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so what do you do?

Karim Rashid's Brave New World.
The people in your media neighborhood.

BY DAVID S. HIRSCHMAN | While everyone goes through ups and downs in their career, Karim Rashid's have been quite dramatic. At 32, Rashid had been fired from RISD, had $1400 in the bank, and was sleeping on his brother's floor. But from there, over the past decade, he has slowly become the biggest name in modern industrial design, making it one object at a time. Here he talks about his career path, living in an increasingly disposable world, and the existence of absolute zero. (buy Karim Rashid's book I Want to Change the World on Amazon.com)

Born: September 18, 1960

Nationality: Canadian

First section of the Sunday Times he reads: Arts and Leisure

Books he is currently reading: One World by Peter Singer, which is about the ethics of globalization, another about creating digital music and CYBORG – the Man-Machine by Maie O’Mahony.

Magazines he reads regularly: I buy about 20 magazines a month from Domus to Interni to House and Garden to Wired to Face to Dazed and Confused. When I travel I buy magazines from every country perpetually. The more fringe the better. Regular purchases include Men's Health, Big (U.K.), Cult (Italian magazine written in English) and Shape (his wife gets it).

Named after: My name is Egyptian and it means generous. My father named me. But if you type it into Microsoft Word, do you know what comes up? My number one philosophy: Karma.

Favorite place in New York: I love being right here in my office. I live right upstairs, and I go days without leaving. Because I travel so much—and I have to be so social when I am visiting other places—by the time I get back to New York I tend to isolate myself. Like today, for instance; people tell me it's freezing outside but I have no idea. I've just been here all day.

Tell me a little about your career path.
Well, my father's a painter, and I grew up with tons of art books around the house. I think he introduced me around the age of 14 to industrial design. I remember one of the first books he gave me to see was one of Raymond Lowey. By the time I was 17 I knew that I wanted to design objects. I was in love with my little Braun alarm clock radio as a kid. It was orange and perfect, all the radiuses were perfect. And it was an object which, to me, gave me a sense of immortality. It made me feel alive. So I realized I had this affinity for the physical world and for materials.

I did an undergraduate masters in industrial design and worked in Milan for a few years, then I went back to Canada and worked for ten years. Finally, I applied for a full-time teaching position at Rhode Island School of Design, got it, and spent a year and a half in Providence. There, I took a hiatus from practicing and got heavy into theory. I was always very into philosophy, but in those two years I caught up with all the people that I liked originally, like Heidigger Foucault and Hersel, as well as phenomenology.

And then I got fired, from a three-year contract. And I was devastated. I was hand-to-mouth. And I realized, when I went to my bank account, that all I had was $1400 and I was tormented. I was 32 years old at the time. And I had also met a student at RISD who I had fallen in love with, who is now my wife. She had a couple more years of school to go and I was trying to figure out where I should go.

My brother had an architecture firm here, and he told me "You should really be doing your thing here in New York," so I finally slept on his floor for six weeks while trying to figure out how I was going to survive. I managed to get a part-time teaching position at Pratt. They hired me, thank God, and gave me a visa, since I'm Canadian. And I got this really run-down place with no bathroom or kitchen, and took a new Macintosh on loan from Pratt, put it beside my bed and started working.

And the first two or three years were hell. I lived the first three years here in New York on a salary of $12,000. Then I got a full-time teaching job the third year at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. And now I was finally starting to get some projects that were starting to pay. I had solicited 100 companies in the first year and I got only one client. These were mostly Americana brands like Ethan Allen and La-Z-Boy, etc.., which I thought I would love to redo. But I was really too contemporary for them; too new.

Do you think this uncertain time helped to shape your philosophy and aesthetic, or were those already formed?
No, You're always forming your aesthetic. Now, in my 40s, I think I really know why I'm here and what I'm doing. Back then I was still trying to figure it out.

Do you work in any other kinds of visual media?
I draw a lot. Sketch. Actually, when I was in school, I used to be so creative and artistic that my teachers used to tell me that I'd never make it as an industrial designer, that I was too much of an artist. One guy used to call me "Chagall", because of the way I drew. I didn't know what people were trying to tell me at the time; but now I realize that they were trying to tell me that industrial design can be a very unpoetic profession and as an artist you always have social ideas and constructs, messages that you want to talk about. And to talk about those things through commodities can be very difficult. You end up dealing with a lot of marketing people and corporate types. And so I made that even more of a challenge to myself.

