Interviewed in Zagreb 18th October 2012
You could say that Karim Rashid is one of the few global phenomena in the world of design and art that have placed an equals sign between their personality, image and work. Using some of the most progressive strategies of popular arts and media laws, primarily mass production, availability and attractiveness, and combining them with the modernist tradition of using new technologies and materials, Rashid has achieved a respectable body of work in design that is understood and used by all, both the elite and broad masses. This is exactly why his design works are controversial, a matter of dispute, sometimes even negation, and also open adulation and great praise. We know Rashid as a passionate speaker, a promoter of the important role of design in the modern world, design that, according to him, is based on the skill of shaping beauty and its efficiency.
ORIS: I will start in medias res as they used to say, so I would like to ask you, considering your design practice, what does it mean to be original in today’s world? Is it still possible to meet the producer’s need to create something new?
Rashid: Yes, of course, we will always be able to do something original because culture and we as human beings kind of evolve. There are perpetually new needs and new desires, so there is always an opportunity to do original work. I think there are a lot of theories, lots of people say that we’ve got to the point where nothing is new. It’s ridiculous. If you look at and think about the last twenty years, the visual age is completely reshaping our entire global landscape, the entire world. In fact just two weeks ago we had a seminar in my office with a new type of software, fifteen of us all spending four hours a day at workshops for about a week, on new software that is so complex, so amazing, it will in a sense revolutionize our built environment, this software. There is already a group of architects, some people who have already gone over to it because the possibilities of what can be done are infinite. So this world we live in now is a Cartesian world, it was designed in two dimensions. You see it with a triangle and square and you design the section, elevation, right? Today you are designing in 3D, so imagine the world we are going to create.
ORIS: Ok, following this explanation of yours, once, a few years ago I believe, you stated in an interview that you would like to design a robot. What kind of robot would that be?
Rashid: I would design a human being actually, rather than a robot. It would be a kind of replicant of some sort, yeah. I would love to have an opportunity to do that. There are a lot of people in the world working on this now as we speak. But I think the difference is that the people who are working on it come from a kind of technological end, not the aesthetic end. I don’t know what is going to happen with the physical being. The sad part is that they will probably try to just imitate the human as we are, but the natural fact is that we are not designed well. There are so many mistakes about us.
ORIS: What is our biggest fault, design wise?
Rashid: I think one of them is to take nine months to be born; there is no other animal that takes that long, it’s kind of absurd actually. Also, when we are born, the child can’t survive by itself while for most species the baby is all ready for survival. The human being is completely dependent on its mother or father. So we’re kind of poorly designed in that way. No question about that. And genetically we are poorly designed because of our genes. Cancer and all the toxins that are in the world right now can easily attack our genes. So genetically we are not very well designed either and you can go on and on. You can argue for example about hair. We don’t need hair so we should really design human beings without any. The hair is something that is not good any more. Hair is basically relegated to a few parts of our body, it’s kind of ridiculous. It’s even ridiculous that we are spending all these billions of dollars on research trying to make sure we can grow hair back on our head. So the human being is, I think, very, very poor inside. This world works on archetypes so people know the kind of human being they’re going to make. It’s already happening now in animation. They will make a woman, the whole thing’s going to be like pushing the boundaries of sexuality. But that shouldn’t be the primary agenda.
ORIS: Talking about sexuality, maybe you should say something about the eroticism that is so present in your work with all the forms that are so kind of human and erotic in a way, round, do you see that?
Rashid: When I think back years ago, when I was a teenager, I kind of loved Bruno Munari’s book of all the prostitutes that he photographed, 300 or 400 of them. I always loved this kind of subversive world a little bit but I was brought up in a kind of ‘British mother’ way so I think in a way, I was suppressed.
ORIS: But maybe not only sexuality as a way of human exchange of emotion, physical emotion but some kind of erotic emotion, this is in a way how you approached your design. I mean you actually have a true feeling when you do this and also you expect that people will have the same feeling.
Rashid: Yes, yes. I mean it. The point is I always thought of a human being… What I love about the perversity of the world is that design as a kind of culture has cleaned up the world, and organized the world. But with organizing the world we have also become really deductive in the kind of minimalistic idea. That would be called design. We see things relatively minimally; that is what a lot of people think design is. Here we are, we are not symmetrical, we are completely amorphous, completely organic and yet we’re forced into this kind of Cartesian world. So all the things like the Zero desk behind you, all the things I do, I always think about how my body would touch this or how I can make something, even a garbage can, plastic cans I made years ago. The idea of that can’s shape – of course there is a lot of function involved in it but it was really coming from an extension of us as human beings. And I’m saying: why can’t my world be soft and easier and more casual and more comfortable?
ORIS: And less dangerous.
