Pragmatic futurism: the visionary design of Karim Rashid

To discuss design with Karim Rashid is to enter into a conversation about the human condition – if not the very future of mankind. For in spite of appearances (Rashid famously likes to wear white and pink, a colour he says he has been trying to masculinise for more than 20 years), the Cairo-born ­American/Canadian […]

To discuss design with Karim Rashid is to enter into a conversation about the human condition – if not the very future of mankind. For in spite of appearances (Rashid famously likes to wear white and pink, a colour he says he has been trying to masculinise for more than 20 years), the Cairo-born ­American/Canadian takes the issue of design, and its role in the human experience, very seriously indeed.

We meet at this week’s Index International Design Exhibition in Dubai’s World Trade Centre, where he has just delivered a keynote speech. The talk is entitled Sensual Minimalism, but is essentially a 40-minute presentation on what has been dubbed the “Karimanifesto” – a thinking man’s guide to the role of design in a rapidly changing, increasingly digital landscape.

I only have 20 minutes with Rashid, and he clearly prefers to keep these things short. I can’t imagine he takes much pleasure in the repetitive, sometimes mundane nature of press interviews. He seems tired and takes a few minutes to warm up. But that’s hardly surprising – he’s a very busy man. There are things to design, lectures to give, appearances to make, books to write, awards to pick up – and even the occasional DJ set to perform. After his stop in Dubai, he will travel to Toronto to give a lecture at the Design ­Exchange, followed by an appearance at the Carleton University ­Convocation in Ottawa on June 9. On June 16, he’s due to pick up an award from the British Institute of Interior Design Honorary Fellowships, before heading to Hamburg to give another lecture on June 24.

But Rashid has never been one to sit still. He is one of the most prolific (or “hyper-productive”, as he likes to call it) creatives of our time, with more than 3,000 designs in production. This includes hundreds of pieces of furniture, lighting, tabletop items, packaging, graphics and even fashion. He also designs buildings and spaces – from hotels in Hamburg to condos in Miami. In Dubai, he’s responsible for Switch restaurant in Dubai Mall, and is currently working on an Abu Dhabi branch of the contemporary eatery. Oh, and he has published nine books.

His portfolio is breathtakingly diverse – there are manholes, wire-free smartphone chargers, nail-polish and perfume bottles, pots, shoes, watches and handcuffs. You name it, Rashid has probably designed it. He’s known as a democratic ­designer – it’s his oft-vocalised and staunchly held opinion that design should touch everything and be for everyone.

He’s also a firm believer in design being “of its time”; if anything, this is the primary driver behind his aesthetic. If Rashid’s products are unearthed in 100 years, he wants them to offer a snapshot of the period in which they were made. “People should be able to say: ‘Oh, it was the beginning of the digital age; in his aesthetic he was maybe trying to capture the idea of information and data.’ Maybe the polymer I used was very prescient at that time, so it will say something about industry or the production methods of the time. And hopefully my designs will say something about the social behaviours of our time. It is amazing what we know about history through physical things – whether it is a vase from the Ming Dynasty, or scriptures written on a stone. Designers should keep that in mind – whatever you design today; if you buried it, would it speak about 2016, or is it still speaking about the 1800s?”

If there’s one thing Rashid can’t abide, it’s kitsch – he’s highly critical of the tendency for designers to look to the past for inspiration, and to falsely appropriate history, thus failing to create solutions that directly address the needs of modern-day users. “The past has nothing to do with shaping the future. To shape the future, we need to look at contemporary criteria, now. In design, there is a tendency to look back. And when we look back, a lot of times, we are just being derivative.”

In his keynote speech, he boldly states: “More than half the world is kitsch.” I refer back to this during our interview. “People feel more comfortable with images they’ve seen in the past,” he says. “When you do experience that history – let’s say you are in Paris and the architecture is from the 1700s, it seems romantic and human, and people try to take that and borrow and copy it. But I think you can never really reproduce these things. I think the mistake is thinking we can. I’ve never really seen a nostalgic, neo-revivalist project that’s successful.”

So what about Dubai? Is it of its time, in his opinion? “I think ­Dubai has some really phenomenal projects, and is an amazing city in many ways, and at the same time there are some buildings here that should probably have never been built. It’s a little bit ad hoc. I think moving forward, it needs more radical proposals. I think some of the more recent projects I’ve seen are trying to be historic, and at that point, it becomes kitsch and fake, trying to pretend it’s something it’s not,” he says.

“A perpetual dissatisfaction with the built environment” is one of the things that keeps Rashid going at this point in his career, he says. He’s particularly preoccupied with the onset of the digital age, and how this impacts the way people perceive and respond to the physical world. “The digital age is this new virtual experience that is becoming more engaging, more seductive and more experiential than the physical world,” he says.

Our many hours a day spent immersed in the virtual world have started to make the physical world look outdated, he suggests. “What you shape and physically build now has to engage and have a direct correlation to the digital age.”

Which is why designers, perhaps now more that ever, need to be of their time. But how to make physical products that reference the digital age? “Can I do a building today that has a language or vernacular that speaks of the virtual world?” Rashid ponders in his keynote speech. “Can I design a restaurant that somehow speaks about this digital age, that has some level of communication, that uses technology and also imbues ­technology?”

He references a project that he is currently working on, which involves the branding and interiors of a new airline. “All I can think about is that the airline industry looks very analogue. So I have been thinking: ‘What would a digital airline look like? Could there be a digital airline?’ Everybody puts the logo on the wing, but it’s so static – whereas the airline industry is all about going from A to B, it’s all about movement. Look at Google – it changes its logo every day, which means it is never static. So I thought, can I make a logo that is perpetually moving? What is the logo of the digital era? We found some technology that will have the logo moving on the wing all the time, and it’s not LED technology.”

Rashid has a track record of experimenting with new materials, and reads about things every other day that he would like to try out, he says. He has recently completed a chair made from a plastic derived from sugar, for example, which is a sustainable proposition that appeals to him. “I like these polymers that have been coming from corn and sugar. I try to use them a lot in my projects. There’s also a beautiful transparent glass that’s liquid crystal and also solar. So if I put it in a building, I can go dark or light, depending on the sun, and I don’t need blinds. But more importantly, it’s a solar panel, so all the electricity for the building is generated from the glazing. If tomorrow I could do a building in Dubai and had the budget, I would love to use that.”

Rashid may be an unashamed futurist, but he is also, perhaps surprisingly, a pragmatist. It might not be immediately apparent from his creations, with their otherworldly shapes, progressive materials, vibrant colours and organic, forward-thinking designs, but everything starts from a desire to improve the daily lives of his users. “The agenda of design is to progress and evolve humanity,” he says.

“I’m a little more biased on pragmatics, I would say, although when people look at my work, I don’t think they would immediately assume that. I’m driven by function or pragmatism. I learnt something years ago – if something really works, people won’t argue with the aesthetic. Whereas if something is a little weird and people are shocked by it, and then it doesn’t work, they are ready to tear into it.”

sdenman@thenational.ae

Source: art & life

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