George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg, who run the international design firm Yabu Pushelberg, are avid art collectors, believing that one creative medium informs the other. “We look for inspiration for our work,” Mr. Yabu said, adding that, in his estimation, “art is a much purer form of visual expression than interior design.”
In many ways, the men, who are also partners in life, fit the profile of the ideal collector. Through their projects, like the Four Seasons New York Downtown and the forthcoming Times Square Edition hotel; stores for Tiffany & Company and Louis Vuitton; and the redesign of the Madison Avenue flagship of Barneys New York, Mr. Yabu and Mr. Pushelberg, both 64, frequently interact with tastemakers at the forefront of culture. And their work takes them to cities around the world, where they make a habit of visiting local museums and galleries.
Another advantage: With homes in Toronto, Miami, Manhattan and on the south fork of Long Island, they have plenty of wall space to display their pieces by Anish Kapoor, Yoshitomo Nara, Thomas Ruff and Robert Mapplethorpe.
The couple, who are Canadian, began their careers in Toronto, and, fittingly, their Toronto house — in the leafy Bennington Heights neighborhood, a short drive from their studio — holds some of their most prized and personally meaningful works. In the living room, for instance, they recently installed newly acquired pieces by Yayoi Kusama and Julian Opie. The interesting twist: The 75-by-55-inch painting by Mr. Opie, a portrait of Mr. Yabu, was commissioned by Mr. Pushelberg. A different portrait of Mr. Yabu by that British artist was until recently on view at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
During a recent telephone interview from their Toronto home, the couple reflected on going from collectors of Modern art to old-fashioned patrons. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Glenn, what gave you the idea to have George painted?
GLENN PUSHELBERG I was racking my brain for a present for George for a milestone birthday. A friend said, “Why don’t you have an artist paint him?” I thought, “Gosh, that’s brilliant.” I immediately thought of Julian. Julian can distill a person’s character in a few lines. I called his gallery, and Julian said yes, and then we were sent a big, long contract: “You cannot tell the artist what the medium will be. You cannot tell the artist yadda, yadda.” The contract also said, “Whatever he makes, you have 30 days to decide whether to buy or not.”
George, what was your reaction to Glenn’s gift?
GEORGE YABU I’d been photographed, of course. But this was something else. Who does that? Only royalty. I thought the whole concept was interesting. Glenn is the patron. I am the subject of Glenn’s largess. But I was freaking out. I kept putting it off.
YABU I always think other people are more interesting. I’m not being modest — I haven’t search-engined myself, ever. So I was in denial until I opened the door to Opie’s studio.
What was the sitting process like?
PUSHELBERG We went to London, sat in his studio. H e took pictures of George; we had a lovely time.
YABU Twenty people are photographing your face. It’s like the end of the fashion runway, with flashbulbs hitting you. Staring in one spot for 20 seconds is really hard — you can’t blink. Julian worked with a man who built him a special camera. It’s on four wheels and a gimbal. So this 35-millimeter camera was trundling around my head like a choo-choo train.
PUSHELBERG Over the next three years, the first thing he [Mr. Opie] finished was the painting in our living room. Then he did the portrait that was shown in the National Portrait Gallery. Then there was a video of George in the studio and a relief. You can’t have four Georges hanging around the house. We kept the big picture, which is what you see. We’re donating the video and bas-relief, probably to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Do you feel the painting captures George’s essence?
YABU I walk around the painting in our home and look at it. We also dashed into the National Portrait Gallery when the other painting was there. At one point, Glenn and I turned and looked at each other and laughed. It’s pretty funny.
PUSHELBERG There were all these people looking at the painting, and they started to realize, ‘Oh, there’s George — and there’s George.’