Collector Spotlight: Designers George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg

Seasoned art collectors who capitalize on the globetrotting nature of their work, they visit galleries and artists’ studios wherever they go.

Glenn Pushelberg and George Yabu. Courtesy of Yabu Pushelberg

When Observer published a story about design duo George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg’s Perry Street home in one of the famed Richard Meier buildings back in 2015, the writer opened with this statement: “Anyone who has perused the sleek boutiques of Barneys or dined at the chic Park Hyatt on 57th Street has been lucky enough to behold the mastery of design company Yabu Pushelberg.” One could pen a similar opener today, swapping Barneys or the Park Hyatt, or both, for the Edition Hotel in London, The Londoner in Leicester Square or The St. Regis Mexico City, among many, many others.

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Partners in both work and life for more than four decades, Yabu and Pushelberb have become indelibly associated with the aesthetic experiences offered by premium five-star hotels and luxury brands around the world. They’re also seasoned art collectors who capitalize on the globetrotting nature of their work, visiting galleries and artists’ studios wherever they go. As a consequence, their art collection has grown organically over the years to encompass works by a diverse range of artists, including Anish Kapoor, Yoshitomo Nara, Thomas Ruff, Robert Mapplethorpe, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Wolfgang Tillmans and Simon Gavina.

A commissioned Yayoi Kusama Pumpkin. Courtesy of Yabu Pushelberg

The couple’s collection, which is displayed in several homes as well as in the Yabu Pushelberg offices in Toronto and New York, is very much a reflection of their lives together, both in the present and in their shared past. “We didn’t focus on a point and time in art or photography or whatever,” Pushelberg said in an interview with STIR late last year. “Our collection really came from our heart—what we see in our soul, whatever spoke to us.” They’ve been able to go back and acquire pieces that were out of reach in their younger and leaner days, but many of their acquisitions have been spontaneous: pieces by unknown artists they encounter in their travels, work acquired after connecting with some art world star.

The word that might best describes Pushelberg and Yabu’s relationship to art is joyful. The size of their collection and the names therein make it valuable on paper. The personal significance of each piece—how and where and when it was acquired and, of course, why—imbue it with a different kind of value.

Observer caught up with George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg to ask about their approach to art collecting, how design impacts their choices (or vice versa) and what inspires them. Their shared answers appear in full below.

What can you tell me about your collection and your collecting philosophy?

Our philosophy when it comes to our art collection is to purely live amongst our curiosities. We stray away from the term “collectors” because it sounds like we are taking something and leaving. We see art as a way to begin a dialogue and welcome others into that space. When we see a piece that moves us and makes us feel something, we know others must feel that way too. Our objective with art is to move people, conversation, and perspectives forward.

How does your work in design impact your collection and collecting activities? Has it influenced your approach to displaying art? Or has art influenced your design work?

Design is about feeling and art moves feelings forward. We are sensitive to this relationship when designing an environment. You map out a space to build in function and thoughtfulness, while interiors create the dynamics. Products set the scene, lighting develops its aura, and styling activates the character of a space. Art binds these elements together to create a throughline emotion that rarely can be traced with words. We consider art through each phase of our design thinking, so we can get to that end feeling.

Shou Fan’s ‘Two Pine Trees.’ Evan Dion / Courtesy of Yabu Pushelberg

Is there a definite uniting theme in your collection you can point to? Do your tastes ever clash?

We don’t have a central theme when it comes to our collection; it’s just the things that we love. We don’t like to think too hard beyond what captures our attention in the moment. What we keep is a reflection of our memories and the evolution of our personalities and tastes. For example, something we acquired 25 years ago most likely has taken on a completely new life and meaning that resonates with who we are as individuals today, compared to what it meant to us when we first bought it. That is what we love about art, it continues to evolve and take on new meaning.

Your collection is fairly large. Have you considered legacy? As in, what do you see as the future of your art collection?

Our collection has reached the point where we don’t see another way of enjoying it other than sharing it for others to enjoy. The beauty and privilege to be around art is something we want for everyone to experience. Just as these works have served joy, reflection, and dialogue for us, we want it to be the same for others. That is why we have designed gallery spaces in both our Toronto and New York studios so that our team can experience art and allow it to take on its own meaning that is personal to them.

Shou Fan’s ‘Two Pine Trees.’ Evan Dion / Courtesy of Yabu Pushelberg

What inspires your collecting activities—are there particular artists you seek out or perhaps experiences?

Our work takes us around the globe, and our travels are a direct reflection of the pieces we keep in our lives. While we are on the road, we choose to live like locals and submerge ourselves into the feeling of being in a neighborhood. One way we try to do this is by connecting with the local art scene and the people who contribute to that. This leads to us meeting curious and talented strangers, and we sometimes get a token of their interesting perspective as a memento from our journey. When we were in Japan for the completion of the Aman Residences Tokyo, for example, we came across a young Japanese artist who made eccentric-looking sculptures. It’s our favorite way of discovering new works and talents.

A sculpture by Sachi Hasegawa. Courtesy of Yabu Pushelberg

Collector Spotlight: Designers George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg