Design: The Poet Of Plastic

Karim Rashid wants to change the world one ordinary object at a time

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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 a trophy 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 hits bookstores this month. There was a crowd around anything with his stamp on it--including stools, chess sets and storage units--at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City in May. 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.

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