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Industrial Design in the First Digital Age: A Conversation with Karim Rashid

This article appeared in Dialogue, December 2001, No. 54

Karim Rashid is an industrial designer born in Cairo in 1960. Half-English and half-Egyptian, he grew up in London and Toronto. He received a Bachelor of Industrial Design in 1982 from Carleton University in Ottawa and pursued further study in Naples, Italy. Returning to Canada, he worked at KAN Industrial Designers. In 1993 he opened his own practice in New York City. He has designed more than two hundred products, ranging from coat racks to mailboxes, perfume packaging to lighting, tableware to high fashion. His Garbo trashcan has become an icon in modern design, with more than two million units sold. His work is in the collection of museums including the Museum of Modern Art and the Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts.

MF Can you start by telling us about your background? I understand your father was a set designer. What sort of influences did he have? Are there historical models such as Charles and Ray Eames that interest you?

KR As a child I was saturated with books on artists, architects, and designers. My father had a great interest in all the fine arts as well as fashion design. All of this was influential. There was not one particular person that I would call a mentor, there were many. Interestingly enough they were all a bit diametric, for example Achille Castiglioni, whom I had great respect for when I was in my undergraduate studies. When I went to Italy and studied at the polytechnic, I took a night class with him every Thursday. Then I studied with Ettore Sottsass and Gaestano Pesce. I was also really into the Russian Construtivist: Gabo, Rochenko, and Tatlin. I like people such as Tatlin because they are more Renaissance in their approach; they design their own clothing and architecture. We are now living in a time where specialization is so dominant, it only seems more inspiring to me to be able to work in that cross-disciplinary way. But at the same time, specializing is a way of building a body of work so you can get to a point to spread out. A thread that leads through all design is that it is about the human experience and the shaping of culture.

MF You have described your work as sensual minimalism. Can you elaborate on that?

KR Sensual minimalism is a term I came up with when someone forced me to define my work and give my work a syntax. I thought minimalism is very dull. I was brought up in a modernist kind of house and upbringing. Deep down I have a feeling that I am very much part of that dogma at school. It is full of ridiculous rules and values. So I am looking for a break. We have done certain things over and over again, for instance the pure form. From an aesthetic standpoint, we have done all that. So where is there room to experiment and to do new form? The new is the organic, because we have new digital tools to obtain data for these new forms of geometry. If I can shift and change an object and have a human response, it means there is a certain sensuality to it. At the same time the object is minimal in the sense that nothing is extraneous or superfluous. Real school of minimalism will not consider my work minimalist, but I think they are minimal objects.

MF Instead of “form follows function,” you advocate “form follows subject.” You tend to emphasize the importance of designing for an experience. How do you go about doing that?

KR In a way it is funny to say this, but “form follows function” is last century’s thinking. Function is not what drives the development of form or space. If it were only about function, we would have done it all. For instance, we have this thing called “the chair” and we’ve met all these criteria. In fact, outside of robotics, production methods haven’t changed much; tube bending is still tube bending and lamination is still lamination. All of these things have become banal. I am a real advocate that design is not at all about problem solving, that was an old idea. So then what is design about? Maybe it is about what the subject matter really is. When you are doing a project and if you think about the subject, the subject opens up other ideas. You are then thinking about other senses, issues of behavior, things changing over time, meaning, and the communicative quality of the object. None of these things are about function. I have been teaching these things for ten years. I used to teach my students the idea of “form follows function” where the subject is the first order. When you are working in the first order, you don’t think about archetype. You think about subject matters. To go back to the example of seating. Instead of thinking about the chair – a certain height off the ground, a certain width, 104 degree incline – I think of seating as a subject; this is a hard thing to do. When I look around, a lot of chairs that I do are relatively conventional. The hard thing to do is have all the theory, but it is another thing to have the kind of client that is ready to work in that first order.

MF The Garbo can is your big break. How did the project come about? Are you surprised by the success?

KR Very, and it was a success I needed. I just started my own practice and in a way it was late in the game; I was thirty-three. Essentially I spent twelve years working for others. A lot of times the way this profession works is through solicitation. People just send companies ideas and if they bite you get into a royalty agreement. It’s full of that and it’s ridiculous. Someone should really write a critique on this problem. I remember sending Umbra a ton of work and one of the ideas was a bunch of wastebaskets. They are a housewares company so I was investigating many banal things that they can develop. They sent all my stuff back to me without even a letter. At this point, I had no work and was living hand-to-mouth. I started teaching at Pratt part-time and got a loan to purchase a Macintosh. So I had one Mac, a room, and myself and started drawing up more stuff. Then I went to see the people of Umbra at Toronto, where they are based. We went through the drawings and I kind of forced them to explain to me why they rejected all of the work. When we got to the garbage can I sort of forced it and said, “Look I think we have an opportunity here.” They finally said, “Why don’t we make a few models, six or seven different objects.” From there they showed the model around and it took about a year and a half for Garbo to finally come out in 1996. Something like that had to happen to me or I wasn’t going to survive. I know why Garbo was a success when I go back and analyze it. But when you are designing it is hard to predict success. Design has to deal with so many criteria: the price, the way it’s produced, marketing, buying, and all the editing processes that you have to go through. So it is a challenge to figure out the why for the next object. It is a bit like writing a hit song. You write one great song and then you have to do another one.

