Plastic Man: Karim Rashid
From The New Yorker
Salone del Mobile was ending, and Delta's
Sunday one-thirty business-class service from Milan to J.F.K. was
full of well-heeled American retailers and marketers of design.
Before takeoff, passengers circulated in the cabin, quizzing colleagues
about what they had liked at the huge weeklong industrial-design
fair, and fortifying themselves for re╬ntry into a less stylish
country with the complimentary orange juice and champagne.
A man from the home-furnishings department of
Bloomingdale's was talking to a buyer from the gift shop at the
Museum of Modern Art about the growing popularity of what he called
"the fashion bed"--designer-made furniture for sleeping. "What we're
wondering is whether the customer who goes for Calvin's sheets may
push over into Donna's bedding," the Bloomies guy said.
Karim Rashid barely made the flight. Rashid is
six feet four inches tall, and he was dressed in the white suit
that he often wears on public occasions. Every time Rashid, who
is forty, had surfaced in Milan during the previous week, his appearance
had caused a stir. But here, among the businessmen on the airplane,
he was just another unshaved and scruffy-looking designer.
Rashid was exhausted from his week of meetings
and parties and acclaim. His hair was cropped close, and his goofy
square glasses, set off by his almost perfectly round head, made
him look a little like a stick drawing--all circles and straight
lines. He sat down in the seat next to me, took his MP3 player out
of a fluorescent-orange bike-messenger-style bag, tucked it into
the seat-back pocket in front of him, and settled in for the nine-hour
flight. Yet another potential client had called that morning, he
said, wanting to set up a breakfast meeting, but Rashid had explained
that he absolutely needed to get back to New York. Along with all
the work that had been commissioned in Milan, there was a tsunami
of ongoing projects, including designing and building a hotel in
Los Angeles, the Gershwin West, and another one, the Semiramis,
in Athens, for the Greek industrialist Dakis Joannou. He also had
an upcoming opening at Deitch Projects, in SoHo, where one of his
concept pieces, Pleasurescape, would be unveiled.
He hated to turn down a job, Rashid added, but
he was working too hard these days, and his back hurt, and in a
recent picture in the Times Home Design Magazine he had looked,
he said mournfully, a bit "chumpy." Plus, "I think I might be getting
sick again." Rashid's travel schedule--in the past year, he had
been away from New York on business for two hundred days--makes
him something of a germ vector.
Delta's business service had been recently
redesigned, and Rashid was not impressed. The flight attendants
were dressed casually--the men in open-collared shirts, the women
in tailored slacks (the two attendants we spoke with, a man and
a woman, both seemed miserable in their new attire; "It's so unprofessional,"
the man whispered)--and the toiletry kits, which used to come in
soft, leathery-feeling rubber bags, are now packaged in fake-antique
"How stupid is this?" Rashid took the metal
box out of the seat-back pocket. "They're so hard!" he said incredulously,
hefting it. He gestured around the cabin. "It's amazing how much
bad design there is in airplanes. Why are the bathrooms so small
when there's so much space in here? You end up peeing on the floor
and splashing water all over the sink. It's terrible, and yet every
single airplane is the same way." He sighed and said, "Take a look
around at your environment sometime, wherever you are. Ninety per
cent of the stuff you see is an absolute fucking mess."
But Rashid has big plans for your environment,
as the title of a handsome new book of his work, "Karim Rashid:
I Want to Change the World," makes clear. In previous years, Rashid
did what most product designers who come to Salone del Mobile do:
he trudged around, portfolio in hand, to the hundreds of different
manufacturers' booths, hoping to get a commission to build something--a
stereo, a light fixture, a chair. This year was the first time Rashid
let prospective clients come to him. "I had six incredible meetings
today," he told me one evening in his hyperbolic, excitable conversational
style. "I mean, amazing meetings."
Most artistically acclaimed product designers
establish themselves by first creating expensive avant-garde furniture
or restaurant interiors; some then capitalize on their fame by making
inexpensive housewares. Rashid launched his career backward: he
made his name by designing an eight-dollar plastic trash can, the
Garbo, and a forty-five-dollar stackable chair, the Oh, and then
used his credentials as a democratic designer, inheritor of the
Bauhaus tradition of good design for the masses (which is one of
the most enduring tenets of modernism), to get commissions for undemocratic
design for the ╚lite. In Milan, he showed a one-off furniture installation
called Surfacescape: a four-piece, reconfigurable seating concept
produced by Edra, an Italian manufacturer of expensive furniture.
At the party for the sofa, Rashid introduced me to Valerio Mazzei,
the head of Edra, by saying, "I love him. This is a dream. He understands
completely what I'm doing. It's as if we are one."
Italian design firms like Alessi and Magis have
been making housewares for years (colanders by Philippe Starck;
garlic presses by Guido Venturini), but these products generally
sell to aesthetes in museumlike settings, such as Moss, a store
in SoHo, at prices that are ten times higher than those of ordinary
colanders and garlic presses; they're classics. Many of Rashid's
products--perfume bottles, credit cards, pens, backpacks, mouse
pads, lighters, and coffee cups--make no pretense to classicism.
His speciality is designing F.M.C.G.s, or fast-moving consumer goods--products
with relatively short life spans. Some of his best designs are disposable,
like his shopping bags for Issey Miyake, which are made of transparent
polypropylene sheets that fold into shape, with a rubbery handle.
He is opposed, he says, "to this old modernist idea of permanence,
when designers produce so-called classics that will live forever.
Because I don't think we're living in a time where anything will
live forever anymore."
The strain of trying to redesign the offending
ninety per cent of the world, while at the same time keeping pace
with the fast-moving stream of consumer goods, did not look easy.
Rashid closed his eyes and took a brief nap.
To find a precedent for a designer like
Rashid, you have to go back to the product designers of sixty years
ago, men like Norman Bel Geddes, George Nelson, and, above all,
Raymond Loewy, the French-born designer who developed the Coldspot
refrigerator for Sears, re-designed the Lucky Strike cigarette package,
and remodelled the Greyhound bus. Loewy's generation found a visual
vocabulary, streamlining, that transformed toasters, vacuum cleaners,
refrigerators, and cars into objects of consumer desire. Rashid
and his generation are creating a new kind of commercial-design
language--a twenty-first-century streamlining--which can be seen
in laptops, cell phones, portable music players, G-Shock watches,
Oakley sunglasses, Oral-B CrossAction toothbrushes, and, of course,
sneakers. The new streamlining has put on weight. It's softer, curvier,
more colorful, and "swoopy," a favorite design word for describing
those urgent yet sinuous, Gehryesque forms that new plastics can
support. The old geometry of cubes, spheres, and cylinders has given
way to a digital geometry of "nurbs," "spines," "metaballs," and
other shapes produced by computer-aided-design software (cad), which
allows the designer to create and manipulate forms on the computer.
The shapes look organic, but the mathematical calculations on which
the cad software runs give their surfaces the hard sheen of crunched
data. In "I Want to Change the World," Rashid calls the new style
Rashid's products are made of digital-age materials.
He uses rubber that looks practically edible, and plastic that feels
almost like flesh. The colors are acid shades from the Twister-board
sixties, a little washed out, in a way that re-flects the passage
of years. But although Rashid is technologically innovative, in
his relationship with the business side most beautiful curve is
a rising sales curve. Rashid himself says, "I'm a businessman. Artists
are businessmen. 'Business' has come to seem a bad word, because
it means compromise, but we are all part of a commercial process,
Are we? The architect R. Buckminster Fuller accused
commercial designers like Loewy of being little more than servants
of advertising and marketing, engineers only of planned obsolescence,
rather than makers of useful improvements for mankind. The same
criticisms could be made of Rashid's work. Obsolescence is part
of the essence of his F.M.C.G.s. "A lot of what Karim does is take
old designs from the fifties and make them curvy and kooky," one
design nabob told me. "They're superficial glosses on classic designs.
I liked his Prada packaging, because it's all about waste and consumerism,
and that's what Karim is best at--it's an ideal marriage of his
talent and a product. He has a great talent for the ephemeral."
Starck invented a new style; Rashid is more of a medium for new
trends in the design world. His Oh chair has been on the cover of
Crate and Barrel's catalogue, but Murray Moss does not show any
Karim Rashid products in his store. "Rashid is brilliant at communicating
design to the masses," Chee Pearlman, a design columnist for the
Times, told me. "But often his work is too easy."
In Milan, Rashid was certainly an easy target
for those who feel that F.M.C.G.s might not be the best direction
for modern design to take. An alternative design group calling itself
Latebloom had gone to the trouble of having signs printed that said
"Fuck Karim Rashid," and had stuck them around Milan during the
fair. (Other famous designers were similarly honored.) Someone had
stolen one of his customized fluorescent-orange Puma sneakers when
Rashid removed them at the party for Surfacescape. He seemed startled
by the evidence that not everyone in the world meant him well: "I
mean, would someone actually steal my shoe?"
After we were aloft, Rashid asked one of
the flight attendants for some extra-strong coffee, giving her exact
instructions on how to make it, and offering to show her, if she
liked. I asked him how he became a designer. "As a child, I never
liked nature," he said. "I had all these allergies, for one thing.
I always felt sick when I was in nature. And then I didn't like
nature because it was already done. It was designed. You couldn't
do anything to it."
Rashid was born in Cairo. His mother was English;
his father, an Egyptian, was an artist and a theatrical-set designer.
In England, where Rashid spent his early years, his father worked
as a night watchman, because he could not find work as a set designer
or an artist; eventually the family moved to Canada, and his father
became a set designer for Canadian TV and the BBC. Mr. Rashid kept
his skills sharp by rearranging the family's furniture almost every
week. There were three children--Karim; Rashid's older brother,
Hani (a founding partner of the SoHo-based firm Asymptote Architecture);
and his younger sister, Soraya, who is now a singer-songwriter living
in Manhattan. "Dad was always drawing us, over and over again,"
Rashid told me. "He would take me with him in the afternoons when
he went to sketch. When I was four, I had an epiphany--I was drawing
a church, and I realized I could change it." After dinner, the Rashid
men would sit around the table sketching one another.
Rashid obtained a degree in industrial design
from Carleton University, in Ottawa, and then spent a year in Italy,
where he studied with Ettore Sottsass, one of the founders of the
Memphis school. He worked as an unpaid intern for a year and a half
in Milan, and then returned to Toronto, where his parents lived,
and took a job with KAN Industrial Designers, a firm that employed
twenty designers, working for clients like Black & Decker and Samsung.
Rashid developed a drill, and designed post-office boxes for Canada
Post, replacing the red steel Victorian-looking boxes with
containers made of aluminum, cast iron, and plastic. "I did stereos
for Toshiba, designed a space heater, a sniffer for detecting parts
per million of heroin, laser processing devices, farm equipment,
medical equipment, that sort of thing.
I spent ten years in that world. And it's all
about commodity. It's certainly not about beauty and meaning--the
people you're working for couldn't care less. But you learn how
business works." David Shearer, who sells a wide range of Rashid's
products in Totem, his Tribeca store, says, "A lot of designers
come up with beautiful designs, but they have no idea what they
cost or how complicated it is to make them. Karim understands what
it takes to bring a product onto the shelf."
In 1991, Rashid quit and moved to Providence,
Rhode Island, where he had found a job teaching at the Rhode Island
School of Design. He left after a year. According to Rashid, he
was fired because he insisted on getting students out of the ivory
tower of craftsmanship. (RISD says his contract was not renewed
because there were differences in teaching philosophies.)
"I was in this decrepit town, Providence,
I was very depressed, and I didn't know what to do. I had to make
a choice--go to New York and try to be a designer, or go back to
Toronto. My brother and sister were in New York, so I went and slept
on Hani's floor for six weeks." In 1993, he got a position at the
Pratt Institute, in Manhattan, where he taught for four years. He
also taught at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia.
Rashid pitched more than a hundred companies in
1992 and 1993 before he got his first commission, from a Santa Fe-based
company called Namb╚, for a line of tabletop accessories. He was
turned down by the ╚lite European manufacturers he approached; they
weren't interested in a guy who did drills. He decided to concentrate
on the second-tier manufacturers, companies like La-Z-Boy and Ethan
Allen. He rode Amtrak into New England, making a Captain Willard-like
journey into the cradle of American manufacturing, once the home
of early Yankee machine shops and now a postindustrial landscape
of fast-food chains and malls.
"I remember I went to Ethan Allen, which
is based in Danbury, Connecticut. This was about nine years ago,
when they were closing a lot of stores around the country," Rashid
said. "I thought, Here's an opportunity. I know why they're closing
these stores--it's because fewer and fewer people are interested
in buying simulations of an antique, which is what Ethan Allen sells.
The generation that started buying contemporary furniture at Ikea
is growing older, and now they want something that's a little higher
quality and more substantial, but they're used to contemporary designs,
so where are they going to go? If they move to Italian stuff, then
the American companies are over. Maybe not tomorrow, but ten years
from now, all those antique sofas and highboys are going to be gone.
Because the mind-set of youth culture--and I've picked this up from
my students--is that they don't care about the past. The past is
pointless. It's over. Their mentality is skateboards, MP3s, and
Nike running shoes, and eventually that's going to affect the furnishings
they buy. But, of course, Ethan Allen wasn't interested in what
I had to say--here's this arrogant guy telling them what to do with
the future of the company."
Finally, in 1995, Umbra, a Toronto-based company
that makes inexpensive housewares, agreed to try an idea of Rashid's--a
trash can made of high-impact virgin polypropylene, which would
sell for less than twelve dollars. "The idea was extremely simple,"
Rashid says. "We were limited by the height of the can, but I thought,
If I raise the handles, it will appear to be higher, and then the
top will form a kind of rim to catch stuff you throw. And having
a rounded inside rather than a square one would make it easier to
clean. And I knew a lot about plastic, so I knew they'd have no
trouble molding it, and in fact when they did the first injection
of plastic for the Garbo it molded perfectly--usually when you do
a first injection it doesn't hold together. In 1995, plastic was
still kind of on the outside, aesthetically, but it was amaz-ing
how quickly the aesthetic landscape changed and plastic became the
thing." He built a better trash can, and the world beat a path to
The coffee arrived. It was satisfactory--barely.
Rashid reached under the seat for his bag and brought out several
large design magazines: heavier-than-Vogue tomes celebrating
the crossover of fashion, art, design, and advertising. I pointed
out that he was lugging around a lot of weight for a digital guy,
and Rashid responded that it was absolutely ridiculous that print
still had such a powerful grip on the world. He said he had done
away with all the books and CDs in his home. "All I want is a chip
in my eye, that I can download information to directly," he said.
"Remember, it's not the camera, it's the picture you take with the
camera that's important. It's not the phone, it's the conversation.
I'm not proposing doing away with physical goods--I produce physical
goods. It's this fetishization of things I'm opposed to."
Nonetheless, Rashid has designed more than eight
hundred things since 1993, and he has fifty projects going at the
moment, everything from cosmetics to an "absolutely fantastic" project
he was working on for a Swiss company called Golay--a line of jewelry
with cultured pearls, which would rescue the pearl from the neck
of the d╚butante.
I asked what accounted for his extraordinary drive,
and Rashid said he wasn't interested in the money; he was interested
in getting his ideas manufactured. "I want to create original things,
original ideas," he said. "I want to see what I can contribute to
humanity while I exist." He may be a celebrity in the design world,
but to a lot of manufacturers, particularly Americans, a famous
product designer is nothing more than an uppity engineer. The standard
rate for product design is about three per cent of the manufacturing
costs. (Architects generally get between five and ten per cent.)
From a business point of view, what a designer brings to the process--creativity--is
what spreadsheets define as the "undeliverable." (Part of Rashid's
success as a designer stems from his ability to define the undeliverable
not only in terms of aesthetics but also in terms of publicity,
which is something his clients find easier to measure.)
Rashid's recent experience with Ronson, a once
proud British manufacturer of premium lighters, is a good example
of the kind of treatment product designers receive from their clients.
