In Conversation With Karim Rashid

“I want to start a new world – perfectly sustainable, no violence, no racism, no jingoism, no nationalism, nothing… just a clean new world”

That’s Karim Rashid, a dreamer and icon, whose progressive ideas have carved him a pop niche in the international design sphere. We met with this design celebrity at the launch of the Casa Milano showroom in Dubai, and found ourselves a bit starstruck.

What launched your thriving design career?

I was a full-time professor in Toronto at OCAD, and then at the Rhode Island school of Design (RISD). I loved academia. In 1992, I was fired from RISD and told I was teaching ‘philosophy and theory’, not design. I nearly quit the design profession then.

I moved to New York City, and that’s when my career really started (I was 32). I was penniless, but started drawing objects, romanticising about the beautiful world I always wanted to shape. I found a rundown loft without a kitchen or a bathroom to live in, and struggled to survive. After approaching about 100 companies from Lazy Boy to Gillette, I managed to get ONE client. That was 27 years ago!


And what led you to practice design?

When applying to university at the age of 16, I was torn between architecture, fine art, and fashion. I originally applied to study architecture at Carleton, but I was much too late and the program was full. They accepted me in the ‘architectural stream’ of Industrial Design, and as fate intended, after some industrial design courses, I knew that this was it – this was what I wanted to do.

Above: Mr & Ms Globalove (Italy); Golay Jewelery Collection (Switzerland)

Your most challenging project

Probably my design for Naples Metro. It has been my longest project to date! I started in 2004 and it wasn’t completed until 2011, but I am very proud of the finished product. The stations in Naples are referred to as ‘Art Stations’ and various famous architects were selected to design each one. Gae Aulenti’s station has work by Michelangelo Pistoletto and Joseph Kosuth. Some stations have art from Sol Lewitt and Sandro Chia. Alessandro Mendini likes my sensibility, which was really flattering considering I aspired to his vision when I was in university and always saw him as a mentor. So since these stations were under the auspices of art, I just did the whole station as my digital art. So I sunk the art budget into the interior walls and spaces instead of selecting art to ‘accent’ it in a conservative way. I will always love the impact and challenge that was the Naples Metro. It is the epitome of democratic design.

Above: Naples Metro by Karim Rashid

What project won you the most accolades?

The prizehotel in Bremen Germany. I designed it 10 years ago and won seven global awards. I always believed that inspiring interesting design should be a democratic act, and this budget hotel reinforced my belief. Since then I have designed another 10 all over Europe with great success. Also, Bobble, the water filtering bottle, won six awards and is totally universal, meeting global consumer needs of blurring borders, staying hydrated, saving money and helping the earth.

Top: Prizeotel in Bremen (Germany); Above: Bobbles filter bottle 

If you were to describe your personal design style…

I call my design Sensual Minimalism. Sensual Minimalism is reductive but humanised. In certain objects, I am using pure geometry but it is married with the organic. Digital tools inspire me to make forms as sensual, as human, as evocative, and as sculptural as possible, but through new shapes that were historically impossible to make.


And if you were to pick a favourite design sector?

I don’t believe in favoritism. I tell people “don’t specialise”. The plurality of my practice affords me the ability to cross-pollinate ideas, materials, behaviours and aesthetics, from one typology to the next. With each project, there are several points I think about simultaneously – production methods, materials, human interface, technologies, comfort, behaviour, form, aesthetics, costs, mobility, shipping of goods, ease of assembly, context, use and, most importantly, the culture of the company I am working with. Traversing disciplines is natural for me because I see everything as having to address our contemporary human needs in the most seamless way possible.

Above: Temptation Resort Punta Cana (Mexico)

Technology… yay or nay?

People like to assume that design moves with superficial trends, but it is technology that drives us. Industrial design and interior design are driven by designers embracing new technologies, whether it is material chemistry, production methods, or mechanical invention. There is a new aesthetic forming, and in order for manufacturers to engage the older generations, it needs to be part of this exciting new digital world, where the virtual and physical blur, where luxury is ease, simplicity, and personalisation.


Where do you see the interior and product design industry five years from now?

Even in this hyper-consumptive world, we will own nothing in the future – this is really nature. We lease cars, we lease houses, and soon we will learn to lease everything, experience it for a short while, and go on to the next. We will create a forever dynamic, ever-vast, changing human condition, where everything will be cyclic, sustainable, biodegradable, customisable, personalisable and seamless.

This is Utopia, this is freedom, and this is nirvana. All the goods in the world will only exist if they give us a new or necessary experience. We will dematerialise.


If you hadn’t become a designer…

When I was a child I wanted to be a mathematician, but now I would consider being an electronic dance musician or a motivational speaker, or a Guru on Globalove.


If you could design anything without constraints…

I feel like inspiration and innovation comes out of limitations. If we had many resources, there would be no experimentation. Sometimes my most creative work has come out of a small budget for interiors or limitations with tooling. But if I must answer, I would design a fantastical home like Palais Bulles.


What is Karim’s ‘Utopia’?

It’s a hyper-consumptive world where we will own nothing. We lease cars, we lease houses, and soon we will learn to lease everything, experience it for a short while, and go on to the next. We will create a forever dynamic, ever-vast changing human condition, where everything will be cyclic, sustainable, biodegradable, customizable, personalizable and seamless. This is Utopia, this is freedom, and this is nirvana. All the goods in the world will only exist if they give us a new or necessary experience. We will dematerialise.

What is the best advice you have ever received? And alternatively, what would be the most important advice you would give aspiring designers?

As an undergraduate studying in Italy, Ettore Sottsass (famous Italian architect and designer) taught me not to be too much of an artist in order to be a great designer. I keep his vases and a few Memphis works around me to remind me of this. An artist is not a designer, and a designer is not an artist. Working with designer Rodolfo Bonetto in Milan taught me that the industrial object is a manifestation of behaviour. Watching lectures by Buckminster Fuller, Charles Eames and George Nelson in the late seventies taught me to not conform readily and understand the industry fully, studying with Marshall McLuhan taught me theory and to see the world in a different perspective, reading Jean Baudrillard, Hegel, Virilio, and Foucault, taught me that design is a social and political act.

What counts at the end is to help the world become a better place, from aesthetics to human behaviour, from the ecology to the economy. Hence design is a creative act, a social act, a political act, and an economic act.

For young designers I always give the advice: Be smart, be patient, learn to learn, learn to be really practical but imbue poetics, aesthetics, and new paradigms of our changing product landscape. You must find new languages, new semantics, new aesthetics, experiment with new material and behavioral approaches. Also, always remember obvious HUMAN issues in the design, like emotion, ease of use, technological advances, product methods, humor and meaning, and a positive energetic and proud spirit.

Clockwise From Top Left: Nafir Recessed Lamp (Italy), Taj Mahal Revisited (USA), Dottie (USA), Temptation Resort Punta Cana (Mexico), Kanga Table (USA), Phase Collection (Sweden).

So, who is Karim Rashid? And what makes him tick?

I am a cultural shaper and have nonstop ideas about our physical environment, from micro to macro. I love to design, and try and evolve human social behaviours. And I love music and all creative, original acts. What makes me tick is that I do what I do, because I have no choice.

It is my destiny… 

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Date added:

31 March, 2020

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