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Karim Rashid: Revolutionary Designer

Doctors told his parents he would be retarded for the rest of his life and he didn't speak a word until he was four and a half. But now, eccentric designer Karim Rashid has gone beyond ‘normal': he's leading a design revolution that is changing the world.

As a child, I never liked nature because it was already done. It was designed. You couldn't do anything to it,” says Karim Rashid, the industrial designer at the design forefront of his generation. Rashid has created over 2000 designs, including projects ranging from interiors, fashion, furniture, lighting, art and music to installations.

He has designed objects for major brands, including Alessi, Georg Jensen, Umbra, Kenzo, Prada, Issey Miyake and Method and his works are in the permanent collections of 14 museums worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Born in Cairo to an English mother and Egyptian father, Rashid is best known for bringing his democratic design sensibility to the masses and radically changing the aesthetics of product design and the very nature of the consumer culture. Yet, he is still an unknown for those not in the know, something which he intends to change- not just because he wants to be famous but because he believes design should be a bigger part of the social discourse. “I have been almost alone in this country, trying to make design become a public subject,” he says. “More and more people are starting to realise just how much of their lives are touched by product design. That's why designers are now becoming pop icons. It all boils down to having a following. If you don't have a following, you are not a pop-culture icon.”

Rashid, dubbed ‘The poet of plastic' by Time magazine, seeks to change the aesthetics of product design and nature of consumer culture. He wants people to love objects the same way that they love clothing and he seems to be succeeding not just with his forward designs but designing multifunctional products. “Every new object should replace three,” he says. His packaging for an Issey Miyake perfume was a corrugated polypropylene envelope that could double as a toiletries purse, his Bozart children's chair is also a toy box and his Q Chaise converts from a table to a chair-and footrest and then to a daybed.

Rashid is at the forefront of the ‘blobject' school, which consists of designers intent on making the world more space-age curvy. In contrast to the spare, straight lines of modernism, blobjects are cute, round, and playful. Utensils become so-called ‘cutensils' and objects become both tools and toys. He has added fluid, curvilinear contours to countless mass-produced items, like Method cleaning products, the Oh Chair and his most popular design, the Garbo wastepaper basket, now exhibited in various museum collections all around the world. On his style, Rashid said, “I call it ‘sensual minimalism' or ‘sensualism'; you concentrate on the subject matter of the object rather than on the form of the object and through that, because there's not a lot of adornment, it becomes relatively minimal. All the parts are there because they're integral. I also think
my work is fluid, soft, organic, human, that's why it's sensual.”

Rejection and Acceptance
A loner at school, it soon became clear that this unusual child had an even more unusual brain (he was one of the top three maths students in Canada). He started up the school newspaper, radio station, and yearbook. And he wore only pink. “I was into designing and making my own clothes on the sewing machine, and used to dress head to toe in pink,” he says. “I dyed my hair pink. I used to wear pink nail polish.”

After obtaining a degree in industrial design from Carleton University, in Ottawa (his family settled in Canada after his father found work as a set designer for Canadian TV), he then spent a year in Italy, worked as an unpaid intern for a year and a half in Milan and then returned to Toronto before taking a job with KAN Industrial Designers. Rashid developed a drill, and designed post-office boxes for Canada Post, replacing the red steel Victorian-looking boxes with containers made of aluminum, cast iron, and plastic. “I did stereos for Toshiba, designed a space heater, a sniffer for detecting parts per million of heroin, laser processing devices, farm equipment, medical equipment, that sort of thing.”

Although the environment wasn't ideal for a designer who's more focused on the beauty and deeper aspects of the designs, it gave him the opportunity to learn how the business works. This was important as a lot of designers come up with beautiful designs but have no idea what they cost or how complicated it is to make them. With the experience, Rashid understood what it takes to bring a product onto the shelf.

In 1991, he secured a teaching job at the Rhode Island School of Design. That stint only lasted a year as according to Rashid, he was fired because he insisted on getting students out of the ivory tower of craftsmanship. The school however said that his contract was terminated due to differences in teaching philosophies.

