Designer Karim Rashid on Beautifying the Present and Future

The inexhaustible designer is changing the world we live in by elevating ?everyday items from humble to haute?

Credit: Courtesy Karim Rashid

Karim Rashid says he’s driven to beautify the world one object at a time

Sixteen years ago, when Karim Rashid gave the archetypal 
garbage can a glam makeover, he also shone a spotlight on his uncanny talent for bringing ingenuity to ubiquity

Don’t expect him to mine the past for inspiration, though. Rashid’s new 
utopia is both forward-thinking and firmly rooted in the here and now.

Saying you’re a prolific designer is an understatement. How have you evolved as a designer, and how has that influenced your work today?

I find that after working for 26 years I have become much quicker, more creative, and more inspired than when I started. I find I do not need to do any research anymore to be inspired or to find solutions or directions, since I have accumulated so much experience from thousands of projects, from visiting hundreds of factories, from being to every retail environment in the world, to working in 39 countries, to meeting with experts in hundreds of fields, to understanding materials, markets, human needs and desires. In other words, when I meet with a client today 
I already have 10 ideas/concepts before I even finish an introductory one-hour meeting. I am more inspired today and have more ideas today than I have opportunities or clients. My mind processes the necessary information to design today. I love design, and I love reshaping and improving this world we live in.

You’ve been quoted as saying “I don’t think there are rules anymore.” Explain that sentiment.

The world hangs on to traditions and rituals, to rules and regulations, to old ideas of social life and civility, but in fact the world has changed drastically. Religion is irrelevant. Institutions are defunct. Most political precepts are out of date. Now it is a freer, more autonomous borderless world, and we could all try and dissociate ourselves with the burgeoning past, and be free to conceive a new way to live, and develop a new human paradigm.

It’s no surprise that you’re enamoured with pink and other bold, berry hues. What’s at the root of your fascination with these colours?

All my life I loved pink. In fact, I designed and wore a two-piece pink fitted satin suit to my high school graduation, with pink nail polish and pink hair (when I was 16). Pink (though there are endless different shades) is a positive and orgulous colour – that is why I picked it. Light pinks are poetic, feminine, dreamy, sensual, erotic – hot pinks are flora, digipop, exciting, powerful, alive and hyperrealism. Pink, in general, communicates a positive, uplifting really elevating sense of pleasure. Once, GQ magazine said I made pink masculine.

In an interview, you said: “Colour is to the eye as taste is to the tongue.” We know that pink dazzles your eyes, what tantalizes your tongue?

I love all food if it is fresh, organic and pure. I prefer good dark, organic chocolate – with cherries, almonds – when I have a sweet craving. I also love excellent coffee. That is my vice.

What’s the one design element you appreciate the most, and why? 

It is the 3-D software which affords me variation ad infinitum. I also love and have used rapid prototyping Fused Deposition Modelling for 10 years. I hated making models when I was a student or junior designer, and now I love that our models are virtual and that we can design and think rather than spend hours making things.

What materials do you want to experiment with?

Smart materials will become more embedded in our domestic interiors. Objects and systems that work for us and perform multiple functions will be the future. Materials that heat up instantly (our furniture), or change according your needs (cools if need be). 

Polymers, such as synthetic rubbers, santoprenes, neoprenes, silicones, translucencies, transparencies, LCD polymer wallpapers and displays all contribute to this new softness of our interior environment. We have heightened our experiences via touch.

Materials in our spaces can now flex, change, morph, shift colour, cool and heat, etc., due to the “smart material” movement: projected radiant heat (where the heating or cooling follows you and is not wasted on the rest of the space); smart bathrooms that give us diagnoses, from weight and blood pressure to analyzing our waste, to give us updates on our health needs and changes; smart appliances that tell us what is in our fridges, expiry dates, and even give us recipes based on what is in them; smart closets that have an inventory on our wardrobe so they can let us know what to wear and create outfits, etc.

Also, many new ecological and sustainable ideas that I used in the Corian house could really shape our future domestic environments.

Do you think the “green shift” to designing eco-chic items is fad – or fertile breeding ground for better design?

I think that the future is that we will own very little and that we will be loaning objects for our daily lives. This is really natural: 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 hyper-consumptive, forever dynamic, ever vast, changing human condition where everything will be cyclic, sustainable, biodegradable 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.


“Banal objects need life, they need presence – but they also need to make awful tasks more pleasant.””

– Karim Rashid

From among the myriad items you’ve created and collaborated on, is there one that you feel truly embodies your design sensibility?

I am so proud of the Garbo can for Umbra that I designed in 1996. Umbra has sold millions in the U.S. and proved to me that Americans want design, but at an affordable price. In fact, in 2005 the Garbo was inducted into the permanent collection of the MoMA. 