MF In one of the essays in your new book, you proposed a model where every object has an expiration date of five years. Garbo is now five years old. What are your thoughts on that?

KR Strangely enough I think we are living in such a hyper disposable culture but we don’t want to admit it. There is a lot of taboo, for one we are destroying the earth. So very few people are running around advocating the idea of disposability. I advocate it and I will explain why. I think with digital culture, consumption has become almost second nature now, at least in western culture. There is no going back. We are used to changing our clothes very often, it’s like showering everyday. Society is moving this way. It’s not like you are just going to hide out in Montana and not have a social security number. The way to do it is to deal with it directly. The idea is to consume faster and more so. Therefore we should design perfectly cyclic product. If the human experience is perpetually about enjoying new things, then we should design things and work out systems where we can do this and not feel guilty about it. There is actually a lot amazing things happening in this field. The automotive industry is an example. We have to reduce the amount of oil use in this world. So we are shifting toward electric and hybrid cars. The auto industry is also looking to make the parts to be bifurcated and completely recyclable. Audi has an all aluminum car that is totally recyclable. That’s where the movement is going. It is a question of time before we all do that.

The idea of ownership is going to disappear, which I love. So you use things as you are here. In a certain way everything is on loan anyway because we are not going to live forever. So nothing is really permanent. This is just a personal prediction. We will reach a point where we can afford to constantly update things. For example, getting a new digital camera every couple of years as the technology improves. I hate to say this but it will be like perpetual living in Disneyland, a kind of culture where we can really enjoy our lives and surroundings. And architecture is also less about permanence. The notion of hoteling is not about ownership. Banks don’t build banks anymore. There is something I find really liberating about it. The notion of leasing a car is a very liberating idea for a lot of people because they want to keep a new car every two years but they don’t want the burden and the responsibility. In the future all of us will be going through things faster.

There is a very weird idea about human consumption. For example, in purchasing a piece of furniture, people go visit the store three times before they buy anything. It is a big decision for people to make. But the reality is that most people’s furniture cost less than their clothing. So is it just scale or is it some old paradigm where once you buy that kitchen or dining set it is there for life? Hence we have the IKEAs of the world and the new casualness that is changing these old ideas. I think there are different typologies in our lives that are working at different iterations.

MF Given your interest in temporality, why the interest in certain logos that constantly reappear on many of your designs? They are even tattooed on your wife’s arm?

KR It’s a personal language and each symbol has a meaning. I was planning to explain the meanings of the twenty-six symbols in my new book, but decided to leave it more mythological. Symbols are similar to a signature, that’s all they are. The nice thing about these abstract symbols is they are interpreted. Each person can project his or her own meaning. The tricky thing about language is that language can have multiple meanings but at the same time language can be too precise. Something like a cross goes back for thousands of years. If you look at any book on symbols you can see the roots of all them. Certain things like a cross can have twenty to twenty-five meanings that have been documented over centuries. So they are not necessarily my symbols but I have abstracted some personally.

MF Just out of curiosity, what does the open cross with the rounded end mean?

KR You want me to tell you? It means one culture, the world that has one tongue. I love the myth about the beginning of the world, the story of the Tower of Babel. Everyone had this singular tongue and they built this tower to the heaven. And God said no and gave us different tongues. My guess is the world is going back and is shrinking. We are going to be one again. The cross means unity. I really like the idea that we can get rid of our racial and political differences.

MF You design for companies in many countries. Are your works received differently in different cultures?

KR I see the diversity in the world as I travel, but at the same time I see many similarities. On the one hand, the world is shrinking but on the other hand, the internet allows us to have our own voice. I don’t set out to design for a specific culture. But a lot times strange little things will come into play. A good example is the Garbo can. We only achieve large success in Asia with the release of Garbino, the smaller version of Garbo. This is because of smaller living rooms in that region. The design is the same and that was just a scale issue. European chairs are much smaller than American chairs. So there is a criticism of my Oh Chair in Europe that it is too large. A lot of the designer chairs in the U.S. are too small. We are bigger here, there is no question about it. In fact I remember when I was designing the Oh Chair I was very nervous that the chair is not wide enough. I was in Ontario in the tooling plant and saw three workers sitting in the wood molds. I could see their bodies hitting and pushing against the mold. At that moment I told the people at Umbra to widen the chair by half an inch. They said no way and it will cost an extra $30,000 to retool. I said, look, it is worth it to make it bigger. That was the best move we made.

