Yabu Pushelberg Teach Some Important Lessons to Parsons Students

An overflow of students, faculty, and alumni crowded a lecture and workshop given recently at Parsons The New School for Design by interior designers George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg of Yabu Pushelberg. For well over an hour, they delighted us with images and anecdotes on their best work from around the world, including the interiors of Lane Crawford in Beijing, Avenue Road in Toronto, and their private residences in New York and Canada.

They also presented their strategy of developing design concepts through a character-driven narrative. That approach was to be the basis of a weekend workshop for me and 19 other architecture, interior design, lighting design, and product design students at the School of Constructed Environments.  Our challenge was to design the lobby of The Smyth, a boutique hotel in Tribeca, which was a recent project of Yabu Pushelberg’s. By examining the identity of the neighborhood and its residents, as well as the ideal traveler who would prefer to stay there, we created a persona and brought him to life via images that portrayed his lifestyle and everyday habits, even his quirks.  The more detailed the story, the better, since these were the clues that would really bring our design to life. Then we were divided into teams to ensure a cross-pollination of design disciplines.

My team compiled the different characteristics of the persona we had each created to produce one man: Laszlo, a quirky German fashion designer who often travels to New York from Berlin for business and pleasure. He has an espresso every morning at the exact same time, is always carrying a magazine, is impeccable in his grooming, and only enters his own apartment from the rear service entrance.  He also collects photography and will only drink German beer. He uses a hotel as a home away from home and often entertains his local friends there.  After Laszlo’s character was established, we began to translate his needs and habits into a spatial design, proposing the lobby to imitate his home and the hotel entrance to mimic a dark freight elevator.

Our first deadline was an informal pin-up on Friday evening with Glenn Pushelberg and six of his senior designers.  In just seven short hours, we worked furiously to define our character and concept as a group and sketched out plans, elevations, perspectives, and anything else that would help to support our design.

Glenn and his staff were encyclopedic with their critiques. They provided feedback that was insightful, incredibly knowledgeable, and encouraging and supportive.  They gently shepherded us towards stronger plans, better paths of circulation, and encouraged us to really push our concepts toward the whimsical, and shy away from the “traditional” notions of a hotel lobby as we moved forward.

The next morning started early. Our final critique was scheduled for 4 p.m., and we wanted to allow as much time as possible to incorporate the criticism we received the night before.  The energy in the studio was a bit more frenetic, with an undercurrent of friendly competition. This was, after all, a chance to showcase our talents to one of the most sought-after interior design firms. For the evening’s presentation, we were asked to further develop our plans and sketches, so most teams decided to divide and conquer using every tool in our tool kits. The results were impressive.

At the final review, walls were covered with a plethora of drawings: hand-sketches, computer-generated models, diagrammatic plans, and collaged perspectives. One team crafted a viewfinder to allow the user to experiment with the proposed lighting scheme. Another team created a physical mock-up of a room key and acted out the interaction of a guest checking into their hotel.  My team’s presentation included a reception desk disguised as a dining room table to go along with our “Home-Away-from-Home” concept. Once again, Glenn and his team went around the room giving every group generous time to discuss our progress, praise the successes, and suggest ways to improve our weaknesses. They made a great effort to address every person in the group, focusing on what each of us contributed.  And then as fast as it started the charrette was over.

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We left there better designers than when we came in. Not only because of what we learned from the Yabu Pushelberg team, but also from one another. Collaborating with students outside our disciplines is such an enriching experience in itself. It brings us outside the boundaries of our own curriculum and exposes us to different creative processes and methods of visual presentation, which are both imperative to designers. Participating in a charrette with a firm like Yabu Pushelberg is also an invaluable simulation of real-world experience.  Teamwork, immediate deadlines, and client-mandated design restrictions are part of the professional world we can lose sight of in our school-bound bubble. As a graduating student about to return to the work force, I welcomed this peek into a successful practice.

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