You tend to create very "ephemeral" things like shopping bags, soap dispensers, etc.. Is it hard to be creative knowing that items you're making are, essentially, meant to be disposable?
I'm a big believer in a disposable society. I think that one day we won't own anything. I think eventually we'll throw out everything all of the time. And I think when we develop a perfectly cyclic system, then we'll be able to do it without guilt.

By cyclic, you mean that everything will be recycled?
Oh yes. And we're already getting there. If you look now at our lives, purchases over Christmases now are always immaterial, and when they are material they are more considered, more researched, more experiential, more beautiful objects. So, in other words we're consuming, but we're not necessarily consuming the physical. Second, we understand immateriality better, because that also brings us an experience. So we're starting to understand that we can have more and better experiences without necessarily having so many things in our lives. Number three is that we actually don't own as much as we used to. People actually rent more than they ever did before in history. Cars have become a lease game, so you don't own a car anymore. And that's really the paradigm, because renting is a form of disposibility.

Do you think that a lack of job security is part of this?
Definitely. I think less job security is actually a metaphor about death. It's a way of making us realize that there's no security, because in reality there's just no security. Religion was a form of giving us a sense of security, as well as pension plans, retirement, etc... So I think it's kind of a healthy life because it affords you more of a chance to live in the moment, because it doesn't allow you to be sedate. All these things keep you awake and alive. With materials and material engineering, as well as mechanics and bio-engineering, these are all forms of immediate change. And I think we're building a human condition where we realize that ongoing change is a necessity.

In your own house, do you have furniture designed by other people?
My house is actually about 85 percent me. Really. Down to the flatware and stuff. I do own a Phillipe Starck lamp from Floss from 1989. I love Gaetano Pesce, I have a couple of vases of his. And Ross Lovegrove, he's a Welsh designer who I respect a lot; my carving knives are by him. There's a few pieces here and there. In general, I tend not to have a lot by other people in design, because [design] tends to be a very conservative profession, and the people who go into the profession tend to be more pragmatic and not particularly artistic types. Spirituality and sensitivity largely seem to be lacking. Part of it also is that if you are perpetually knocked down by all these marketing people and executives, you can get disillusioned in this business very quickly. But that has started to change. Especially with all the things that Macintosh has done with design over the past few years, as well as stuff that's going on in Milan. It's opening up a bit. The consumer is now accepting this thing called design and so the corporate people are beginning to be more accepting of design. I think things are really going to change over the next generation. Youth culture now is so in tune with the digital age, which is something that's now such a large schizm between history. It's really drawn a line. The real revolution of our lives is that, and I think once the digital culture has begun to blend seamlessly with our lives the physical landscape will change a lot as well. All the things in our lives, our spaces, our architecture is going to change. I'm a believer that eventually everything around us is going to be "smart", whether it's digital or having some other sort of feedback. An example of this is the toothbrush where the bristles change color when it's wearing out; that's a form of "smart" material. Our future world is going to have everyone with smart tattoos, everything...

What do you mean "smart tattoos"?
I mean you'll have a tattoo with all your ID on it, it'll be your passport. Which I'm really looking forward to.

Aren't you worried about loss of personal security though?
No, not at all. I think that the only people who would be worried about it are people who would have something to worry about. I've never quite understood this argument. People talk about "freedom", but what is freedom for? You're basically arguing for your right not to go along with the overriding rules and laws. But the fact of the matter is that with all this stuff, it all exists now, but it's in paper. If we make things digital then it all just gets a lot easier. At airports wouldn't it be so much better if instead of waiting in line to talk to people at customs, a machine could do the whole thing? Just scan your tattoo and you keep going. I'm a believer that machines are going to replace a lot of human beings and, truthfully, I can't wait. I like this idea of efficiency. It's like Baudrillard once wrote that obstacles in life are "things", products. So he was really critical of the material world. And I almost see that with humans as well. Interaction with people you don't want to interact with can get in the way of an efficient life.