Paul Rowan of Umbra asked me to study waste baskets, and I remember drawing about 50 ideas. At that time, the ubiquitous plastic wastebasket on the market was a rectangular black can with absolutely no character, and there was little alternative. I thought that banal objects need life, they need presence – but they also need to make awful tasks more pleasant. My immediately inspiration was to create a more sensual object, an object that is wider at the top than the bottom. The form would speak semantically about a mouth. The handles should be raised to make it function better.The scoop top prevented you from touching the garbage when picking it up, and the rounded inside double-wall bottom prevented coffee and other liquids from getting caught in the interior. 

I used recycled polypropylene in various colours to give a lightness – an ethereality to the object – to make it sensual, to float it, to de-stress a chore, to add colour, simplicity and sensuality to one’s space. 

The Garbo is still sold worldwide and is now 100-per-cent biodegradable and made from all-natural corn plastic. But now I think my environments and interiors embody my sensibilities because I can create holistic human experiences from the micro to the macro.

Is there a particular piece of furniture, accessory or product you look at and think, “I wish I had designed that?”

I wish I designed:

  • Diva desk lamp iPod dock by Rotaliana

  • Telephone for SunCorp Communications by Chauhan Studio

  • Aptera car

  • Niterói museum in Rio by Oscar Niemeyer

  • Jaguar E-Type car

  • Cloud Gate sculpture by Anish Kapoor

  • Giuseppe Terragni chair, by Zanotta

  • Marilyn Bocca Lips sofa by Studio 65

Some people say that designing for the masses is the democratization of design. Others say it dilutes design, instead. Which camp do you fit in and why?

There are not two camps. Design was founded on mass-producing: it came about during the industrial revolution to create products that were accessible to everyone. I have always been an advocate of Designocracy. Although I design for luxury markets, I believe in doing mass-produced products. To design a successful mass-produced object is like writing a number-one song: It is an art, democratic art! 

Every product needs to be thoughtfully designed. Every banal product, regardless of price-point, is getting a “make-over.” I have been designing water bottles, mass shampoo bottles, dish soap, floor cleaner, garbage cans … objects that at one time were not considered something that needed design. Each object is connected to us and to the earth, and this passage of energy is all-inclusive. I do not separate a bottle from a shirt, a watch from a hotel. Objects can have phenomenal relationship with our daily lives and us. And at the same time, objects can be perpetual obstacles in our life, complicating them and creating stress. I try to develop objects that bring heightened experiences, more beauty and basically to make a more human contemporary landscape.

True or false? Have some designers stopped designing and become brands instead?

False. Name me one designer that is a brand and does not design? This only happened in the fashion world and not in the design world. Maybe I will be the first – ha ha. I can retire and sell my name to the devil. But this profession needs stars, heroes, so that design can become a popular subject and be more instrumental in affecting culture. America has not had a design star since Charles Eames (40 years ago), and thanks to Philippe Starck, and a few others, we now get an opportunity to have a voice in the world. Design is like music or actors or painters, but much more complex, more involved, and we deserve recognition. Design is the “art of real issues.”

How do you define success?

I am hard on myself to succeed. But I feel driven to design and change our contemporary landscape. Every ugly object is a blight on humanity, and I am constantly designing the perfect world in my head, on paper and with my clients. Success for me isn’t financial; it is about beautifying the world!

Who would you like to collaborate with next, and why?

I would like to work with developers to design condominiums and hotels, and companies like LG, Bose, Boeing, Bang and Olufsen, Kenmore, H&M, Rubbermaid, Numark, Conair, Bionaire, Johnson & Johnson, Kartell, Herman Miller, Braun, Ikea, Vitra …. I think they all make intelligent products, but lack real human connections, and my language and philosophy could really help shape their brand future. 

What’s your biggest failure or biggest regret? 

No failures, no regrets. I just overcame my only regret by starting to learn Spanish. 

What do you value most in your life?

My wife, my work and all of humanity – in that order. 

Do you have any phobias or super­stitions?

My only phobia is the world’s technophobia. Technology is a tool – a tool for self-improvement, not an end in itself. 

Complete this sentence. If I weren’t a designer, I would be a:

Musician and spiritual guru.

What would surprise people most about you?

That I will be 50 in one month, but feel younger and freer than ever.

If you could trade places with someone, living or dead, who would it be? 

David Bowie when he was 30 years old in Berlin, but only for 24 hours. Then I would need to trade with Albert Einstein to see what death is like!

Take a look at 16 years of dynamic designs by Karim Rashid

Originally published in BC Home magazine. For monthly updates, subscribe to the free BC Home e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the bi-monthly magazine.