Yves Béhar's design for a children's laptop costing under $100 has won the Brit Insurance Design Award for 2008
The tagline of Yves Béhar's company, Fuse Project, is "Design Brings Stories to Life." This certainly rings true for the One Laptop Per Child initiative, which is bringing education to thousands of children in developing countries.
Designing a children's computer that is attractive, light, and costs less than $100 is no mean feat. Béhar's One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) has been described by Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, as "a pioneering design." As Sudjic says, "This is a striking demonstration that proves design to a ruthless budget can achieve great results." The project is the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US. The energy-efficient computer reduces energy use by 90 percent and can be charged by hand-operated power, making it easy to use in rural villages.
OLPC highlights how Béhar, 40, is very adept at fusing design and technology while keeping an eye on commercial constraints. Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, to a German mother and a Turkish father, he completed his studies in Los Angeles and has been based in San Francisco since the early 1990s, when he was lured to the west coast town during the Silicon Valley's high-tech boom. Working across an array of industries, including technology, fashion, furniture and sports, he counts among his clients Herman Miller, Swarovski, Target, Nike, Adidas, Microsoft, Disney, Birkenstock and Johnson & Johnson.
You've won the 2008 Brit Insurance Design Award for designing One Laptop Per Child. How did you become involved?
Nicholas Negroponte presented the idea of One Laptop Per Child at the United Nations to Kofi Annan, and the UN endorsed the concept. Then Paola Antonelli, design curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, recommended that he work with me. So he came to San Francisco, and we had a meeting and discussed the important role that design would play. We agreed that designs for the developing world are typically cheap, unreliable, of low quality and low technology and are hand-me-down versions of what we get here in the West. We really believe that design can be a democratic endeavor, and that you should be able to design something of high quality and high technology specifically for the developing world, where you have low electricity and low economies. Design could solve this quandary.
What were the most important considerations to make the laptop fun and easy to use for children?
One of the guiding principles was always to think about whether this would be something a kid would love, with no extraneous technologies or features. Every decision we made was geared toward finding a specific solution so that it would be immediately recognizable as a child's computer.
Your aim is to provide computers to nearly two billion children in the developing world. How does the scheme work?
Governments buy laptops for hundreds or thousands of children and freely distribute them to schools. So the kids end up owning them and taking them home. So far countries including Nigeria, Peru, Mexico and Uruguay have signed up, and there are plans all over the world. Around 500,000 computers have been ordered or shipped since December. The aim is for 1.7 million this year. We've also launched a "get one, give one" initiative in the US, whereby if you buy two laptops, one of them goes to a child in the developing world. There's also limited availability of laptops for schools in the US; local administrations buy them and give them to the kids for free.
In December, with Luminaire and Design Miami, you organized a charity auction of OLPC-inspired artworks, four of which raised a total of $31,000. What inspired this idea?
There's so much design inspired by art, and I wanted artists to be inspired by design and the project in general. The artists [including Olafur Eliasson, Ugo Rondinone, Cindy Sherman, Catherine Opie, John Baldessari, Jorge Pardo, David Altmejd and Richard Tuttle] responded in fantastic ways and made really great artworks.
You evidently believe that it's the responsibility of designers to become involved in sustainable, humanitarian projects.
Absolutely. Design for me is a forward-thinking practice, but it's highly driven by constraints. Designers are uniquely equipped to contribute not just to consumer cultures and business but the important causes we're facing today. I see designers as the glue on all the fundamental issues of sustainability, the need to change industry, and for the Western world to contribute to finding solutions for the developing world. In areas such as education and health, the involvement of designers, like that of NGOs and governments, is critical.
What other projects are you working on?
We've just finished a couple of projects with the city of New York. The first is designing the wrappers for the New York City condom. The aim is to freely distribute 36 million condoms all around the city to homeless shelters, bars, clubs, restaurants, pool tables and convenience stores. The second is the New York City bicycle helmet. The city has developed a policy to encourage cycling in the streets, so it is putting thousands of rentable bicycles at the disposal of its citizens. We worked on creating a low-cost helmet that the city would make available for cyclists. The helmets are separate from the hat element that touches your skin, which means you can leave the shell with the bicycle and just take the hat with you. And New Yorkers, being fashion-conscious, can have different hats according to the seasons and apply their personal taste to it. We're studying this right now and are hoping to launch it sometime early next year.
