If one were to call Karim Rashid a designer by trade, he may correct them. Technically speaking, the Egyptian-born, Canadian-raised powerhouse is not only a professional designer but an aficionado, practicing his craft in everything from interiors to product design, from fashion to music. But the question at hand is a matter of semantics, and Rashid is quick to pinpoint the specifics. “I don’t think I became a designer,” he tells me when I ask about the path that led him down his illustrious career. “I think I always was a designer.”
Rashid can still recall the moment when his life’s mission revealed itself to him. He may have been just five years old, but already his father was teaching him about perspective. “He taught me to see,” Rashid says. “He taught me that I could design anything and touch all aspects of our physical landscape.” On the particular day in question, Rashid was on an outing with his father, sketching the old churches of London, England. “I remember drawing a cathedral façade and deciding I did not like the shape of the gothic windows,” he says, “so I reshaped them as ovals. In a very naïve way, I had a small epiphany that I could change what I see.”
That epiphany propelled him on a lifelong pursuit of design innovation. Today Rashid’s work has achieved international renown, and yet he remains humble about the road to this prestige. In an age of viral media and instantaneous social platforms, it’s arguably never been easier to achieve overnight success; products from relative unknowns take crowd-funding mediums like Kickstarter by storm and platforms like Twitter can help a product to trend within minutes. But Rashid talks openly about the early obstacles of his career, identifying that there was no “big break”, as such, that launched him into the world of success. “It’s definitely been a steady process,” he says. “When I started my office, after approaching about one hundred companies – from Lazyboy and Coca Cola to Gillette – I only got one client, Nambé, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.” The ask was a collection of tabletop objects, and while Rashid may modestly avoid seeing it as such, this job became an impressive launching pad; three million dollars’ worth of the products were sold at Bloomingdales and Macy’s in just one year, and they were later entered into permanent museum collections. “This relationship gave me the confidence that I could really contribute some meaningful and successful objects into the world,” he says.
From there Rashid’s upward climb continued in his work with Umbra; the OH Chair and Garbo Waste Can, both developed in 1995, continue to sell millions today. “[This] proved to me that Americans want design but at an affordable price,” says Rashid, and this was a lesson that stayed with him, even as the prestige of his clients began to escalate: cosmetic packaging for Issey Miyake, a skin care line for Prada, cosmetics for YSL and Sheisedo, and products for Sony.
The product design side of his career soon gave way to the world of interiors. “The first restaurant I designed was for Morimoto the Iron Chef in 2001, in Philadelphia, which fortunately won many awards. [Having designed] a successful restaurant interior afforded me many more interior projects, including the Semiramis Hotel in Athens. Now my first condo for HAP Investments in NYC has opened the doors for me to design so many residential interiors and buildings. I have two in Miami, four condos in NYC, a private residence in Kado, Latvia, and La Jolla, California.”
Rashid is also a regular contributor to the academic world, examining design’s place in everyday life from a philosophical level. This experience is evident in the way he speaks about his own work; there’s a reserved introspection at play. When I ask whether there is one medium in which he feels the most comfortable, his answer, while evasive, comes across not as diplomacy but self-examination. “It is my diversity that affords me the ability to cross-pollinate ideas, materials, behaviors, aesthetics, and language from one typology to the other,” he says. This cross-pollination involves sketch books filled with concepts for current projects – usually, he says, about sixty at one time, and each project “perpetually inspires the next…It is imperative to start with the concept, then develop a form around it. One can think sculpturally and conceptually of the idea.” From these sketches his team creates 3D renderings and compiles research materials and information on the production process. The biggest challenges, he explains, aren’t actually present in the design process. “The biggest challenge is just getting work to market, having a client follow through.”
This relationship between the designer and client is another thing that Rashid views in an almost philosophical light; the key, he says, is collaboration. “It is not the form that is primary. It is the idea. The concept.” This means working with a client’s strengths, and the expectation is a “marriage” – finding that union, that common language, between Rashid’s brand, vision, and ideas, and the client’s company culture. “Generally companies I work with or [who] come to me have a very similar philosophy and this is when the work really works well…It is a myth that designers have an idea and a company produces it. The real work is the collaborative merging of minds, vision, and ideology. It took me many years to learn that the only time it works is when you have the right relationship – and relationships are everything in life, love, business, friendship, and support.”
