Q+A – Karim Rashid

There’s simply not room to list the credits of Karim Rashid, a 40-year-old perpetual-motion machine of design. The Cairo-born, Canada-raised Rashid has done it all, from trashcans to luxury suites, Con Ed to Tommy Hilfiger to Sony to Prada to Nambe. And let’s not even get into his awards; check out www.karimrashid.com for a full listing. Manufacturers, take note: Rashid is looking for more high-tech work. He’s currently working out 10 prototypes of stereo systems for an upcoming Milan exhibit to expand from his core work in furniture, fashion and accessories.

What excites you at the moment?

That’s always a hard question to answer. Right now I’m working micro to macro. I’m doing a really nice line of pearl jewelry in Switzerland, a line of eyeglasses for an Italian fashion company, watches for several brands, running shoes for an American company, three hotels a big list.

You’re always working in so many disciplines at once. Do you just follow where the work takes you, or do you gravitate toward whatever is drawing your eye at the moment?

I was brought up with a European model from my father, who was a set designer and painter. I was educated with people who were broad and proli?c in what they did. They crossed boundaries. They designed clothing, they designed architecture. That’s what I thought the discipline of design was really about. Then when I got out in the field, I realized how specialized and narrow it is. One of my favorite sayings is “Don’t specialize.” Even when I worked in Milan, the few offices I worked at were much broader than American offices. One minute we were doing the interior of a theater, the next minute we were doing a television. The broadness was there. But I also like this whole idea of the Warholian factory, where you could move around in all the disciplines of the applied major arts. So I promised myself that if I ever had my own practice, I would keep it broad. That’s very hard to do. The marketplace has expectations. Once they see one thing, they keep coming back to you, wanting that.

Even though you work in such a wide array of design, do you find that the same concepts cross over?

Definitely! The projects cross over so much. One minute in the office we’re working on another waste basket or garbage can and suddenly you realize that some concept I’m doing with that garbage can is perfect for the hallways of a hotel in Athens. It happens a lot. I’m juggling 45 projects simultaneously. The difficult part of that is the attention span spent on each one. But they’re perpetually becoming blurred a little bit. I thought at first that it was a bad thing. Now I realize it’s a good thing. It’s affording new character and new typology to other things, because they’re being inspired by something that has nothing to do with that discipline and goes beyond that archetype.

How do you deal with the ongoing changes? You’re designing things that didn’t exist 15 years ago, using tools that didn’t exist 15 years ago.

I was brought up with that old school of using triangles and T-squares perfectly and the discipline in that. The world has changed dramatically in 20 years. I’ve always had a great interest in technology, starting in ’87, pretty early. Alias was a tiny office next to the office I worked at in Toronto. I remember walking down the street and they bumped into me and said, “Hey, we have this [design] software; want to come up and use it?” I was working on mailboxes for Canada Post at the time. I went up there and spent two months trying to make some [digital] renderings. During that time I could have made 20 physical renderings. But it caught my interest enough to make me say, “Wow, this can completely change what I do in this profession.” It can accelerate it, it can accord me to go through many more ideas. It can afford me to see things as an end product long before they’re physically realized. I was never really a model person; I was never hands-on. The digital age was fortunate for me.

Does that remove some of the creativity from the process, making design too generic?

It’s amazing how many computer generations you see that are variations of variations of variations. I get portfolios here every day, the majority of them now digital visuals that came in over the Internet. And I say, “Not another chair that looks like this.” [With technology], you can go over the stuff quickly and not think too much about why you do it. It becomes a visual game. But even with all the technology—and you can argue this with music as well—at the end of the day, the cream rises to the top. You give this kind of autonomy and equality of technology that lets everyone participate, and at the end of the day, there’s a small percent that are really changing things.

You’re known for doing design for everyday life. Is it a struggle to maintain the balance between cutting-edge design and keeping costs down?

No. There are three points that I’ve realized in the past 15 years. In the ’80s when I was aggressively working with Black & Decker, Samsung, Toshiba, most of the companies had a “me-too-ism” philosophy. The business philosophy was “follow.” If you follow, you’re bound to get a piece of the marketplace. It’s very high risk if you don’t follow. Fifteen years later, it’s the opposite. Now if you don’t differentiate yourself and have completely your own brand identity, you don’t survive. All these companies are struggling to retain their identities. They’re all starting to use the same components for a lot of products. How are you going to differentiate yourself? Bottom line is that if you open up one computer or another, they’re all the same components. So there are three major factors that were holding back design: One, companies were afraid of design because they thought it would narrow their market. Number two, they thought there were going to be added costs—whatever a designer does is going to make things more complicated, which is not the least bit true. A good designer knows technology and production methods well enough to design within that criteria and develop original work. And the third concern was differentiation: They were afraid to look different from anything else. The design community was to blame, to a point, because many designers were doing things that they thought were cool or followed the post-modern trend, but it had nothing to do with everyday life. Now you see the two merging again, and all of a sudden design is participating in everyday life.

So businesses are less timid about radical or extreme design?

Savvy-enough businesses realize that design can improve business, make money. There are a lot of statistics to prove that. You look at someone like Apple and they saved themselves through design. There’s enough out there for companies to say, “You know what? Design can make us money.”

What keeps you inspired?

About a year and a half ago, I was burning out, actually. Too much. When you become somewhat known in your profession, the demand gets greater. Larger players come to you and expect more from you. You have to perpetually do better than the last project. Burnout has a lot to do with that. There’s this Alanis Morissette story that I love. She came out with this amazing album, but on the second album, she fell apart. It took her two-and-a-half years and she just hid out at home. You go through that. You work so hard to get somewhere, then when it starts to get there, there’s a fear. Now I love what I do so much that the ideas come faster. I remember about 15 years ago someone I envied a lot was Philippe Starck, who had the opportunity to do so many chairs. Eventually one of those chairs will be brilliant or original. Because the more you do, I think the more you will get to the point where the work will be excellent. That rigor is important. I was once sitting in an o?ce in Canada where we got to do a chair every two years or so. I thought it would be really nice to be in [Starck’s] position or Eames’ for that matter. Well, I’m in that position now. You go through so much experimentation so quickly that the stuff gets better and better and your ideas get stronger.

Do you still see desktop production as being the future of design?

Oh yeah, definitely. For sure. I just wait for the day when I have desktop manufacturing on every computer in my office. I was in Japan recently and there was a tiny box, maybe 20x15x12 inches. It was a desktop manufacturing SLA—stereolithography machine for kids. You log it on to your PC and you can design automobiles and basically cut and lay out an automobile right beside you. It reminded me of 30 years ago when I was playing with Creepy Crawlers—you know, you pour some polymer in a mold and cook it. That’s the way we produce goods now. But here’s the future of goods; you’re varying the automobile on the screen. Kids are! On the box it says “Ages 7 to 12.” Imagine, you’re 7 years old and cutting your own racing car. That changes the world completely. Now it’s not about going to the shop and someone else making the choices for you. You now make your own thing. And it’s here. If I go on the Internet right now, I can design my own running shoes, my own jeans, my own cosmetics. This customization is based on the idea of desktop manufacturing and the digital age.

So what do you do to get away from all of this? What do you do when you’re not doing design?

I don’t do anything but this. Seriously. I do things like exercise and eating well. My favorite thing, my real social life, is to go to openings—art openings, design openings. I’m not interested in lying on a beach or climbing mountains. I used to think that was a bad thing until I read a lot of autobiographies. When I look at people I really respected—Georgio De Chirico, Miles Davis, I can go through a list—their work was their life. My work is my life but design is everybody’s life.

Mark Brown covers music, media and technology for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.