Rashid: Yeah, it is amazing. I’m doing lots of hotels and buildings around the world and lots of public spaces and I realised how difficult this is, I am pushing to make great experiences but my focus is not on the styling or the aesthetics of a hotel room. It is on having a great experience and it is amazing how difficult that is and how many filters you have.
ORIS: Could you define crossing the border of our world that we know, is it some kind of an exploration of the new and the known?
Rashid: I don’t really contrive it by the word ‘function’; it is wrong, because when you engage that it’s many levels of engagement – the right emotional level, right logical level, etc. If you start to use those criteria you shape something new. Inevitably you will do something new and it would be original.
ORIS: Following your remark before on this sort of revolutionizing of the Cartesian world, would you say that the very concept of design as we knew it will change that very concept dramatically? How do you see this change?
Rashid: That’s a big question. You know right now, the majority of the world, let’s say the design oligarchy, is based on work from 1906 and from the Bauhaus. Really the Bauhaus exploited the machine as far as the machine could go and the machine had limitations. Now machines have no limitations. It is kind of an opposite. So now if you have a creative mind and you have the machine, you can do anything with it. Yet somehow we are still pretty linked to this kind of modernism of that education.
ORIS: You mentioned the machine as a symbol for artificial production and the opposite being handwork. How would you define this relationship today?
Rashid: I think you know handwork has no place in design, it doesn’t exist anymore. That is kind of gone. What we call craft today is this idea that someone just does something by hand and we call that practice craft. We are losing craft really, there is not much of it. It’s becoming a middle-class hobby really, craft. If you look at a place like Murano, one factory after another is just shutting down because there is no… economics in reproducing by hand, right? If you look at the art world it is interesting. The art world is hiding behind this idea of making something. Not hiding, protecting that notion of the hand. You’d see it like Tom Sachs making a paper airplane or something. It is like this idea – ‘Oh, he made that by hand!’ So the art world has perpetuated this idea that art almost has to be done by hand because when artists do use machines, generally, not in the art of Jeff Koons or Richard Serra or all those, but in general, when an artist has to use a machine there is a fear because the machine can make serialized production. It is like – ‘O my God – well then how do you call that art?’ There are no originals any more. This is a discussion of similar growth. Baudrillard was talking about this years and years ago. For 12 years I have been showing in the art world, like my show on right now in New York, using a fantastic technology because I’ve always been obsessed by technology. Every time I do a show I find a new technology to do the show around. And the critics’ articles about my work, show, criticise me all the time, saying that all I am doing is being obsessed by technology. No one in fact is looking at the content of the work because the technology is new. It is an opportunity to do something original. Every time I’ve done my art too, it can be reproduced, even if I destroy a file and say this original print only exists once. So every art fair I go to around the world, and I’ve been to many, still has painting by hand and, honestly, my real opinion about this is – it was beautiful for a time but now in the 21th century it is over.
ORIS: You have this Design Museum in London. Why do we separate art and design?
Rashid: But we have to separate them. The reality is that design is for a larger audience. Design is reproduction.
ORIS: Today art wants to have larger audiences, more influence, to have social engagement, not only to be elite…
Rashid: I know. I didn’t really mean that. What I meant, as I said, I was calling design democratic art because I can do something really beautiful but I can make million but it is not art. So design and art are two different things. Design also has a very social agenda. We are really collaborating with the company to make something for someone to have a better life. Art is a different story. I’m not saying that both can’t have messages or both have a dialogue or inform about an issue. But the reality is that design is producing repetitive goods that are accessible to a larger audience. You can argue about use. Art doesn’t have a use, a literal physical use, like your little espresso cup does. That is the very difference between art and design. I was just saying in another interview I saw my life as a bit of a pendulum where I have objects separated into art and utility. If our world existed like that it would be driven just by engineers and it would be a pretty unemotional world, right? Design is kind of somewhere in the middle you know, of the pendulum. If you swing too much to art and then to design, it’s completely unsuccessful. So it’s a kind of strange area where you are collaborating and developing something that maybe economically producible using the right tooling, using the right materials, distribution. Your eye glasses are designed, they are not art and that is just my definition.
ORIS: Sure. I would like to see them more intertwined and when they are intertwined then I like them a lot.
Rashid: I just saw the show in Tel Aviv’s Design Museum and it was all this kind of grand art furniture. It becomes super expensive and an ego thing that is really removed from everyday life. It gets so far away that it is not intertwined any more, it is art. Remember the artist Felix Gonzalez Torres? He used to do what he called democratic art. He would design a poster and when you came to the show everybody just took one. The guy showed in New York for years. He was doing this idea, almost like democratic free art and every time he had a show in a gallery you would take that poster. It was fabulous. I loved that actually. That is the level if you really wanted to bring art to the level of design.
ORIS: Can you get back to history a little bit.
