If there's one thing karim rashid hates, it's trophies. The 40-year-old designer has more than 40 of them, from big international ones like the 1999 George Nelson Award (given for breakthrough furniture design), to quaint little Canadian ones like Designer of the Year 2001. "It came with a little pin," says Rashid, "and a ... a ... very nice ..." He tries to describe the shape of the award with his hands but gives up. "It's time that whole trophy thing changes. It's kitsch. They're functionless things." Rashid was asked to design one for the DaimlerChrysler Design Awards (he's a past recipient). "I was going to make it electro-luminescent. When the lights go out, it has a sensor so it turns on," he says. But the trophy-as-night-light, a reminder of one's worth in the darkest hours, didn't impress Chrysler's people. He never heard back.
They may well be gnawing their knuckles over that decision right now because Rashid's conquest of the realm of product design is all but complete. A lush and suitably worshipful retrospective of his work, Karim Rashid: I Want to Change the World (Thames & Hudson; 249 pages), hits Australasian bookstores this month. There was a crowd around anything with his stamp on it-including stools, chess sets and storage units-at the recent International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City. More than 2 million North Americans are throwing their rubbish into a receptacle he designed, while 750,000 or so park their rears on one of his cheapo plastic chairs. It's not just in North America. He has been dubbed Der Poet des Plastiks by a retailer in Germany and the prolifico progettista Americano by Interni magazine in Italy.
Trophies he may despise, but accolades Rashid can handle. The problem with being the Most Famous Industrial Designer in All the Americas is that you're still less famous than someone who got kicked off Survivor the first week. Most people cannot name the designer of one nonclothing item in their homes. Rashid, who was born in Egypt, raised in Canada and is living in New York City, is more than happy to bring an end to this anonymity. Not just because he wants to be famous, although there seems to be that, but because he believes design should be a bigger part of the social discourse. "I have been almost alone in this country, trying to make design become a public subject," he says.
His chief method of persuasion is to make the banal better so that people notice design more. He likes creating expensive furniture and perfume bottles just fine, but what really gets his juices going is the everyday: manhole covers, a cremation urn, disposable cigarette lighters, garbage bins, salt and pepper shakers, plastic pens. "I want American Standard to come to me to do the toilets for Home Depot," he says.
In many ways Rashid is more like an itinerant industrial evangelist than a designer. He traveled 200 days last year. He claims to have been to every major mall in America, where he signs his products in high-end design stores and trolls about observing humans interacting with the objects around them. He has taught at design schools for more than a decade, and his work has been in 11 art shows in the past eight months. But mostly he has proselytized the corporate barbarians. And like any good missionary, he has learned to speak the language of his converts. One of the first things he does when he gets new clients is tour their factories to understand their manufacturing capacity. He also visits the retail outlets to see how the product might be displayed. And he really knows how to sell, especially himself. "I work with a guy in L.A.," says Rashid, declining to name him. "He made a lot of really bad furniture. His business was hand-to-mouth. I proposed seven or eight projects. The pieces I've done for him have already become iconic." The subtitle of his monograph, I Want to Change the World, is not ironic, just characteristically immodest.
"Most industrial-design studios try to interpret a client's needs and come up with a style," says Paul Rowan, co-founder of housewares manufacturer Umbra. "Karim has his own personal vision." It helps that Rashid's vision incorporates things that Rowan needs, like a design that will stack and ship easily and that creates little waste in the making.
Rashid's father was a set designer for Canadian TV who rearranged the family furniture every Sunday. So perhaps it was ordained that Karim would grow up to become one of the pioneers in non-cheesy plastic, making objects that have energy and personality but aren't wacky. He, like many of his generation, has championed the could-only-be-designed-with-computers blob. But his is not just a blob for its own sake. His Oh Chair is reminiscent of a pelvic girdle. His New Move glassware for German manufacturer Leonardo looks like a forest floor, with mushroom bowls, fern candelabras and lily-shaped vases.
Then there's multifunctionality, the watchword of '00s design. Rashid didn't invent it, but he has pushed it. "Every new object should replace three," he says. His packaging for an Issey Miyake perfume was a corrugated polypropylene envelope that could double as a toiletries purse; his Bozart children's chair is also a toy box; and his Q Chaise converts from a table to a chair-and-footrest and then to a daybed.
Whether or not Rashid succeeds in raising the profile of design, his own profile is way up. Earlier this year, while at the Salone in Milan, the world's biggest furniture fair, Rashid took off the shoes he had designed to lounge about on one of his installations. When he returned, one of them was missing. Just one. It probably wasn't stolen to be worn. It was a trophy.