in the DNA of Bergdorf, I had to convince her as well that we knew what we’re doing. And it’s just, you can tell the vibe coming out of her, a lot of doubt that we can pull this off. But we went over Mr. Lauder and it’s a huge success and the basic bones are still there after 25, 30 years.

GP: And everybody copies it from Barney’s to everyone else in there.

GY: Yeah. They went downstairs in Barney’s, right? Everyone went downstairs in cosmetics.

GP: Everybody did.

GY: And then they freed up incredible valuable real estate at the front door, on the ground floor, for other things.

And after the W made a big splash in New York, at that point did you ever decide, hey, let’s not go back to Canada completely and just move to New York or did you always decide that you wanted to kind of be in both places?

GY: It’s the days of Studio 54 where we’d cobble up our nickels and get into your car and drive to New York City just to go to Studio 54. We had nothing but that time I said, we belong here in New York City because it’s far more vibrant and the possibilities are endless. We knew that early in our career.

GP: There was a time when we got a little bored. I mean, Canada’s a great place, but we got a little bored. We said, you know what? Why not? Let’s hope at a studio in New York. We’re going back and forth. 40% of our work was outside of Canada whenever that was 20 some odd years ago. And so we opened a studio in New York.

We didn’t make any money for the next eight to 10 years. It wasn’t about making money, it was about building a bigger, bigger life and having fun. And what New York gave us was, it gave us the world because people hire, if you’re good at what you do, people don’t hire international firms from Atlanta or Toronto or second tier cities, they go to New York. And New York really opened up the world to us. And today I think we probably got 50 or 60 projects around the world. One project in Canada. We still have half our studios in Toronto and the rest is in New York. And we have a great life because we have the best of all worlds,

GY: At the time we only had seven or eight staff in Toronto and we were naive to think that they had the same desires and energy and wants of moving to New York [inaudible 00:30:02] says, well, I’m going to have a baby soon… And Glenn and I thought, oh yeah, that makes sense. And we realized also that we better make it a practice that’s sustainable, that you can survive. And so we had to take it seriously and really make the business work not only in New York where we wanted to be and are now, but we kept the Toronto studio going because the talent base was very, very strong and we didn’t want to let them go. So it was a good thing that we did do that because now today you can work almost anywhere. It doesn’t matter where you are. So it was a good thing. Again, it wasn’t planned, but it worked out. It really worked out for us.

And you guys told the FT once that you call your work high humble, and I was wondering if you could explain what that means. Maybe it means something different to the two of you. Was that W Hotel high humble or was that something that evolved over time?

GY: No, it definitely wasn’t high humble. We were influenced by specific location of Times Square. It had a weight to it, it had a presence that we had to connect to. So I wouldn’t say that would be a high humble, the opposite of high humble. There is a humbleness in, I guess in going back to my father again, roots. And that in Wabi, Sabi, the imperfect perfectness of things, and this humble materials even it was iron ore over the centuries in the archipelago of Japan, they didn’t have the riches of China, the great Chinese Empire with silk and gold and jade and blah, blah, blah, blah. Japanese had to make do with stuff, eating out of the sea and what limited steel they could make out of the limited ore deposits on the island nation.

They made the best swords, samurai swords for instance, the ultimate swords where you just just put it through the air and it could slice anything to smithereens. It’s that ultimate perfection required because there wasn’t a lot so you made the most out of it. And that’s why up to today, Japan always try to resolve and solve a problem or make things better, even though if it’s something that’s uniquely Japanese or something as making the perfect croissant from Europe. And so now Glenn, you’re talking about the humble [inaudible 00:32:45] taking that, yeah.

GP: I think high humble came from the fact that there was a moment, there was a time where we were the go-to firm to go to for luxury five-star hotels, which at some point made us crazy because it kind of limited us. And we started editing and paring back our work and not adding more and more onto it, which is typically what was done 10 or 15 years ago in that genre. And even the Four Seasons in Marunouchi, which is one of our early hotels because it has a kind of Japanese influence, obviously because of the location, because of George, there was a paring back of materiality. It was all about form and space and mood and emotion.

