Speaking over the telephone from Toronto, product designer, Karim Rashid is a whirling dervish of ideas and opinions. With over 3,000 designs in production and 300 international awards in 40 countries, prolific seems an understatement. From furniture to running shoes, luxury goods to environmentally friendly water bottles, lighting, hotel and restaurant design to a subway renovation in Naples, does the man ever sleep? With a travel schedule that reads like a General’s map of strategic planning, it’s no wonder that the Cairo-born, Toronto-raised, Manhattan-based designer does most of his creating in the air.
He’s flown into Toronto to attend the 50thanniversary of family-owned Nienkämperfurniture in Canada and with whom Rashid, 57, has worked since his Blob Seriesof furniture in 2002. His energy seems boundless, with effusive commentary sprinkled with New-Age philosophy, technology and a committed mission to “beautify our environment through functional design.”
Karim Rashid is a keynote speaker at IDS-Vancouver Sept 20thto 23rd2018 on the Caesarstone Stage sponsored by BoConcept.
“I look for a new point of view in everything I design and I do look at the world critically – I’m always trying to improve it,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m currently working on 60 projects at once including twenty budget hotels for the Radisson Hotel Group’s, Prizeotelsacross Germany.” He recently won a New York Spark Design Award for their Hamburg hotel with interiors that reflect his flamboyant approach to colour; oversized, amorphous chairs and sofas in lime green, canary yellow and bubble gum pink that conjure images of futuristic space travel.
Once crowned “The Prince of Plastic” by Time Magazine, over 7 million units of his curvaceous plastic Garbowastepaper basket designed for Canadian company, Umbra in 1996, have been sold since then. That utilitarian product given a sexy silhouette launched his career in the design world. His Oh Chairalso for Umbra in 1999, (and still wildly popular,) is now in the permanent collection of MoMA in San Francisco.
After studying industrial design at Carleton University in Ottawa, he moved to Manhattan to start his own firm. In 1995 Rashid was hired by New Mexico design studio, Nambéto create a line of tabletop accessories. His Kissing Salt and Pepper Shakersin a polished metal alloy in which one snuggles seductively into the other, were a huge hit. “Everything started to really move for me after my work for them and Umbra,” Rashid admits and he was soon commissioned to create packaging for fashion designer, Issey Miyake’s clothing and fragrance lines. International hotel and restaurant projects followed quickly and in 2014 Rashid opened an office in China to handle his industrial design projects including a high-end filter for pollution, espresso machines and a line of kitchen-ware.
But he’s not a man to be pigeon-holed by plastic. “Even though some of the world sees me as one singular vernacular, I’ve experimented with various design languages over the years,” Rashid emphasizes. For example, at this year’s 2018 Salone del Mobile in Milan, he unveiled KRAK, a collection of stainless steel tables that resemble 3-D puzzle pieces for Portuguese furniture company, Riluc. And for Lamborghini (yes, the luxury car company,) Rashid added two new sideboards to his Authentic Living Collectionof sensuous multi-layered walnut and leather furniture.
A little closer to our homes, his Chunk Collectionof furniture for Artisan in multi-hued striated walnut is available through SwitzerCultCreative in Vancouver.
Usually dressed in head-to-toe white or ice cream colours punctuated by oversize matching eye glasses, he likes to play agent provocateur and banished “the tired and negative colour black from his wardrobe in 1999.”
“People are so afraid to be different – they’re like lemmings,” he says. “I’m teaching my daughter Kiva, 5 how to draw and think for herself. When I pick her up at kindergarten a boy comes up to me and says, ‘Why do you wear nail polish? ‘Why are you wearing all white clothes?’ It’s so sad because kids are already conditioned to fit in. We may all be born with creativity but something happens along the way- probably peer pressure, and for many creativity just disappears.”
Taught to draw as a little boy by his Egyptian father, an artist and set designer for CBC-TV, Rashid still draws obsessively by hand with coloured pencils or on his iPad “especially on long flights and just after a meeting with a client. I leave the computer work to my staff,” he explains.
