Few contemporary figures embody the continent-hopping post globalization design gadfly more fully — or flamboyantly — than Karim Rashid. Before Sebastian Herkner and Philippe Malouin, Benjamin Hubert and Oki Sato, there was the Egypt-born, Canada-raised New Yorker who roared onto the world stage with his products for Umbra in the 1990s and went on to design everything from kitchenware and consumer packaging to wristwatches, hotels and even an Italian metro station. Only original provocateur Philippe Starck might claim to have undertaken more disparate commissions (or earned more frequent-flyer mileage).
But if Rashid is synonymous with a certain punchy turn-of-the millennium aesthetic heavy on the use of plastics (Time famously called him the Prince of Plastic, long before the material’s growing disrepute as a far-from-sustainable design tool), he is still a hot commodity. The designer’s colourful interiors for the European hotel chain Prizeotel are being rolled out at a rapid clip, while recent product designs — including his Goby outdoor furniture collection for Tonik and his single-serve Wine by the Glass bottles for the U.S. brand Usual Wines — continue to rack up awards.
He’s also still keen on the value and validity of plastic, as he recently told Azure (one of Rashid’s earliest champions) from — where else? — somewhere on the road.
You were recently in Germany and are currently on your way back there. Can you tell me what you’ve been working on?
- Karim Rashid
I was just in Germany to speak to the hundreds of employees of Prizeotel and to announce our upcoming properties. We have so many all over Germany and even more are coming, including in other countries, such as Switzerland and Austria. We’re creating inexpensive yet very high-design hotels across the continent. They are purposefully designed for savvy business and budget travellers who want beautiful places to stay in. I’m looking to meet their needs by being mindful of comfort, colour, enthusiasm and luxury at a budget price. As I answer your questions, I’m on my way to Germany again for the Ambiente fair, where I’ll be presenting a new collection of glassware with Krosno Poland. I find myself travelling to both Eastern and Western Europe almost every week for projects.
A lot of exciting firms, buildings and product designs have been coming out of Eastern Europe of late. Is that where it’s at in terms of design right now?
Countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Italy will always be centres of design. It’s in their DNA. But now I see countries such as Romania, Serbia and Poland booming with regard to both production and design. Their economies are blooming and innovation is everywhere, as is a desire for beauty. The interesting thing about many of these countries is that they feel behind and insecure compared to Western Europe, yet in a way they are advancing and superseding Western Europe. We always try harder and even accomplish more when we feel inferior or insecure.
This interview is part of Azure’s celebratory 35th Anniversary Issue. Our early articles about you championed the fact that you were from Canada and were published in a less globalized world. Does geography mean much to you anymore, if it ever did? Are a designer or design’s national origins relevant?
What is in your mind, blood, memory and experience will always end up in your work. But I am also a global citizen and, to me, looking at location and place and culture always means looking back. I am interested in looking forward and outward, to the world becoming one. I love the ongoing shrinking of the world because it affords all of us the opportunity to be inspired by every culture and every person, everywhere and anytime.
Also, if I — a half-English, half-Egyptian Canadian– American — am designing a lamp for an Italian brand and the engineer is Dutch and parts of the lamp are from Taiwan and other parts are from China and the assembly is in Italy, what is the origin of that design? Is it Italian design? Or is it something else? I honestly don’t believe that it’s relevant anymore where things are produced or even what one’s nationality may be.
Technology has also revolutionized design in the past 35 years, contributing to the uniqueness of much of your own work. How do you keep on top of the fast evolving technological advances available to designers these days? Is technology central to your creative process — or simply a means to an end?
Changes in technology, society and culture are the core evolutionary factors in my design. People like to assume that design moves with more superficial trends, but both industrial and interior design are typically driven by new technologies, whether it’s material chemistry, production methods or mechanical invention. There is a new aesthetic forming and manufacturers would be wise to be part of this exciting new digital world, where the virtual and physical blur, where luxury equals ease, simplicity and personalization. We have evolved into an age of “casualism,” wherein our lives are focused on comfort, ease, seamlessness and technology. And it’s shaping our spaces into places where the virtual and physical overlap, where new concepts of comfort prevail.