And I think we refined that over time. Resorts are easier, because obviously high humble, and you think more about scale proportion, the journey, the emotional resonance you want from the user using your spaces rather than the artifice of what they see. And I think that is our point of difference as a company, as a firm and the work we do today. Even recently we designed the Black Card Members Lounge, Platinum, Black, what is it called George?

GY: Black Card. Centurion Lounge.

GP: Centurion Lounge.

GY: Exclusively accessible only if you’re a Black Card member.

GP: If you look at that project which opened last year, a very chic uptown New York project, it is the quality of the spaces and the integrity of the art, working with the lighting, working with the color and mood of things that make the space, not the obviousness of materiality.

GY: A lot of the members, Black Card holders, live with molding, cornice molding, blah blah blah, inlays and carpets with borders and stuff like that. And that was all gone away because they’ve seen it, now they want to be energized. They want to feel a bit more in the know and what’s happening in the air right now. So it was much a cooler vibe for those members at the top of One Vanderbilt,

GP: We’re working with this cool tequila company, Clase Azul in Mexico, we’re doing two projects. One is a conversion of a mansion in Guadalajara and one is an Inn in the Countryside. And they’re all about the quality of architecture and interiors and distilling things and finding materials that come from craft of the area and nature-based things. And to us, it fits perfectly. They actually went through 19 design companies, including all the Mexican companies to find us. But we became an automatic, there was an automatic synergy and fit because we live this sense of emotion that you get through caring more about scale, proportion, materiality than artifice.

And since that first W Hotel, how many hotels do you think you guys have designed? Have you kept track?

GY: Oh, my God.

GP: A few here and there. I would guess a hundred or two hundred. I don’t know.

GY: Not that many, I don’t think.

GP: Not that many. Well we do about 12 a year. 12, 15 a year over 20 years…

GY: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah. Maybe. Probably.

GP: Probably in there. You know what’s interesting in the world of hotels now? We are getting hired, not to repeat ourselves, but to create new brands, to reinvent old brands and make them relevant again. And also to do these independent little hotels around the world. We’re doing a Japanese Onsen resort in Hakone AT the base of Mount Fuji. There’s another project in Spetses, in Greece, and another project in Como. But they’re all kind of these more special hotels where design is really super important to make them right.

And how do you guys like to work? With so many projects on the boards at any given time, you guys, I don’t know… How many hotels are you working on at the moment?

GY: I think 28 and counting, close to 30 projects ongoing at the same time. Actually no, 31, I thought it was 28. I was doing a count. And it’s always okay, it’s like being a doctor, consultant, go to this team, don’t have offices, I don’t have private offices, and we walk, we do circles around and around and see how they’re doing. And it’s an open pit studio, and that’s where you’re connected to what’s happening in the zeitgeist, what’s out there because everybody’s out there and not in our little towers or ivory towers and little-

GP: But Georgie on top of the interiors, we are working with 15 to 20 producers of products. Now we’re designing what we call building design because we’re not architects, we’re not registered architects, but we’re designing a few buildings doing the facades of buildings. We have an emerging lighting design department, we have textile designers, we’re doing textiles.

When it comes to steadily producing products, you’ve done a lot in recent years and it’s this whole new part of your portfolio and how people actually even know you. Maybe not everyone gets to stay in a five-star hotel. Why do it? I mean you guys are clearly, you have 30 projects on the boards at any given time. Why add chairs and lighting?

GY: Why do we do that? Because we have all this work already, but because sometimes you just can’t find the right table, the right chair, or it just doesn’t feel right. So we thought we’d started designing things. Well actually it started like furniture, a layout table. We started designing furniture in retail. But when a furniture maker asked us to design a piece of furniture, a table for someone to take in their home, that’s a different story from designing a table, a layout table in a store.

It’s like set design on theater sets. You don’t have to worry about the backside and all that and the underside of the table, people aren’t at home running their fingers on the underside of the thing and admiring the shape and the texture. Oh, all of a sudden there’s a screw there that it’s not recessed and all that because it’s like putting up props. And so it was a different higher level of discipline. And so when we did that, that got us an easy start. When we had one break, it was-

GP: 1994. It was Klaus Nienkämper, Canadian producer, and he asked us to design a chair and we designed this chair, it’s called the [inaudible 00:39:50], but that chair is still being sold. It’s in all the Air Canada lounges around the world.