His mid-town Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife, chemical engineer, Ivana Purić and daughter is a white gallery canvas for his wildly colourful and playful furniture and art. “Minimal and uncluttered doesn’t mean it has to be devoid of colour,” the designer says.
With all his success and jet-setting lifestyle, Canada is very close to his heart – and not just because his newest furniture collection is entitled Ottawa! “The Ottawa Art Gallery will be opening a 200-piece retrospective of my work in October 2018,” Rashid adds, before rushing off, but not before clarifying one last point: “You know the role of the designer is to make the world a better place by reducing poorly designed clutter with beautiful high performing ones and that will reduce the stress in our environments.”
You use colour like a political statement – to provoke and inspire. There’s a fine line between over-the-top design of a hotel lobby and what the consumer finds acceptable in their own living room. How do you get it right?
Well I don’t know if I get it right all the time. Sometimes it’s very wrong! My reaction to that is to say that people will accept colour (there are over 16,000 variations,) on a micro level. Like a mousepad or kitchen gadgets. In the high-tech industry you see colour in speakers or I remember when Nikon brought out a pink digital camera in 2013. But when you start getting into large furnishings you start narrowing your audience. All of a sudden only 5% of consumers will buy an orange lounge chair.
So, in fact, as you design larger and larger, consumer consumption gets smaller and smaller so that’s something I’m aware of.
Why is Western culture so afraid of colour?
This is a phenomenon I’ve noticed for decades. In countries like India, Mexico, Chile even Singapore those countries had so much colour in their clothing and makeup for centuries. In fact, the closer you are to the equator, the more colourful the culture. But now, even those cultures are becoming very neutral. You’d think it would be the opposite – Northern countries like Canada, for example, where it’s dark and cold in winter should wear bright colours. The visual age has actually created a shrinking more homogeneous approach to colour and everyone is just copying one another. And not just interiors but building exteriors. The opposite is the extension of OCAD University in Toronto designed by Wil Alsop and how beautiful that project is – but he’s a great painter. I’m sure he ostracized a lot of potential clients, just like I do. Lots of clients are afraid of meeting me. They say ‘we’ll hire you but we don’t want pink.’ In a way, I’ve been pigeon-holed.
Why is pink your favourite colour?
It’s positive, it’s the new black. So many men have issues with it because they still think it’s too feminine. I’m trying to break down gender issues in every product I design.
What are you working on now that takes the fear out of accepting colour?
Right now I’m working on about 11 hotels around the world including budget hotels for the Radisson Hotel Group’s, Prizeotelsacross Germany and a hospital in Tel Aviv. My staff and I are looking at our screens and talking about colours and I find myself becoming more conservative.
Yes. When I open up renderings I did 15 years ago I’m shocked at the colours I composed. Well, there’s always a compromise because I want the project to happen. But how much do I compromise? Last year there were three restaurant interiors I was working on in Norway, Ukraine and Athens. I lost all three clients because all three wanted this boring, post-industrial look of brown, exposed brick, or a wall of old books – I just don’t do that.
If anything needs a redesign with colour it’s hospitals where people are ill and often afraid. What are you doing for the hospital in Tel Aviv?
I’m just starting that project but I’ll do what I always do for hotels and that is an amazing space with a high energy vibe. I think that you can make people feel better and get better with a positive feeling. I spent quite a lot of time in hospital in New York when I had cancer and it was incredibly depressing not only because you think you’re going to die but because I had to hang out in this disgusting, drab place for weeks on end.
Do you dream in colour?
Well I never dream in black and white. Hmmm, what about if you’re colour blind? Actually, I designed a building in Harlem, New York called 329 Pleasant Avenue for a client who was colour blind so I managed to get away with some really great colours!
Karim Rashid will give a talk at the first large-scale Canadian exhibition of his work entitled Karim Rashid: Cultural Shaping on October 11that the Ottawa Art Gallery. An alumnus of Carleton University’s Industrial Design programme, he received an honourary Doctorate from them in 2016.