Karim Rashid's Brave
New World. The people in your media neighborhood.
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
First section of the Sunday Times he reads: Arts
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 OMahony.
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 muchand I have to be so social when I am visiting other placesby
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
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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
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
David S. Hirschman is a freelance writer and the interim editor