Rashid: I don’t know anything about history.
ORIS: No, no, it is not a historical discussion. It is not a discourse of history. I am just wondering. You pursued your postgraduate studies in Italy.
ORIS: So I would say there are a lot of links, connections, between your, let’s say, philosophy of design in your design practice and the ideas or concepts of the late seventies’ and early eighties’ philosophy of Italian design. Would you say so? What are the lessons from the Italy of that time?
Rashid: I think that was a pinnacle of the time. I think it was very radical work. It was really a questioning of the status quo. Every object, everything they did was to say ‘Why does a chair have to be like this?’ and that grew actually out of the sixties with UFO and all those kind of avant-garde architects. They were looking at the world in a kind of city scape and saying why do buildings need to be like that, why don’t we re-question all this for good or bad. We need to re-examine this. Because I think at that point it was the end of modernism and what was missing was a kind of painterly position which is what Italians made then. They are painterly, the Italians, it is in their blood so I think they were like ‘Modernism is too sterile for us,’ because modernism was really being pushed from Germany and from America. So the Italians were like dying to have ornamentation or embellishment and texture and colour and other things; probably I picked that up.
ORIS: But at the same time modernism is a form, maybe even just as a philosophy and was very much accepted in Italy during Mussolini’s regime, the twenties and thirties, almost as state art.
Rashid: It was pretty globally accepted.
ORIS: Would you say that is also some sort of ideological, political issue within that like the right/left relation?
Rashid: Oh, sure.
ORIS: Because most of the guys from the early eighties were more like left-oriented during the Memphis and Alchemia times.
Rashid: Yeah, exactly.
ORIS: Is there politics in design today?
Rashid: There is probably, there is. What it is probably is the fact that the world has been democratised. Because you can go anywhere in the world right now, there are six billion people and you can almost find the same square or the same watch or the same car or the same chair – that global village that Marshall McLuhan talked about, right? I had him in my first year at university in Canada and what he predicted exists right now. In fact I think that is what we are struggling with at this moment in time and I think the way we are escaping it is through the world of imagery. Because of that there is no global village, it is all completely individualised, it’s free, it’s democratic, it’s having a voice, it’s empowering activity. And it makes sense in a way. The Italians, we were talking about Italians, I wouldn’t be designing for a team in the eighties because only Italians did: the owner was Italian, the engineers were Italian and everybody was Italian and the lamp was made their way. Today I’ll make lamp for a team and I am the Egyptian-English-Canadian-American and the guy I am working with in a team is a Dutch engineer and the parts are from Taiwan and China and Italy and the assembly is in France. This is globalism really. Even today in Italian design, what are the names in Italian design since Philippe Starck entered the design world? He works for every Italian company there is, I work for a thousand Italian companies. Where are the Italians in all this? But they are Italian companies and the reason that Italian companies are making all this is because it seems they are the only people in the world who care about pushing boundaries in this home furnishing or whatever you call it.
ORIS: Well, on the other hand, I talked to Sandro Gregory, remember him? He was one of the founders of Alchemia?
ORIS: He told me a fact that I wasn’t really familiar with. He said in Italy right now foreigners are investing in education, especially in design education. There is a lot of American capital upgrading existing design schools, enlarging them ten times. This is like a huge trend right now in Italy, according to him of course.
Rashid: In 1984 when I went to do my master’s in Italy there were no design schools, there were only architectural schools. Design didn’t exist in education. Isn’t that amazing? And in fact Gianfranco Ferre, Romeo Gigli, Armani, the whole list, they are all architects, they all studied architecture. Whether it’s a coffee machine or a chair or a dress, there were architects doing all this because there were no such things as design schools. It is kind of amazing when you think about it.
ORIS: Yes because the design courses were thought mostly in polytechnics, like in Milano, as part of some sort of extension to the design curriculum.
Rashid: And you could go there for five years and never pick up a pencil. You could just read books and write and you could have your degree in architecture too, all the way from the theoretical to dressmaking. It is quite amazing.
ORIS: So how did you survive?
Rashid: I went to the first design school. That was a one-year programme. The school hadn’t been built. Studying was like an hour a day. When I look back I wish it was more rigorous gradual education.
ORIS: I just wanted to maybe make you tell us about your architectural projects because you are working on them quite a bit at the moment.
Rashid: Because I made a name for myself as a democratic designer, all of a sudden I get all these projects coming to me now to do them for a really low budget. And I realised that I am really good at it because in my 30 years in product design, I’ve dealt with so many criteria. Now when I build a small building I look at every possible way of construction and I analyse and I think about, kind of, ways of making better experiences with less.
ORIS: Investors love you.
