Karim Rashid almost quit industrial design. But after relocating to New York from Canada, where the Egyptian-born prodigy was raised, and finding inspiration in his surroundings, he went on to begin his own namesake firm. Though he began with just one client, today Rashid has an array of projects under his belt– Mikasa, Nambé and Pepsi to name a few—and leads the charge in beautifying the world one design at a time.
How did your career in design begin?
I specialized in industrial design at Carleton University in Ottawa. After college I went to a one-year graduate program in industrial design in Italy studying with Gaetano Pesce and Ettore Sottsass. Then, I did a one-year internship in Milano and took night classes with Achille Castiglione at the Polytechnic. I also interned with Rodolfo Bonetto for over a year, designing TVs for Brionvega, task lamps for i-guzzini, coffee machines for La Cimbali and dashboards for Fiat. Each of these experiences really helped me enter the world of design.
Was there a defining moment in your career? If so, how did it shape you as a designer?
I went into being a full-time academic and stopped designing for two years because I was so fed up with industrial design. First, I was full-time in Toronto at OCAD University, then Rhode Island school of Design (RISD). In 1992 I was fired from RISD and I was going to quit the profession.
Then, in 1993 I found myself in New York City penniless. I started drawing objects romanticizing about the beautiful world I always wanted to shape.
When I started my office, after approaching about 100 companies, I only got one client. That was 25 years ago!
What is the basis of your design strategy?
Good design is when the human experience is elevated, simplified, engaged and inspired. Good design has a human connection with us. It is important to me that the result of my work, and my collaboration with a client, manifest into something that will connect with people, and sustain relationships with them. Beautifying the world and creating well designed, provocative, stimulating yet calming buildings, spaces and objects is the impetus for everything I embark on.
How do you know when to stick it out and when to let go of an idea?
I realize that we live in a very complex world, and it can never be a utopian singular vision, and I’m just contributing as much as I can while I am on this planet. I have also learned that many designers do a great deal of work but we end up not seeing most of it produced. It remains in concept form only because the key to putting work on the market is to make sure it is a collaboration. If you work closely with a client and understand their needs you can be much more productive.
Is it difficult to strike a balance between your personal design aesthetic and the objective for commercial success?
Art is selfish. Design is democratic. I do both and love both. I let design inspire my art, and my art inspire design. BUT Design is a social act, a political, act, and an economic act. Design is about ‘art of real issues’. Creativity is not enough in design. Design must answer to all the issues of use, behavior, aesthetics, manufacturing processes, material’s ecological issues, marketing, dissemination, etc. The more in tune we are with the commercial world the more relevant our work is. Design is about creating the physical utopia of our everyday life. I love life and I love design and I love art and music and love and passionate people.
Outside of design, what things inspire you and influence your work?
I love to swim, cook and work on my mental and spiritual health by going to lots of museums and galleries and embracing creativity on every level. I love sketching, painting, listening to music, lying by my pool, sleeping, and dreaming and thinking about the world, about love, about people, about peace, about beauty, and about one romantic engaging fulgent energetic seductive inspiring place we call earth.
If you were not a designer, is there another career path that intrigues you?
When I was a child I wanted to be a mathematician, but now I would consider being an electronic dance musician, motivational speaker or a Guru on Globalove.
Is there one person who you admire or consider to be your greatest mentor or design inspiration?
As an undergraduate studying in Italy, Ettore Sottsass taught me not to be too much of an artist in order to be a great designer. I keep his vases and a few Memphis works around to remind me of this. An artist is not a designer, and a designer is not an artist.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us regarding design and your career as a designer?
Design is not about a form or shape, but it is a cultural critique, a cultural shaper, a faction of social, political, and economic life. Studying in Italy with Ettore Sottsass taught me not to be too much of an artist. Working with Rodolfo Bonetto in Milan taught me that the industrial object is a manifestation of behavior, watching lectures in Canada in the late 70’s of Buckminster Fuller, Charles Eames, George Nelson taught me to not conform readily and understand industry fully, studying with Marshall McLuhan taught me theory and to see the world in a different perspective, reading Jean Baudrillard, Hegel, Virilio, and Foucault, taught me that design is a social and political act. What counts at the end is to help the world become a better place from aesthetics to human behavior, from the ecology to the economy. Hence design is a creative act, a social act, a political act, and an economic act.
What advice would you give to young designers who are just starting out in a commercial marketplace?
For young designers I always give the advice: Be smart, be patient, learn to learn, learn to be really practical but imbue poetics, aesthetics, and new paradigms of our changing product landscape. You must find new languages, new semantics, new aesthetics, experiment with new material, and behavioral approaches. Also always remember obvious HUMAN issues in the product like emotion, ease of use, technological advances, product methods, humor, and meaning and a positive energetic and proud spirit in the product.