It's interesting that a product designer should think that products are obstacles.
It's just that I think there's a lot of room for products to be reworked, redesigned, and, in the end, questioned of their necessity. If you have great things in your life, that can be fantastic and it can bring you a lot of pleasure, but a lot of people don't have great things in their lives, largely because they haven't learned to be critical enough of what should be in their lives and what shouldn't. So people just accumulate, accumulate, accumulate. What Baudrillard was saying essentially was that the more things you have around you the less free you ever are. Meaning, in order to have spiritual freedom you have to have space.

So then is it about making products smaller, or about integrating them all so that things can serve multiple functions?
No I think it's just about having less. Having just things that bring you a kind of elevated experience or pleasure. It's addition by subtraction. An example of this is that if I have one credit card it's much easier than if I have six, because I only have to worry about one bill every month, you know? And I think the more of these seamless things we have in our lives, the more time we have to do what we really want to do, as well as have the kind of relationships and free time that we want to have. I mean, for me, the biggest luxury in life is time. It's not a thing; it's not a Jaguar. If I don't have light switches anymore and light just follows me around, then my life is that much easier. If I don't have to brush my teeth in the morning, then my life is better. I mean I fucking hate doing that. I hate flossing. So basically what I'm talking about is that I want to see a world where these kinds of banalities are removed. And you'll have much more time to actually converse with people and engage in human issues. We occupy our lives with so much crap! I mean, take shopping; on one hand, I make things and I understand consumption and consumers, etc.., but I buy everything on the Internet. I bought a house on the Internet. I bought a car on the Internet. It's great. And it's not that I have so much money to throw around; I'm just such a believer in shopping the world seamlessly, without having to deal with salespeople or whomever. What the digital age is affording us, in a sense, is a way of reaching God.

Explain...
I won't get too deeply into it, but I have a theory about zero. Absolute zero. In every culture there's this "O", this symmetry, with God in the middle. The one question that we don't know about is why we're here. But we're all trying to reach God. Because, when we reach God, then we don't have to worry about the question anymore, we can enjoy life to the fullest. And I think a lot of these things are leaning towards that point. And, you know the beginning of the earth was the tower of Babel, you know this fictitious story about building a thing to the heavens. And we're going back there again. And it occurs to me that the one language we all have in common is binary notation. That's the thing that's going to bring us all together into one society. I mean, if you look at it, there are now fewer currencies in the world. There are fewer borders. There's globalization. It's all starting to happen. We're all trying to get to an absolute zero, to a single society.

Has design changed since September 11th, and has your design, particularly, changed?
Yes, absolutely. I decided that what I had wanted to accomplish in ten years I'm now going to do in five. Because there's no time. And what I realized that day, and what I realize every day, is my mortality. I know my life is limited. And I don't mean that in a selfish way; you start to see everyone around thinking the same thing. And since life is limited, you can then appreciate life more. I read these articles in the New York Times about these couples who decide they're going to buy the car they wanted, and so it's kind of the opposite of what people thought. Everybody thought it was going to be about cocooning, all conservative. But people are actually becoming more adventurous. And so it's changing design. Because design is reliant on people looking around their house and thinking "ugh, look at that fucking old couch from the 18th century. I might only be around for another ten years or I may be dead tomorrow. I'm going to go out and buy a great couch that I want. And so I'll stretch it and I'll make a way to afford it. People are willing to take more risks in what they consume.

So are designers then taking more risks in what they design?
It's hard to tell because design is a longer process than fashion. When you develop a product it takes two years. It hasn't yet been two years since September 11th, so we're not really able to analyze what has happened. In maybe three more years you'll be able to analyze what came to market before and what came after, and you'll probably see a huge difference.

How about in terms of the down economy?
I would imagine that affects design in a big way. The good thing for design is that it may be a positive thing. Last year, right in the wake of September 11th, was the first year that America spent more money on home furnishings than they did on clothing. Maybe people are now consuming things that they feel have more value. Now that they have less money, people have become a little more saavy.

David S. Hirschman is a freelance writer and the interim editor of mediabistro.com.


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