Rashid: All of a sudden this last year was blowing up. I did a small building for a client in Tel Aviv and it’s under construction right now and they loved it so much that now I am doing three in New York, two in Harlem, all apartment buildings. And I designed 270 apartments in Miami that will be completed in about three months. These projects are just happening. I know so many materials. It is easy for me. For example, I find fantastic flooring that is one third of the price of the typical wooden floor people would put in condos and that looks ten times more interesting and better. So I can do pretty radical work in these low budget projects. It’s working out very well. I’m enjoying it and also it is a reality. I am thinking you know what, if my sister, for example, needs an apartment in New York and she is going to get an apartment that is 500 square feet or something like that, I am designing with that kind of idea in mind, can I make a really amazing, efficient, nice apartment. In New York, like a lot of cities, there is luxury and then there is crap. No one is really designing that stuff. There are places, pockets like Sweden, some countries that are doing some nice, decent, low-income housing and stuff but in general there is not a lot of that. Really it is actually enjoyable to work on, fabulous work.
ORIS: Do you feel some social role of design?
Rashid: Of course. As I get older too; I think the turning point for me was hitting 50. When I hit 50 I realised that I was tired of this, all the design culture because we are spinning our wheels, there are thousands of chairs that look the same and it is not enough for me anymore. I feel like I’ve accomplished enough. I really need to do things that have more meaning. So I start to work more on environmental projects, designing right now for example filtration systems for drinking water. I’m doing all these more social projects. I am working in Riga, in Latvia, and it is going to be basically for the homeless there. So I’ve got all these things. I just send a message out about something I want to do, and somehow I get to work and that is strange, I didn’t tell anybody I wanted these things, they just came to me. I want to heighten that stuff. For example, right now I am designing a walker for the handicapped and I’m making one so cool. And I am making a cane that turns into a chair for the elderly because America just had 60 million people retire and Western Europe 58 million because of the baby booms and all these people were brought up with design. This is the thing. And I was brought up by design and now I am aging and life is going to get more difficult, what are the design products for me? No one is doing them. It is amazing.
ORIS: Can I book one of these?
Rashid: If you look at those objects, they are the most frightening, horrendous things. It’s easy for us to walk by and say, ‘Nah, that’s not me,’ then all of a sudden, a year and a half ago I had cancer and it was a difficult, tough one and I could have ended up quite handicapped from it. Somehow I was really lucky of all things but it made me all of a sudden highly aware of that world. I think, as an artist, we kind of look for opportunities, we find a new technology, ‘Wow I can be really creative with that,’ and that’s exciting for me. History keeps repeating, making nice things.
ORIS: You published your mission statementin 2001.
Rashid: The world came down on me for that one. I didn’t then realise that everybody would hate me for that book but actually it prepped my career.
ORIS: I just want to hear from you some sort of re-evaluation right now: what have you done in the meantime and what in the world of today would you like to change?
Rashid: There is so much I would like to change.
ORIS: So, the work so far and the work that is in front of you.
Rashid: Well, I don’t even know where to start. I think that my mission in a way was to try to make design more of a public subject. The amount of writing I do and the amount of seminars, trying to tell the world that design is a good thing for us, it benefits our lives and that has been my mission. I don’t know how much I’ve pushed and published in this regard so it’s not even as much through the physical things I do as much as the messages I’m trying to send. And my following, I have a very big following and I think that is a responsibility and I take advantage of that. I went to Moscow the other day and I had 3000 people in a lecture and in another place I met hundreds so I’m just pushing, I’m telling people. I am not talking about my work; I am saying how they can make a better world. I think that we can shape a world that is based on beautiful proficiency of deficiency. I think we can beautify this world. This world used to be more beautiful, no question about that. We have been obsessed with beauty for 20,000 years as human beings. There is no reason why we shouldn’t continue that. That is a need, you could argue it’s a given primordial need, to create beauty. And the third part of it is to make the world more human where we care about each other. That’s top of the agenda: bring down the borders and boundaries and forget all these differences of race, colour. The vision is always the start and it is already happening because of that. It is so amazing that I can run around New York with my fingerprint, I can buy things with my fingerprint, go to the gym with my fingerprint. That is something I wanted to do for years. I tried to push it in every hotel I did, I tried to push a fingerprint in the work and everybody was so reluctant –aaah, identity crash. I go to the gym now and what’s the deal? That is a breaking down, it’s not even anymore that you are black or white or anything. It’s the fact that we are different because of this. We are not different as collectives anymore, we are different as individuals and I love that idea. I love the idea that the world would be 6.7 billion different people but there would be no borders, boundaries, wars, politics. We should be all here to contribute, to do something better for everybody and you find our way to contribute. One place could be that you write, another place could be that you paint, another place that you curate, another place could be that you are a scientist, doctor, school teacher, whatever, if you are all adding in an evolving humanity. We could do that peacefully. I don’t think it’s that hard.