Ronson was a good opportunity for Rashid, because, he told me excitedly
after he was commissioned to design an inexpensive lighter, it would
be the first time he had made a product that would sell for less
than a dollar. Ronson was a famous brand that had been all but ruined
by disposable plastic lighters, particularly beginning with the
Flick Your Bic campaign, in 1974. In 1998, an American investment
firm called Berkeley Capital Advisors, whose business is to invest
in undervalued or dying British brands and reinvent them, became
Ronson's largest shareholder. One of the directors of Berkeley,
Bahman Kia, persuaded the Ronson board to hire Rashid, the prince
of plastic, to lead Ronson into the "premium mass" market by producing
designer disposable lighters that would sell for twenty-five cents
more than Bic lighters. This strategy was based on the new thinking
that design actually does matter to the masses. (Berkeley has also
taken a management position in Maclaren, a maker of strollers, and
is trying to interest Philippe Starck in designing a few.)
Ronson asked for twelve lighter concepts; Rashid
presented thirty-eight. Eventually Ronson settled on three: the
Gripper (sheathed in artificial rubber), the Pebble (a blob), and
the Spindle, which looks like a microphone. Rashid also came up
with designs for other Ronson product lines--a pen, a calculator,
an AM-FM radio, and an artificial log shaped like a ball. Then he
took it upon himself to reinvent the brand, replacing the old black
Ronson typeface with an electric-red digital-looking script. So
far, Ronson has put only the lighters into production. The company
declined to follow Rashid's branding advice and postponed action
on the other production ideas. It seems that Ronson wasn't ready
for Rashid. "I think I scared them," he says.
Out came Rashid's sketchbook from his bag,
a big, heavy black ring binder filled with thick paper. He sketched
with an orange pencil (he usually works with a black Pilot fine
liner) and listened to Dirk Diggler on his MP3 player. He was working
on a new furniture project for Edra, the manufacturer that had produced
the Surfacescape piece. When he is at the conceptual stage, his
method is to go over the sketch again and again, move on to other
ideas, then return to the earlier sketch, filling up a whole pad
with a few projects. He keeps sketching until the "singular shift"--the
change in form that will determine the identity of the product--emerges.
Then he gives the sketch to one of his assistants, who enters the
shape into a computer. (I could see how a product designer who works
entirely by hand, painstakingly crafting physical models of sketches
made with a slide rule and paper, might find Rashid a little irritating.)
The easiest way to see Rashid's work in New York
is to look for one of the hundred and fifty manhole covers he designed
for Con Edison, which are exhibited mostly in the streets of Manhattan,
particularly around Times Square. The design is a plumped-up version
of the old Pan Am logo, made by tweaking a two-dimensional grid
on a computer until it looked pregnant with information. Rashid
tried to get Con Ed to cast the covers in high-impact, glow-in-the-dark
translucent plastic, which could withstand as much weight as the
standard iron covers, but Con Ed decided that the public wasn't
ready for translucent plastic manhole covers. However, Rashid did
manage to get "design by karim rashid" built into the product--a
literal form of street credibility.
You could also walk by the Rashid offices, on
West Seventeenth Street, which have a faux storefront where plates,
bowls, mouse pads, pens, and furniture are displayed in a Lechters-like
setting. The furniture in the showroom looks like something Rashid's
father might have come up with for a fifties TV drama about the
future. Behind the showroom, fifteen studious-looking assistants
work at computers. Rashid has an office in the back. He lives upstairs
with his wife, Megan Lang, a computer artist.
Rashid is an apostle of "soft tooling"--computer-assisted
model- and diemaking technologies, which, when used along with cad
software, can drastically reduce the tooling costs involved in the
creation of industrial products. Because manufactured objects are
expensive to tool for--the average cost of making a die for a chair
is three hundred thousand dollars--most products need to remain
in circulation for at least five years if the producer is to make
a profit. By making it possible for manufacturers to produce industrial
objects more cheaply, in smaller batches, and to change the objects'
shape and color from one batch to the next without major retooling
costs, the new technologies will enable industrial designers to
cater to seasonal changes, as the fashion industry does. Meanwhile,
fashion companies are relying to an ever greater extent on machines
to do the tailoring that used to be done by hand. (For example,
when you go into Zegna to get a bespoke suit, your measurements
are fed into a computer-tailoring program, and a computer-controlled
blade cuts the fabric.) Rashid is at the crossroads of these two
converging production cycles, supplying the product industry with
more transient goods and the fashion industry with less season-driven
ones. "I think there's a fourth dimension to all products, a kind
of aura, a sensibility," he says. "Right now, that dimension is
very much a part of fashion, and I think we're going to find it
more and more in everything."
