International design superstar Karim Rashid tells Rima Alsammarae about his branded sensual-minimalism and his struggle to break into the Middle East’s design landscape
Once labelled the Poet of Plastic, New York-based interior designer Karim Rashid is known for his curvaceous designs and outspoken persona.
Rashid’s oeuvre includes just about everything you can imagine, from small home goods like vegetable peelers and vacuums, to larger one-off pieces like a DJ stand and plant holders, to entire interior spaces in New York, Italy and Dubai. Rashid’s portfolio is massive to point that it’s near impossible to get through.
His ability to create just about anything combined with an innate understanding of design as a philosophy is what sets him apart from everyone else. Rashid is a superstar in the classic sense; he is at once, a persistent genius with great talent and charm.
So, how did it all start? “I was obsessed with drawing eyeglasses, shoes, radios and luggage throughout my childhood,” Rashid says. “And I remember reading about Raymond Lowey when I was 11 years of age. I also admired so many artists from all the books scattered in the house. I loved Andy Warhol, Rodchenko, Picasso, Calder, Corbusier, Dec Chirac, YSL, Halston, and so many other artists that were pluralists.
“Design, art, architecture, fashion, film—it was all the same to me. [They symbolised] creation, beauty and communication. I was also very inspired by my father who was a creative renaissance man, and I saw him create every day. He would design furniture, make dresses for my mother, paint canvases, design sets for television and film, and constantly take us to museums.”
Rashid’s career took off in industrial design between 1985 and 1991, when he worked with KAN Industrial Designers in Toronto. He was designing medical equipment, power tools, train seating and 3D glasses for IMAX cinemas. But according to Rashid, this line of work was too industrial and he didn’t want to be tied to it for the rest of his career. The budding designer wanted to branch out.
“On the side I started developing my own prototypes and some of my first objects like the Arp chair in 1988 and the Aura table in 1990—I think [that’s when] I started to define my sensibility and philosophy. These objects were sensual but minimal, human yet reductive…My career really started in 1993 when I moved to New York City.”
In the early 90s, Rashid approached nearly 100 companies from La-Z Boy to Gillette, and of the 100 companies, only one responded. Rashid designed a collection of tabletop objects for Nambe in Sante Fe, California.
“That became very successful. They sold about $3,000,000 a year and entered permanent museum collections. Also the Aura table was put into a show called Mutant Materials curated by Paola Antonelli in 1995. This relationship gave me the confidence that I could really contribute some meaningful and successful objects to the world.”
With a successful career taking off, it wouldn’t be long until TIME magazine would label Rashid the most famous industrial designer in all of the Americas. “That article was so long ago but an incredible honour regardless.
At the same time, 10 years later the New York Times’ T-Magazine had an insulting lengthy feature stating that every country in Europe including England have famous names, but [Americans] don’t have one important or known design name … I was insulted, not just for me, but for several important Americans that have helped make design a public subject in [the country]. It was insulting and ignorant.
Since then, I have been called the Poet of Plastics, and so many other titles—for good and bad.” Since his start in 1988, Rashid has enjoyed immense success. He has placed over 3,000 designs into production, received over 300 awards and completed work in over 40 countries. He has rightly become one of design’s most famous faces and intelligent minds.
Rashid’s interiors transport users to another time and space. They alter reality through their fluid forms and disconnect from surrounding environments. Rashid’s work in Dubai, Switch Restaurant, provides a great example.
He notes: “I want to challenge the boundaries of design, to bring a fulgent vibrancy to any environment. I want spaces to have a pulse, to sing and come alive around you, so that we feel inspired and revitalised. I want you to feel part of the moment in which we live with no references to the past.
“I use organic curves to break up an atmosphere and create strong statements, hopefully achieving a sense of vitality and experiential beauty…I call my work sensual minimalism, or sensualism, because it is not laboured with embellishment yet has a more human, more sensual connection with us. When it is embellished, I design ‘inforstethic’ patterns to communicate data, digital age and information—and try to create another dimension.”
With Egyptian blood running through his veins, Rashid’s name is one of the most famous Arab names in design. So why is it that he has delivered few projects in the Middle East and North Africa? It’s not only a surprising realisation for me, but it seems to also shock Rashid himself.
“Honestly, I thought I would do more work in the Middle East,” he says. “But very few clients approach me. So many new interiors built in the Middle East are created with the idea of the new and the future. I am fascinated by Dubai and all the Middle East because they embrace architecture and design without boundaries.
It’s a blank canvas for the future and for inspiring spaces that touch us in a phenomenal way—underwater hotels, man-made islands, indoor skiing, the world’s tallest hotel…can only exist in the now.
“But honestly, I am shocked and saddened that I have no work in the Middle East. No one contacts me and yet I am the most famous Arabic name in the world of design besides Zaha Hadid.”
Rashid is a living example of what international Middle Eastern cities are trying to become. He is rooted in Arab culture yet his career and his work surpasses international borders and invisible boundaries.
He represents what great work the Arab world can achieve. So, will we see more of his work going up in the region? That seems to depend on a potential reconnect between the designer and the land.
Currently, Rashid is working on 85 projects in nearly 30 countries. From mobile phones to office furniture, soap dispensers, food packaging, branding, furniture and lighting pieces, and even wall papers, Rashid leaves no area of design unexplored.
Rashid adds: “The rapid growth of the Middle East has produced a lot of banal design and architecture, but there are a few shining examples of good design. The Middle East has great potential to impact culture.
This is a place of constant growth and astounding optimism and resilience. But it is about time we see design become part of everyday life. I think the Middle East needs to be more competitive with the changing global landscape.”