One of the media with which you’re closely associated is plastic, which has become a problematic material for many in the design world. You have always created one-of-a-kind plastic products meant to last, but even Kartell, whose entire reputation is based on plastic, is exploring alternatives. Have your views on this major pollutant changed in recent years?
I was just speaking about this at a lecture. Not all plastics are born equal. I am obsessed with working with responsible plastics that are recycled, biodegradable and/or derived from sources other than oil, such as corn, sugar, bark and açaí. I love collaborating with clients that source eco-friendly materials, that incorporate recycling practices into their manufacturing, that embrace a reduction in source materials or that have switched altogether from PVC to polypropylene. So I feel that I still can work with synthetics to create a more comfortable and democratic world. The key is using smarter ecological materials.
What do you see as the biggest trends in terms of design over the next 10 years? What should a young designer starting out today be focusing on in terms of training and opportunities? And what should they not bother with?
Many young designers come to me not knowing how to create for the real world, how to build and render projects for our modern lives. Jan Kuypers, who I worked with in Toronto from 1985 to 1991, always told me to get off the drafting table and build a mockup, to use myself as a test dummy, to learn about the ergonomics and anthropometrics of humans. I am sent hundreds of portfolios and images on Instagram and Messenger and Facebook every day, and I lecture at schools globally. What I have noticed is that many students and young designers can make good renders, but it’s obvious that the object or space won’t function well. If you make a crazy organic form on a computer, the next question should be: Is it ergonomic and comfortable? What will the material be? The production method? Is it even feasible to produce it? Is there a need for it? Is it adding anything to our daily experiences? Is it original or yet another repeat of history?
Young designers can be myopic about their vision and not see it through the lens of client needs, production and so on. They must use all the technology accessible to them, including hiring out prototypes and 3D printing. But overall, they must be smart, be patient, learn to learn, be practical yet imbue their work with poetics, aesthetics and the new paradigms of our changing product landscape. They must find new languages and new aesthetics, experiment with new materials and explore new behavioural approaches.
Even among professionals, though, there is a need to rethink things. Many designers have become so caught up with being clever or drawing attention, with just decorating and not designing, that we must go back to creating objects, spaces and buildings that really work, that deliver simpler and better lives. “To be is to build,” said Martin Heidegger. To be is not to render.
You have become a major public figure and inspirational speaker as well as a designer. Should designers speak out more on the great challenges facing the world? Should they direct all of their creative efforts into addressing those challenges? Architects and designers are, by and large, better problem solvers than politicians. This is a loaded question, but are they doing enough?
Honesty, no. Well-known designers and architects — unlike a few famous musicians and actors — can be doing so much more to change this world for the better. I have seen countless lectures by designers and architects, and I notice that the majority of them simply stand onstage and sell their services. Most designers don’t know how to speak about the world we live in and are not talking about it in a selfless way.
I preach that design is about progress, about moving us forward, about challenging and elevating the human spirit. My real desire is to see people live in the modus of our time, to participate in the contemporary world, to release themselves from nostalgia, antiquated traditions, old rituals, meaningless paradigms and kitsch. We should be conscious and sensorially attuned with this world in this moment; only then can we shape the future.
If you could design one thing for the sake of humanity, what would it be?
I would love to design a new, self-sustainable city (even on another planet!) or very low-income housing globally.
“The Interviews” is a series of Q&As that celebrates Azure’s 35 years as a leading forum for architecture and design. We tapped the minds of 10 leading industry players, from Renzo Piano to Frida Escobedo, for their insights on the state of design today — and where it’ll take us tomorrow. Follow all things Azure anniversary on social media by using the hashtag #Azure35
Anti-nostalgia and pro-technology, this peripatetic designer urges digital-era
creatives to devise with human needs in mind, not simply to prove how clever they are.