You also designed the packaging for Y Water, an organic, nutrient-rich, low-calorie beverage. What gave you the idea for developing such a playful design?
It's a commercial project for a new company. We created the name, the bottles and the concept. What's unique is that it's an organic beverage that turns into a game like Lego. So the kids can assemble bottles into any shape and learn about reuse. These bottles are being reused and are fun at the same time.
How have you reinvented the cereal box?
We've worked on a cereal box with Target and mostly focused on different user experiences. For most consumers, the standard cereal box is frustrating to use; each person has ways of opening the box and pouring the cereal. It's usually large with lots of air inside for a small product. But it's a complex thing to tackle since the cereal box has been the same for years. We addressed issues of practicality, freshness, packaging and transport, and launched a new version a few weeks ago.
You have been creating form-changing chandeliers for Swarovski Crystal Palace. What appeals to you about this collaboration?
Our four-year-long collaboration with Swarovski is definitely a futuristic exploration done internally in the studio. It's what I call a "laboratory" of new ideas, technologies and applications through design. It's really fascinating and exciting work. Our chandelier "Voyage" is at JFK airport in New York. We have also been able to apply that kind of shifting motion technology to our projects for Herman Miller's LEAF lamps. Users can touch the lamp and decide if they want to shift from warm, ambient, romantic light to something more efficient and office-like. Those are the kinds of transformations that we go through today in work and life; the lights are analogies for the changing shifts that we have in our daily realities.
After growing up in Switzerland and studying in Los Angeles, why did you decide to move to San Francisco?
I moved there in 1993, when the home personal computer was being developed. It was an exiting time, to be creating a new typology for access to information and communication. Since then, San Francisco and Silicon Valley have kept me very intrigued with the potential to bring technology and design together to create human experiences. What is fascinating here is the incredible search for and openness to innovation, and design is part of that picture.
How would you describe your home?
Personal, eclectic, full of light and the voice of my son Sky.
You installed a bamboo floor throughout and were as careful as possible about using environmentally clean materials. What look and feel were you seeking?
I don't really search for a look but rather the right combination of the everyday and the unexpected. It's more like a work in progress, not exactly a finished product. But yes, as much as possible, I really like to consider the health and environmental aspects of the interior and objects around me. It is not exactly obvious and easy, as most of the larger pieces of furniture in a home are very conventionally built. Couches, for example, are still the same combination of injected foam and wood, which is pretty much an intractable chemical combination.
You have objects by Tom Dixon, Ron Arad, Raymond Loewy and Eames. What attracted you to these pieces?
I make decisions quickly and pick up what stands out or what is right for my mood of the moment. There is a lot of thought in good design, but there is also that immediate simple feeling of, "This is good, let's have it around for awhile."
Who were your design heroes when you were growing up?
The same as the ones I have today, such as Achille Castiglioni.
Are you also following young, emerging talents? If so, which ones?
There is so much great talent out there. I was just a juror for the Milan fair, Satellite, the area for young designers, and there were at least 30 pretty cool groups of individual works. Paul Cocksedge, with whom I participated in Swarovski's Crystal Palace, is always good.
What impressed you at the Milan Furniture Fair?
I think it was a less exciting fair than usual, with a lot of "decorative" works. What stood out for me was the Satellite, with some very cool young talent; Magis and Cassina had some solid new designs; and Swarovski's Paul Cocksedge and Tokujin's projects also stood out.
What do you think of the explosive interest in design?
Design has many facets, from production objects to limited editions and one-offs, but all of those facets are quite understandable and accessible. There is something for everyone, from the art collectors looking for exclusive trophy pieces to everyone else excited about democratic design making our lives better and smarter.
What would be in your imaginary museum, and where would it be?
An ecological/zero emissions version of the Citroen DS 19, and it would be on the street.
If you could buy anything, what would it be?
What's your definition of luxury?
To do what we have to quickly (such as deal with the intricacies of life), and to do what we want to do most of the time (designing, surfing, learning about people and the world).
If luxury were –
A time machine.
The person you want to spend your life with.
Standing on the beach in a warm rain.
Any wave at breaking point that I can take off on.
"Brit Insurance Designs of the Year," featuring Yves Béhar's One Laptop Per Child, is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London, from February 13 through April 27, 2008. www.designmuseum.org
For more information: