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Karim Rashid

By Caroline Ryder
Photo By Aaron Cobbett

Karim Rashid

Unlike fashion or architecture, the realm of product design doesn’t tend to breed many personalities. Even though we touch 600 objects a day or more, the people behind massproduced objects—the phones, the bottles, the lamps—remain generally anonymous. Do you know the name of the person who designed the Coke bottle, for example? The Swatch? The Volkswagen Beetle? More often than not, the designs speak louder than the person—unless that person happens to be Karim Rashid. “More and more people are starting to realize just how much of their lives are touched by product design,” says Rashid, the übereccentric New York industrial designer. “That’s why designers are now becoming pop icons. It all boils down to having a following. If you don’t have a following, you are not a pop-culture icon.”

Rashid is at the forefront of the “blobject” school, made up of designers hell-bent on making our world more space-age curvy. In contrast to the spare, straight lines of modernism, blobjects are cute, round, and playful. Utensils become so-called “cutensils”; objects become both tools and toys. Rashid, dubbed “the poet of plastic” by Time magazine, has added fluid, curvilinear contours (he calls it the creed of “sensual minimalism”) to countless massproduced items, like Method cleaning products, the Oh Chair, and his most popular design, the Garbo wastepaper basket, now exhibited in various museum collections all around the world.

Rashid stands out in a crowd, not just because he is 6’4”, but because since 2000 he has only worn white, with the occasional dash of pink thrown in. “Around the millennium I decided to take all my black clothes, 20 years of Comme Des Garcons and Gucci and all that stuff I despise now, and drop it off at the homeless shelter. I didn’t have a conscious plan to create an image for myself – it was mainly a strange angelic feeling of getting rid of darkness, shedding the uniform of the urbanite or the architect.” He topped off the look with original Alain Mikli sunglasses, and owns six prototypes of a pair worn by a blind woman in the Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World.

Some say his larger-than-life personality is as much a design as the rest of his work, but eccentricity, it seems, has always been a part of Karim Rashid. He was, in his own words, “a strange little boy,” born a breech baby, entering the world feet-first with his mother’s umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. The doctors told his parents he would be retarded for the rest of his life, and he didn’t speak a word until he was four and a half. When he did finally start talking, it was with a massive speech impediment. Then he refused to eat anything but mashed bananas for a year – “I think that’s why I ended up so tall,” he says.

At age seven, his family moved from London to Canada, where Rashid’s father, an artist, had landed a job as a set designer. Rashid learned how to use a sewing machine around this time, and started sketching his mother’s belongings, watches, and shoes. A loner at school, it soon became clear that this unusual child had an even more unusual brain (he was one of the top three math students in Canada). He started up the school newspaper, radio station, and yearbook. And he wore only pink. “I was into designing and making my own clothes on the sewing machine, and used to dress head to toe in pink,” he says. “I dyed my hair pink. I used to wear pink nail polish.”

He studied design at Carleton University in Ottawa, and pursued graduate design studies in Naples, Italy, paying his way through college by working as a DJ in clubs and at a record store. He got a job with a prestigious design firm creating X-ray tables and Black & Decker tools, but soon became bored with that and started a fashion line with a friend. He later gave that up to teach, but was fired from his post at the Rhode Island School of Design for supposedly teaching philosophy instead of design. Broke, the 31- year-old Rashid decided to start his own design firm. He took a bus to New York, wrote letters to a hundred firms, and was eventually hired by one to create a line of tableware. He opened his office in Manhattan in 1993, and the rest is history.

Since then, he has designed high heels in Brazil, vacuum cleaners in Korea, and hard drives in Paris. He is designing hotels and restaurants. Recent projects include the new flagship store for Giorgio Armani and manhole covers for the sewers of New York. His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Design Museum in London. He recently published a book called Design Your Self: Rethinking the Way You Live, Love, Work, and Play, which explores his general life philosophy. “It’s very much about this notion that we can shape our own destiny,” he says. “We have a lot more control over our lives than we think we do.”