GY: And he predicted that. He said, going forward, all these airlines are going to have these lounges, their own lounges, branded lounges. And he said, I need this chair because I know we want the comforts of a club chair or big clubby chair, but we don’t have the space in these airport terminals. And what about embassies around the world? And we can sell them to Canadian embassies and consulates around the world because there’s limited space and it’s brand Canada.

And so he gave us a big break. Mr. Nienkämper was the first person to bring over DeSede and all these incredible brands to North America, even before the States had them. He brought it to North America and he partnered with ICF. He bought ICF, eventually sold it, but he was the first in, I would say North America to bring the European high-level quality design to compete with Herman Miller and Hayworth and blah, blah, blah, and Noel.

GP: The thing is because we do interiors we know what makes sense. We are also not stylists. We make sure that each piece of furniture has a voice, that it has uniqueness, but it actually functions and it does something. It’s not just a crafted piece. And I think that’s our strength. We have the best-selling light with [inaudible 00:41:24]. We have the best-selling faucet with Fantini. We’re working with Moltini after Vincent van Duysen did outdoor furniture last year. We want something a little bit more accessible, which will be introduced in February, we started in June, which is super fast. But we have this ability to understand the zeitgeist of where things are going and what’s new and what will work. I think that’s what makes it, and it’s fun and it’s fast.

GY: I really wanted to design product design a long, long, long time ago. And interesting, coincidentally where Glenn grew up in a small town in Ontario there was a manufacturing company and it happened to be the birthplace of that particular device called the BlackBerry. When I had my first BlackBerry I loved the thing. I thought it was one of the most hideous devices that I’ve ever had hands on. It was so ugly. And I said, can’t they change this design? It’s so awful. And I knew in my mind I wanted to design objects at that age, but it sort of left me and I took off in the trajectory of doing interiors. But here we are.

And back to hotels for a second. You told a journalist once something that stuck with me where you said that your work sort of goes beyond dictating aesthetic to crafting spaces that shape experience. It’s very noble. And you guys said it, [inaudible 00:43:04] but I’m curious, of all the projects you’ve done, of all the hotels out there, so many, which one evokes the strongest sense of experience based on the feedback that you’ve gotten from people who said, “Oh, I’ve been to this one or that one.” The one that you get the most experiential good feedback from?

GY: I think it’s three. London is most recently creating its own inner sanctum of a community or a small town, a town within its shell in Leicester Square. And everything was there from community, retail, gym, wellness, place to rest your head down, meeting place, pubs, hidden bars, little secret whiskey bars off the washroom, the toilets, washrooms that looks like a janitor’s closet. Before that, I would say Las Alcobas in St. Helena, Napa Valley where it was experiential from the outside, the exterior realm landscaping and how it informed our interiors.

And what was the experience from the outside that you mentioned, George?

GY: It was all natural. It was like this courtyard, like an open space that instead of having a big ballroom that you’d have in an urban center, urban based hotel, the event space was outside and a very, very small event space that was covered. And it was like I felt, okay, this is where we all meet. This is where it happens in the little village, the town square in the little village. The core of human activity is right here.

GP: And we planned those and designed those buildings that were added on to an old Victorian house. I think that’s what made it special as well.

GY: And the other one was because it reminded me that each time, how you asked me about what resonated in our past hotels, was the Four Seasons again in Tokyo. Because a client said, we wanted to use lacquer like Japanese black lacquer in the doors at the entrance of each guest rooms of the 57 rooms, and they said, are you crazy, Four Seasons operations, lacquer, black lacquer with all the rollies and the luggage and the damage and all that? But somebody who’s that person Glenn in the hotel where he says “I was just at the Four Seasons,” he said, “You know what, those black lacquer doors are in pristine condition today.” But mind you, Dan, we would never be able to do that outside of Japan because there’s that rigor in how they look after things in Japan.