Many Italian companies’ products’ sensibilities are very Italian. They have little market in the States, because a lot of people don’t understand their products. If you want to market globally, you have to be very open minded. Most American companies that I work for don’t export. This goes back to a time when Americans felt so powerful, regional, and arrogant that they didn’t need to bother with others; but everybody else wanted to market to the Americans. The Europeans come to America with beautiful things and wonder why they aren’t successful. They don’t try to understand American culture.

MF You mentioned once that every new object should replace three objects. In a sense we should reduce the amount of things in the world. However, you also talk about the idea of variance. Given the advances in digital technology, there is the possibility that in the future anyone can be an industrial designer and design anything for himself or herself. Are the two concepts contradictory?

KR It is interesting that you have asked a few questions about contradictions. I think what’s important today as a player in any profession is you do the work and hope you contribute something. In my view the majority of designers are about the end results. I think design is also a dialogue. A lot of what I have written over the years are not just being provocative but discussing issues that I know are relevant to the changing production landscape. Of course I am talking about so many issues that there can be many contradictions. Variation is really about the ability to personalize our existence. This doesn’t necessarily mean we consume more. In fact I wonder if we develop things for ourselves we would not consume less. Maybe what we are doing through consumption is perpetually looking for things. Let’s say there is no such thing as the shop or store and all you can do is do your own design, maybe people will end up living with less things. A lot of times we are motivated to consume for reasons other than needs. I don’t mean need just in terms of primordial. I think you just opened up a discussion that I would like to pursue, this idea of if I can really start to shape my world, what would people do.

MF Is variance mostly a variation in appearance?

KR Not at all. I don’t know why many people have not dealt with variance. I break down the idea of variance in five orders. First order of variation is non-serialized object. So it would be like every one of us end up with an individual pair of eyeglasses. In the real world there are things like customized bicycles, customized Levi’s jeans, and cosmetics that you can mix your own formula. So this is already in place. The bottom order is really a myth of variation. For instance, the Swatch watch where they make so many different styles but you are getting the same object. But there is the idea that you are buying something relatively exclusive. In between there are forms of decoration. Philips did a radio that was going through a conveyor belt and sprayed randomly with powder coated paint. It is almost like graffiti and every one was different but that was decorative. I think we have now moved away from decoration. A lot of things I’ve done is to program my twenty-six shapes and let the laser randomly cut the shapes. For a coffee table there are five cut-outs. Five cut-outs with twenty-six shapes gives you a variation of five times twenty-six. So each table can have a slightly different shape. I did a set of chairs like that. Even though these sound easy they are still very complicated. Only small companies allow me to do these. I have never had a big company asking me to make the ultimate variation. I have been finding ways to make it happen. For Nambé I try to design one vase based on a random software program we made. The computer controls huge aerospace machines that do twelve vases simultaneously. The software has certain parameters and will do their own things. So I end up with different vases that the machine determined and not me. This is fascinating to me. Maybe this is the break for me from modernism. There is no premeditation at all.

MF You design many everyday objects but you also produce one-off works for art galleries. What’s the relationship between the two? How do the two inform each other?

KR I never liked the idea of one-off. One-off design is kind of like craft. In the 80’s there was a movement in art furniture by designers and artists. They really meant nothing to anyone else but self-indulgence. I was always more interested in doing some things about the industry. I call myself an industrial designer and I care about volume, numbers, and the replication of something. I was brought up by an artist and at one time I thought about being an artist. Then I thought I will be a fashion designer or an architect. When I was a teenager I was really confused about all these things. I realize now I am in the best field because I feel like I do all those things. A few years ago, I was asked by a gallerist if I am interested in doing a show. I decided that if I am going to do a show in the context of art then what I am doing is art. I realized there is a fantastic opportunity not to make one-off design but to think of art as an expression and a communication of ideas and to be able to reach a different group of audience. That’s what I am doing. I am not saying that since there is only one of my objects made then it becomes art. A lot of objects I made are one-off because they are prototypes for industry but they are not really art. They seem bi-polar in that way and I like that. There is only one designer this century that I know who crosses those boundaries and that was Ettore Sottsass. He is represented by a gallery that shows his art and at the same time he is an industrial designer. This cross over is very rare. It wasn’t there with Charles Eames or Raymond Loewy. I like the fact that I can make a disposable $1 object in the millions and also have the opportunity to do a big installation in a gallery. I am completely happy to coexist this way.