In 1993, he got a position at the Pratt Institute in Manhattan where he taught for four years. He also taught at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia. Rashid pitched to more than a hundred companies before he got his first commission, from a Santa Fe-based company called Nambe, for a line of tabletop accessories. Then in 1995, Umbra, a Toronto-based company that makes inexpensive housewares, decided to try their luck with Rashid. They agreed to try Rashid's idea of Garbo, a trash can made of high-impact virgin polypropylene. “The idea was extremely simple,” Rashid says.

“And I knew a lot about plastic, so I knew they'd have no trouble moulding it. In 1995, plastic was still kind of on the outside, aesthetically, but it was amazing how quickly the aesthetic landscape changed and plastic became the thing.” The gamble paid off and Umbra's faith in Rashid was repaid with sales of the Garbo hitting two million.

Now, high-profile chic corporations which include Issey Miyake, Prada, Estée Lauder, and Yves Saint Laurent ask him to package their cosmetics or design their next products. And Rashid doesn't stop there. His limitless range of ideas and designs stretches from a manhole cover for Con Edison and designing a hotel in Los Angeles to a restaurant for Masaharu Morimoto and developing a range of furniture for Herman Miller.

All for art and humanity
It's not only about the money. In fact, Rashid is more interested in getting his ideas manufactured. “I want to create original things, original ideas and see what I can contribute to humanity while I exist.” He claims to have been to every major mall in the country, where he signs his products in high-end design stores and trolls about observing humans interacting with the objects around them.

And Rashid really gets stuck into a project as one of the first things he does when he gets new clients is tour their factories to understand their manufacturing capacity. He also visits the retail outlets to see how the product might be displayed. To top it off, Rashid has excellent sales techniques. He recalled how he proposed a few projects to a man who was making ‘bad furniture'. Now, the pieces that Rashid did for him have already become iconic.

And he has become sort of an icon himself with almost celebrity-like status. In 2001, while at the Salone in Milan, the world's biggest furniture fair, Rashid took off the shoes he had designed to lounge about on one of his installations. He came back to find one of the shoes missing. Only one, which led many to believe that the shoe was not stolen for practical reasons but rather as a trophy, a keepsake and a memento of the man who is changing the world, one ordinary object at a time.

Like all eccentrics, Rashid has his fair share of quirks. Since 2000 he has only worn white, with the occasional dash of pink thrown in. “Around the millennium, I decided to take all my black clothes, 20 years of Comme Des Garcons and Gucci and all that stuff I despise now, and drop it off at the homeless shelter. I didn't have a conscious plan to create an image for myself- it was mainly a strange angelic feeling of getting rid of darkness, shedding the uniform of the urbanite or the architect.”

Rashid has full confidence in himself and believes that his ability will ensure that he makes it through any economic downturn and that people will still be turning to him.

“If you're good, you're good. You're always going to be good,” he says. “If I have a really good idea and I see somebody else has done it- which happens because things move really fast, I don't give it a second thought. I have tons of ideas. I have so many ideas.”

Speaking on the region
“Luxury brands are struggling with change. There's a big paradigm shift in luxury going on right now. Brands must move quickly into the contemporary world, because that's where the market is. The world of the consumer is moving ahead of manufacturers and developers,” comments Rashid. With that, he urged hotel developers in Dubai to change their approach to luxury to keep pace with the global trend and consumer preferences.

In particular, Rashid highlighted the obsession with decorative luxury in Dubai. “This notion of using luxury materials- marble on floors, gold gild on columns, heavy woods- I don't want to get philosophical, but in 1953 Roland Barthes said we have to transcend these ideas of material. Dreams are becoming reality in Dubai, but now the question is, are they the right dreams? There's a lot of similarity in Dubai. The renderings of new buildings, they're all similar, and that's bad. Diversity is critical. Eclecticism makes the urban fabric,” says Rashid.

The speech on the future of hotel design that Rashid gave left a deep impression on the listeners, with some believing that it would impact the future of hotel design in the UAE quite significantly.

Looking to the future
When asked what project he would like to be doing, Rashid replies, “I want to design some luggage for someone, a stereo system, a private house, a robot.” The world is looking to him for the next great but minimalistic design not just for its beauty but also how it would affect our everyday lives. As he once said, “It's very much about this notion that we can shape our own destiny. We have a lot more control over our lives than we think we do.”

Source: Arabian Man
Posted: 07/08/2008

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