A rug from the Memento collection by Yabu Pushelberg for CC Tapis. Photo: Courtesy Yabu Pushelberg

And going back to products for a second, you guys recently did a line of rugs for CCTapis.

GP: Oh yeah.

And they’re a little bit figurative in a way. They kind of look like buildings. They’re not as sort-

GP: Impossible buildings.

Impossible buildings. Tell me a little bit about the idea and how you feel it sort of represents you guys as a studio.

GP: There’s a kind of honest humor to our work, not slapstick, but there is a kind of implied humor, a lightness of being that the CCTapis carpets evoke to us. It started out as we started thinking about, what was the architectural show where people wore hats as buildings? It was iconic. We were thinking about that. We were thinking about-

GY: You’re talking about Rem Koolhaas’ book on New York, something New York, what was it called?

GP: Delirious New York.

GY: Delirious New York is the title.

GP: That was the book. But he had these crazy buildings and we were inspired by these things. Let’s do something that has a sweetness to them.

GY: And when you think of the body of Rem Koolhaas’ studio, you think, oh my God, this is really impossible things to do. But he pulled it off. And so that informed us, that book was very informative in our years of design education during college. And so it was memories, that’s why it’s called Memento and memories is sort of, you remember something and sometimes it’s probably better than it was in reality. And so we decided to fracture it and have these memories that were not quite exactly what they were being [inaudible 00:47:47]. And also in our third year, I remember we had a film course.

GP: Film studies.

GY: Film studies at the school that we went to and one of the films that we watched and dissected was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which was a surrealist experimental black and white film. It was silent, I think even. It was a German expressionist era moment. And it was like wonky. The protagonists were walking the cityscape or townscape and everything was on weird angles, like a bad movie or a bad nightmare and walking up this angled sidewalk scape. It was just so powerful because it threw off our sense of perspective, sight lines, vanishing point, what do you call that? All these things that you have to know in your mind to draw a three-dimensional view without technology.

And so that was really pivotal in making, that memory came out in these carpets. And these carpets are different irregular shapes. They weren’t like squares or rectangles. Some of them are, but a lot of them aren’t. And so these buildings were, the working title was Impossible Architecture with these little buildings that were looked like they’re melting and falling over, things like that. So it was just a fun thing. And knowing Mauricio Cantoni one half of the Fabrizio Cantoni, one half of CC, he is when you look at the way he dresses this tall Milanese, a wonderful man who’s quirky and weird patterns, shoes and pants and colors and patterns, pattern needs pattern. It just made sense.

And the last time I think we really had an in-depth interview was during the pandemic for a piece that I was writing at departures. And you guys were like, oh gosh, we might change our entire lives and build something in an artist colony or there was some [inaudible 00:50:10].

GP: We’re still thinking about it.

GY: Thinking about it and shaping it.

You are? Tell everybody about this fantasy of yours.

GP: So it’s funny, we formed a think tank within our office of people in the office. Let’s visualize ourselves three years from now and we can do anything on Earth, what would we do? We can control our destiny, we can create other product lines. We can make our own hotel. Being into philanthropy can we combine young artists or young designers and help encourage them to go forward? How would we abstract everything we’ve learned in life and keep ourselves special and vibrant and clear?

And we’re still kind of gestating on that when we are thinking it can be as much as we own our own real estate, we could sell a piece of our office in Toronto and move somewhere and use that money and build. And we are thinking of building an enclave in, maybe it’s Mexico or Portugal where we can experiment more and we can-

GY: A cultural center or-

GP: Something cultural, things that we enjoy.

GY: Or instead of us, if somebody wants to engage with us to create something really intriguing. Glenn and I are like, I don’t know, we’re global travel, going crazy and our schedule of traveling until the year-end is nuts. So maybe the client will say, if you want to engage us, why don’t you come to see us and then we’ll show you what we really do in operation hands-on the notions of hospitality.

And what would this place be? What would happen there?