I ask Rashid whether, given his personal growth over the years, he has ever viewed a past project as one he would approach differently in the present. “No,” he says. “My designs have been true to my vision but changed with technology. There were always designs I wanted to create but were technologically impossible. Technological tools inspire me to make forms as sensual, as human, as evocative, as sculptural as possible but through new shapes that were historically impossible to make.” He points to the works of others to illustrate his point that technology is the driving force of innovation. “All important pieces over the last century became iconic because they were created with new technology. For example, the Breuer Chair used steel tube bending from a bicycle factory. The Alvar Aalto Chair used plywood tube technology inspired by a local fabricator of wooden sewage tubes, etc. The first plastic molded Monobloc Chair existed because we had the resin technology and injection machine technology to create it. The Eames embraced one of the first compound bent plywood machines. So industrial design is driven by designers embracing new technologies, whether it is material, production method, or mechanical invention. So future innovation will depend on how we as designers embrace newness. Maybe people like to assume that design moves with more superficial trends, but it is technology that drives us.”
Despite these intellectual insights and the fact that so many of his pieces are on display in art galleries around the world, Rashid maintains a practical view on the function of design. “Design is for people, not for museums. Seeing my objects in average people’s homes or to see a space realized, enjoyed, and experienced by people is the greatest joy.” However, while some may possess a more traditional understanding of what qualifies an artifact as art, and inherently worthy of exhibition, Rashid has a broader understanding of the role of the gallery space. “Museums are where we go to get inspired!” he says. “I remember seeing the Grey Room by Ettore Sottsass at the MoMA in 1972 and believed that one day I would live in a grey room with no boundaries, no border, and complete freedom to do, live, and think freely. I think that this concept is finally here, symbolically speaking; that we now live in limitless possibility, surrounded by beautiful, inspiring objects.”
Rashid articulates his own life lessons when I ask him to impart advice to young designers – particularly those who aspire to not just practice design, but change its course in history. “Be smart,” he says. “Be patient. Learn to learn. Learn to be really practical but imbue poetics, aesthetics, and new paradigms of our changing product landscape. You must find new languages, new semantics, new aesthetics, experiment with new material and behavioral approaches.” But he again underlines the importance of grounding theory with practical concerns. “Also always remember obvious human issues in the product like emotion, ease of use, technological advances, product methods, humor, meaning, and a positive, energetic, and proud spirit in the product. This is what is missing! Many products have a very short shelf life, and they must capture the spirit of the time in their product lines and not worry about looking, behaving, or performing like everyone else.”
Rashid may be one of the busiest people in the industry, and he certainly shows no sign of slowing down. He recently debuted a new chair with B-Line in Milan, he has a new faucet called Vita (Cisal/Huber), he recently debuted a kitchen collaboration with Rational, and he worked with Riva 1920 to develop Dusk, a new chaise made from solid wood. “Dusk features a bisecting line that flows longitudinally from the top of the chaise to the bottom, a design element reinforcing its curvaceous form,” he describes. And the list doesn’t end there; he’s recently created undulating foam furniture for SixInch, a new table for Tonelli, and a new bottle for Pepsi.
But Rashid, we know, does not confine himself to one discipline, and this wealth of product design work won’t keep him from the world of interiors. “On the horizon I’m designing several hotels, condominiums, restaurants, and other hospitality projects around the world,” he says. This will include a five hundred-room resort in Cancun, a four hundred-room budget hotel in Amsterdam, hotels in Poland and Latvia, and a boutique hotel in Norway. He’s also working on the design of four condominium buildings in New York City and two condo projects in Miami. And just when I think his list of prospects must be drawing to a close, he continues. “I am finishing a hotel interior in Tel Aviv, a condominium in Latvia, and Cafés in Doha and Tangier. I am also designing a huge public interactive art installation for Expo 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan.” And there are yet more products in the works. “I’m designing new packaging for health products, new condom branding and packaging, outdoor lighting and furniture for several Spanish and Italian companies, furniture for a large Mexican retailer, tech and cleaning accessories, furniture for several Italian and Spanish and Austrian companies. And,” he concludes with a teaser, “I’m about to debut a very high end luxury mobile phone.”
With that kind of to-do list, one can only hope that Karim Rashid finds the time to continue his work in the academic field; after all, who better to impart lessons on the designers of tomorrow than a man who proves, time and again, that design is boundless?