But do people want to change their furniture and
housewares the way they change their clothes? After a day of squeezing
into uncomfortable shoes merely because they're fashionable, you
may want to just lie in the chair you've had forever and put your
About halfway into the flight, I glanced
over at Rashid and noticed he had grown pale and was breathing hard.
"Are you O.K.?" I asked. He shook his head, got up, and walked up
and down the aisle, taking deep breaths. The challenge of being
an artist who was also a businessman who was really an artist seemed
to be causing a singular shift in him. He disappeared into economy
class, where two assistants he'd brought along were sitting.
These conflicting pressures were on display later
in the week, at the Deitch Projects opening, in SoHo. Pleasurescape--a
molded-plastic seating arrangement for sixty, all in white, made
out of the material used for slides in water parks--sat in front
of a forty-foot-long hot-pink panel. Jeffrey Deitch, a friendly,
preppy-looking man dressed in a blazer and tie, was standing near
the door. "Karim is part of something I'm very interested in," he
said, "which is the convergence of the audience for art, design,
advertising, entertainment, and fashion. I'd like people to walk
in and ask, 'Is this art or furniture or advertising?' " Along one
wall, framed sketches of Karim Rashid products were hanging, with
the 1995 sketch for the Garbo holding pride of place.
I stood before the drawing and asked myself whether
a trash can, by virtue of being not only a good trash can but also
an artifact of our throwaway culture--disposable itself--might be
viewed as art. Something that Marcel Duchamp started seemed to have
come to its logical conclusion: a best-selling eight-dollar trash
can had made Rashid's reputation as an artist.
The da Vinci of the disposable age was dressed
to match his furniture, in pink pants and a white shirt. His wife
was wearing a sleeveless black dress that showed off some Karim
Rashid tattoos, which were on her upper arm. I asked Rashid if he
considered the objects in the show to be art or product design.
"Well, I'm an artist first. That is how I think of myself. I'm thinking
about people dealing with space in an object culture. I'm trying
to bring the experience of modern life, the banal experience of
an airport waiting room, into galleries. I'm trying to do the same
thing artists do--I wouldn't be showing at Deitch if I wasn't--but
I'm also making products." When I said that I liked Pleasurescape
because it was practical, Rashid seemed taken aback.
"Yeah, I guess I have a tough time with
that, as an artist. I can't help myself."
Twenty minutes after his escape into economy,
Rashid was back in his seat. He said he sometimes got panic attacks.
"I have a compulsive personality," he explained. "If I have nothing
to do, I'll start rearranging the stuff in my office. I used to
get depressed a lot, and if I worked I'd feel so much better, so
now I work. And I'm starting to reach the point I've always dreamed
of reaching, and that's when I start to panic. As the demands get
higher, I have to keep performing. My throat tightens, and my heart
starts beating really fast."
The plane landed at J.F.K. late in the afternoon.
Rashid's predecessors made streamlining the style of people on the
go, the jet-setters, but the speed of the digital world has left
air travel in the dust--nine hours seems like far too long for a
flight from Milan to New York. Rashid hoisted his bag over his shoulder
and walked up the passenger tunnel into the general banality of
the airport. Weary travellers, some with children, were in the waiting
area, preparing to board overnight flights. They looked as if they
could use a Pleasurescape.
In baggage claim, the suitcases whirled around
and around the stainless-steel carrousel. When ours came, we carried
them into the first-generation plastics of the customs hall. The
elevator up to the parking lot didn't work, and Rashid shot me a
look that said, "See? The world is an absolute fucking mess." But
an elevator for the twenty-first century would have to wait until
the designer had gone home and got some sleep.
Copyright © John Seabrook 2003. All rights
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