GY: Well, it could be like a… I wouldn’t want to call it a B&B or a resort, but we’d have a cultural component attached to it like [inaudible 00:52:02] in the middle of Minas Gerais in Brazil or Fogo Island artists in residence next to this beautiful hotel that was designed in the manner of stilts on the edge of the water, just like the old fishing villages in Eastern Canada. Or including that, maybe it’s designers in residence instead, designers from around the road would want to come and learn exchange ideas at our place, at our compound.

Or yesterday we had a think tank of what other possibilities are. And I thought, what about creating a design prize? Like in literature, they have the Booker Prize and in the art world they have the Turner Prize. And why don’t we create a prize for excellence and excelling and promoting design at the highest level. And and the highest level doesn’t mean luxury, the highest resolved level of creativity.

GP: At this point in our life we’re also interested in philanthropy and there are certain causes that we are keen about. We designed a transitional home in Toronto for gay, lesbian, transgender, and Aboriginal teenagers living on the streets, get beaten up and stuff and finding a safe place. But our premise was it doesn’t have to look like a prison. So actually, we were doing the concept for Moxy Hotels, which is micro hotel rooms and using some of the furniture and stuff from the principles of that, that it can be a place of joy with making communal kitchens and making something comfortable. So that’s interesting to us.

And we are doing this other project now with the St. Mike’s Hospital in Toronto where George was born. We’re renovating the pediatrics center, but we’re working with Marcel Dzama, this famous artist that moved from Canada is represented by Zwirner who’s doing murals for us and we’re building that out. So we are interested in, there’s an artist in northern Canada, indigenous artist, [inaudible 00:54:07] Lucy, who was in the New York Times last year and we’re thinking someone like her, if we could help promote her career and combine it with design somehow. Maybe you do this in this special place. Maybe it’s the physical place is a manifestation of what we love, believe in and care about, whether it’s food, whether it’s design, whether it’s the plight of young people are discriminated against because of who they are.

GY: Yeah. And people don’t know that. And even our partners, our suppliers, actually makers that are just not of our designs even, but a plumbing company or outdoor furniture, [inaudible 00:54:45], they say, oh really? It’s interesting. Well, I would like to donate mattresses for the shelter. They ship the mattresses from Belgium. It’s amazing. So that really informs and spreading the word, all these disparities around that’s happening in this world that we can create whatever we want.

GP: I don’t know if we’re answering your question. We’re trying to glue all the things that we love, we care about, into something. Whatever that is you’ll see in a couple of years.

Well, you guys are known for constantly traveling. You have four homes, you make dozens of hotels. You clearly have to go to these hotels and see them all. You’re a couple, you’re both a personal and a professional couple. And those things don’t tend to last in either realm in normal ways.

GP: Weirdos.

What is the secret to your creative success and maintaining the sanity that you have?

GY: Don’t take yourself to freaking seriously. We’re not talking about genome mapping or telomeres in the end of DNA threads and shit like that. What is it, Glenn? I think that’s the thing. I think it’s our innate curiosity that keeps us driving and pushing each other because without change and evolution it’s just boring.

GP: To your point, George, of taking yourself seriously, there’s a quick little story. We were awarded the honor of, what’s it called?

GY: The President’s Seal in America. It’s the Order of Canada. It would be like a knighthood in the UK.

GP: So we were up at the ceremony in Ottawa and we were watching people go and Dr. so-and-so for stem cell research, and so-and-so for this science thing, and George and I look at each other, all we do is pick drapes for a living. How did we get here?

GY: We were whispering it. Yeah, I think as our contribution awareness of what their possibilities are and formerly and still as a nation of [inaudible 00:57:10] and whatever that term is, adding value to the thing. And also our philanthropic work really drove our candidacy for this honor.

GP: And also all of the people that came from us to create their own things we’re super proud of. In Canada I would think that 70% of the design practices came from our practice. And there’s lots of emerging small really good practices here in New York that came from us and we’re super proud of that too.

GY: And our pool, our talent pool, we access the whole world, the whole world, anywhere from Paris, London, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore. And they all come and they want to engage with us, designers, young talent, and it’s nice to have that accessibility and connection on that broader scale.

And Glenn, what is the number one design instinct that George has that you try to steer him away from?

