“Our public environments should exude positive energy, heightened experiences, contemporary design, a new comfort that is an extension of the new age of casualism, and spiritual well-being,” says Karim Rashid, as whimsically as you’d expect from a man whose imagination has stacked his mantle with over 300 design awards. Categorically regarded as the most prolific and influential industrial designer of our time, Rashid’s relentless pursuit of form and function that speak the same language as their end user has often meant his designs – over 3000 products, thousands of square feet of built space and a slew of graphic and installation art projects – not only embody the here and now, but, through cutting edge techniques and a penchant for the latest technology, are future-proof in their own right. “In all my work, the underlying common thread is that the concept is relevant to the age in which we live; that the design is about our technological age, not about the past,” reiterates the man who quite literally tends to see life through rose tinted glasses; a style trademark only rivaled by his signature white suits.
As we speak, Rashid and his studio have at least 60 ongoing projects on their books. Bouncing from city to city, discipline to discipline, the tireless team’s work has reached a state of ubiquity – even if you don’t recall encountering a Karim Rashid design, you probably have. You’ve seen his is best-selling Garbino trash cans at your office, your eco-friends are sipping from his Bobble bottle and your girlfriend’s dresser is topped with his perfume bottles for Issey Miyake, Davidoff and Kenzo. You might have dined at Philadelphia’s Morimoto, Dubai’s Switch or Seoul’s Amoje Food Capital or even spent a night at Athens’ Semiramis Hotel. If you’ve been to New York, then you’ve definitely stepped unknowingly over his commemorative manhole cover, commissioned to celebrate the millennium, and if you’ve ever sent mail in Canada, then you’ve come face-to-face with his post box. And his list of current projects reads just as widespread: “A ground-up 500 room resort in Cancun as well as a 400 room budget hotel in Amsterdam, [and] hotels in Poland, Latvia and Norway. I am also working on designing four condominium buildings in NYC and two in Miami. I am finishing a hotel interior in Tel Aviv, a condominium in Latvia, and cafés in Doha and Tangier…” That’s not to mention several packaging and branding assignments for health products, lighting and furniture for companies in Spain, Italy, Austria and Mexico and a much-anticipated first – a high end luxury mobile phone. “I see our new environments becoming more technological, smarter, more engaging; a sensualism [that is] a more humanized, soft minimalism,” he explains as we ponder a world filled with Rashid gadgets.
“I am interested in soft spaces, not just relegated to form and shape, but also referring to our new material landscape where tactile surfaces give us comfortable physical experiences,” says Rashid of the evolution of our already tech-laden lifestyles. Just like we’ve become one with our cell phones, the real life and virtual experiences we have daily are poised to convene too. “Visual and physical soft surfaces, smart materials, translucencies, transparencies, LCD polymer wallpapers… [They] all contribute to this new softness of our interior environment. Materials can now flex, change, morph, shift color, cool and heat,” he continues with genuine excitement, and it’s no surprise that Karim Rashid’s firm is perhaps the most high-tech one out there. Already regularly using 3D printing for prototyping, if there’s any designer that’s bound to usher in a novel, disruptive design and production model, it’s him. “Another common thread [in my work] is that production, materials, and function are all seamless and that the object, space or thing raises the human spirit, is a positive addition and original to the built environment,” he says, shedding a little light on why he’s been the most in-demand designer in the last 30 years, and likely for many years to come. This holistic and responsive approach is set to become abundantly clear on completion of his public projects in three South Korean cities come 2017. “I’ve designed the promenade, entrance signage and sculptures for Sejong City, Dogtan, and Gimpo. The Sejong development is along the longest street mall in the city. My designs connect all the shopping, cultural and leisure facilities. Hundreds of thousands of people will have access to this public space.”
Despite his prolific career, however, not even Karim Rashid is immune to the perils of the creative industry – namely, the dreaded client. And when it comes to a public project, the pressure to innovate while meeting the mandate is amplified. “It is a juggling act. I think it’s most important that the concept is relevant, visionary, yet a perfect answer for the brief. For example, I was asked to develop a large public art installation for Expo 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan. By presenting three concepts, the odds are that one will be liked. This lets the client feel more involved in the process which I think is key. After all, everything is collaborative except an artist throwing paint on a canvas,” he says about his latest artistic commission. Urban planners will do well to take note of this cooperative approach, as more and more research points to the inclusion of all city stakeholders as an efficient and democratic conduit to more liveable and loveable urban environments. “I have had too many failures and have learned that design is a collaboration between one brand and my brand. One must listen and work within that culture or nothing will get built. Design is for people, not for museums.”
With that maxim in mind, it’s no surprise that Karim Rashid notes his work with Italy’s Metropolitana di Napoli, commissioned alongside some of the world’s foremost architects to each design a subway station, as one of his great joys. “Instead of designing a station that is somewhat conservative and ‘accent’ it with art, I sunk the art budget into the interior walls and spaces instead of selecting art. I always thought it was a better way to spend money. I will always love the impact and challenge that was the Naples Metro. It is the epitome of democratic design,” he passionately tells us. “A building or public space should evolve and push the neighborhood to change and speak of the time in which we live. I don’t believe in architecture having to marry or reflect existing surroundings. I do believe it has to contextually work and can take some cues from its surroundings.”