MF Is it true that a lot of things you do are not for a client?

KR If I have an idea that I want to do I will find a way to do it. I have learned to back off the really complex ideas because there is no way I am going to absorb that energy and time. In fact it reminds me of an old boss I had. He spent seven out of the eight years I worked with him, obsessed with a personal project – an office chair that was for no client. Sadly he died a few years ago and that chair never happened. So I don’t want to get into that weird narcissistic mode. There are so many ideas that you try to find avenues to get them realized. There is also a pragmatic side. A lot of this profession is about solicitation. Even though I am fairly established now, sometimes I still have to send people ideas for nothing and try to convince people. So I am still doing all that.

MF How do you go about selecting materials? Are there certain materials that you would like to work with but haven’t had the chance?

KR I have an interest in doing something with wood, because I barely touch wood. I would love to do a line of furniture with a sophisticated company that does wood really well. Within existing typologies there are so many things I would like to do. I am obsessed with the coffee machine. I am also obsessed with the possibility of doing an all plastic house. The nice thing about being an industrial designer is when you go shopping you know what to work on. Things like chairs are saturated but there is another world out there to work. Everyday we get different samples. Because we work on so many projects, there are a couple of people that research on materials. Everyday we all look at the new materials and think how they can be used in new projects. I think we are only at the beginning of smart materials that have phenomenon and give you feedback. You see things like 3-D lenticular lenses and things that are shifting and changing colors. I really love them. At the same time you can’t really drive a project just by materials. I can never forget a design magazine cover that has a computer in wood. That is the easiest thing you can do, to just shift the materials.

MF Your works tend to have bright colors. How do you go about choosing colors?

KR Someone said the other day that orange is the new black. I said color is the new black. Color is really beautiful and it is amazing just to think about the phenomenon of how we see color. Nature is full of color so why limit one to a colorless world. The tricky thing about color is it is easy to do something garish. So it is not like you can just splash color on. I love color. I remember when I was twelve years old I dyed my hair pink and I had purple platform shoes and wore orange bell bottoms. Maybe it is my 60’s kid coming out of me. A lot of it is really about capturing and enjoying the moment, it is ephemeral that way. Color can play a proactive role.

MF You do a lot of work for name brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Issey Miyake. Do you find it difficult to work with a brand that has a strong identity already? How do you go about changing your client’s perception of his or her own brand?

KR It is almost like a Catch 22. You can do the most progressive work with the small firms, but at the same time they have little means to disseminate those progressive work. Some designers will try to work only with established companies so these companies disseminate their name and their products. I never worked that way, partially because I am based in the United States. It‘s not like Europe where companies know how to promote their designers. I learned from working with companies that are relatively unknown and I have helped them a lot. I always thought part of the agenda with design is to start with a company that needs it. It is quite easy for designers to run toward someone like Alessi, Capellini, or Bang and Olufsen. The odds of doing work with them are slim because all of the designers are going after them. Why not work with companies that you can grow together. The more you grow together the more you connect. You don’t have to discuss things but just make things happen. The problem with big brands is they are very brand-centric. This happened to me when I did a design for a Giorgio Armani flagship store. Armani himself told me my design is too Rashid and not Armani. I completely understand because it is part of that fashion world. So it is difficult because those brands really worry about their identities and they don’t necessarily want to promote you. It is really those middle companies that are the best. They have a relatively good brand but at the same time are supportive of new ideas.

MF You are starting to do a lot of interiors. Do you find them difficult to experiment with?

KR I did interiors in the 80’s and I hated it because at the end of the day it is about cladding. What are you doing to put on the wall? A lot interior jobs are that way and lack real concepts. Real interior design is about developing a concept and bringing meaning to the space. The thing about the building profession is that the minute you start doing custom and conceptual things no one really knows how to build this stuff. So the contractors hype the price radically and they are the first things to be cut out of the budget. Even though my brother and many friends are architects, until a couple of years ago I never really understood what they went through. I started to realize why there is so little interesting stuff out there. It’s different in industrial design where companies know they have to do tooling that maybe costly. In interiors the client will want to chop something out of the budget at the last minute. At the end of the day, you just end up with wood floor and dry wall. So when you see things like Frank Gehry’s building, you realize those are far and few between. The reason we all know about them is because there is very little else to write about. So I am sympathetic. I am doing a few interiors – a hotel in Athens and a restaurant for Morimoto, we will see how things go.

The interview was held on August 13, 2001 in New York City.