GP: Oh, Dan. I’m trying. It’s 43 years. I want to get to 50. Okay. Not answering that.

George, same question. Is there something that Glenn does that you’re just like, oh, your instinct is to do this? Oh God.

GY: Yeah. Sometimes I think—

GP: Here we go.

GY: Where do I start? I have to take the piss out of Glenn sometimes because his effusive enthusiasm really, really works for 90% of the time. But sometimes it overrides nuances and allowing a voice that comes from our staff and also from our clients. And then he unintentionally edits possibilities too soon because he feels that because of his… And this is important not to overdo this, be overly critical of Glenn because he’s also the driving forces. Incredible, boyish, enthusiasm is so strong. And if you ride that enthusiasm that he has, and excitement, we can go places farther. But we can’t. Sometimes he gets derailed, there’s some branches and sometimes you don’t allow the possibility that let’s take another route, but there’s no time because he’s talking all the time.

Glenn, you sure you don’t want to like reconsider?

GP: Yeah, I’ve got ideas. I’ll let it go. I love George.

GY: That’s his downside. Then all of a sudden [inaudible 01:00:03] well, you trust me. You said I can do it Glenn.

GP: Okay, we’re not going to talk about all your tangents, George.

GY: I go off on tangents because I’m a dreamer of possibilities.

GP: Yeah, that’s true.

GY: Like “Where are you going with that story?” But there is a story, but I have to finish the story.

And what’s next for you guys?

GY: What’s next?

Oh, sounds like you have so much going on. It might be hard just to pick a few.

GP: No, it’s hard to pinpoint. You know what? We are so lucky. We have so many, life is full of possibilities for us.

GY: I think we are going into this important cultural institution, art institution in Canada based in Toronto. And we’re going to help reorganize some of the existing gallery spaces in one of the most important galleries in Canada, Toronto, is probably the most important gallery [inaudible 01:00:54].

It’s a cross between the MoMA and its [inaudible 01:01:01] and the Whitney for example and in cultural institutions that traditionally have always been within the realm of registered architects. I say registered architects because there are Mr. Tadau Ando is never a trained architect and he built that facility in Houston [inaudible 01:01:22] for instance, and many, many art collector private collectors homes and that. So it’s in a realm that was a safeguarded by the networking or the safeguarding of self-governing professionals like architecture. And so it’s interesting, we’ll be working not in sync together, but alongside Annabel Selldorf who’s just doing the huge extension to this art institution. So it’s an interesting area that we’re going to.

And Glenn, I’d love you to describe your life with George in three words. You can’t see, but Glenn just fell over on his chair laughing. But take your time.

GP: I don’t know about three words. You learn over a lifetime. I go fast at a clip and he goes more fluid.

GY: Actually I can go clip away alongside you.

GP: It’s like it’s getting up in the morning and understand the other person’s vibe and just letting them move and you move to your vibe. It took a long time to figure that out. We spent years living and working in lockstep and now we are kind of in and out and fluid and it’s kind of actually more interesting. I think if I was to give anybody advice about life based on our lives it would be you’re always learning about yourself and learning about the other people and nothing is ever static. And once you understand that life can flow, it can be great.

GY: Can I be Glenn’s stand-in for your question?

Well, George, you’d now have to talk about Glenn.

GY: No, I would say at first hand, your question to Glenn, what do I say reduced to three words. I would say if I were Glenn’s stand-in, I would say let it go. Those three words.

GP: Wow. I like his sweet naivety and spiciness.

Okay. All right, George. Now if you have to put yourself in your own shoes and describe Glenn in three words, what would you say?

GY: I would say the same thing. Glenn, let it go. Because there’s a lot going on, just let it go. And if we want to go places further, just let the shit go.

GP: Let it go. Let it go. I am actually Georgie.

GY: Yeah, you are.

GP: Okay. Can we go now?


Thank you to our guests, George and Glenn, as well as to everyone at Purple PR for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going don’t forget to visit our website and sign up for our newsletter, The Grand Tourist Curator at And follow me on Instagram at @danrubinstein. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you like to listen and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Til next time!


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