Karim Rashid - para Interiores - Lupe de la Vallina

Karim Rashid set out to change the world of design and brought home a prized collection

Most designers have a hard time coming up with 1,000 ideas over their entire career but Karim Rashid has that many pieces in production now, and more than 4,000 over his career lifespan. His work is so accessible, you might even own a piece of it already.

Design by Karim: Koop chair for Martela. Photo by Andre Rozon
Design by Karim: Koop chair for Martela. Photo by Andre Rozon

There is the Garbo waste can and the Oh-chair designed for Umbra or the modular and reconfigurable furniture for BoConcept as well as a ton of meaningful, functional objects for use around the home or office.

There are many more pieces related to fashion, art and music, industrial, graphic, interior, and experiential design. Rashid is likely the most prolific designer around today. He creates for some of the most recognizable brands in over 40 countries, from luxury goods for Christofle, Alessi, and Veuve Clicquot, pop artifacts for Umbra, bobble, and 3M, timeless furniture for Bonaldo, Tonelli, BoConcept, and Vondom, modern lighting for Artemide and Fontana Arte, high-tech products for Asus and SirinLabs, surface design for Marburg and Abet Laminati, memorable graphics for Citibank and Sony Ericsson, and award-winning packaging for Pepsi, Method, Paris Baguette, Hugo Boss, Kenzo, and Eos. Chances are, you’ve seen his work, have purchased something with his design on it, or even own one of his creations. 

Some pieces may have a hefty price tag attached to them but Rashid is one of the first designers to reap the benefits of creating multi-functional, mass-produced, low-priced objects for use in everyday life, making it possible for almost anyone to afford a piece of his artwork. 

Installation view of Karim’s designs at the Ottawa Art Gallery. Photo by Andre Rozon
Installation view of Karim’s designs at the Ottawa Art Gallery. Photo by Andre Rozon

A selection of two hundred of his award-winning objects and original sketches are on display at the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) in a show called Karim Rashid: Cultural Shapingfeaturing environmentally conscious industrial designs, a consistent theme throughout his work over the last two decades.

The Ottawa Collection is the first large-scale presentation of Rashid’s work in Canada and it happens to be in the city where he completed his undergraduate studies. 

“Ottawa holds a huge part of my heart. Here I am – 36 years later having a retrospective at the new beautiful OAG,” says Rashid. “It’s a homecoming for me. A beautiful reminder of where it all started,” he adds.

After making his way around the world, working in Milan and Toronto, maintaining a design practice in New York for the past 25 years, and earning a mountain of awards, almost 300 of them for his industrial designs, he says the memories of his time in Ottawa will never dissipate. He credits the education he received at Carlton University as the reason he felt equipped with the skills he needed to venture out into the design world.

Combining ingenuity with eco-consciousness, Rashid’s re-usable bobble water bottle exemplifies design that can shape consumption habits, points toward an environmentally conscious and sustainable future, and demonstrates how good design shapes contemporary culture, says Nicole Potvin, curator of the OAG exhibition.

Designs by Karim: Lime Pierce sofa for Softline, Orange Kurv Sofa for Nienkamper, White Vapor Lamp for Studio Italia Design. Photo by Andre Rozon.
Designs by Karim: Lime Pierce sofa for Softline, Orange Kurv Sofa for Nienkamper, White Vapor Lamp for Studio Italia Design. Photo by Andre Rozon.

Rashid’s work stands out because of his belief that good design is all about function. His pieces are purposefully designed to go beyond the superficiality of style alone. A lamp, for instance, provides light to allow you to see, work and move around in a space. Rashid would say that is the primary purpose of a lamp, but he designs lamps that fit seamlessly into a space, highlight other objects, and are unobtrusive. And because the lamp does its job, it makes the user happy – it elevates the human spirit – and therein lies its beauty.

He has been known to use organic shapes like orbs or eggs and materials like handblown Murano glass with apple-sized holes cut out by lasers or plastic moulded into natural shapes. He uses clean lines, with soft rounded edges, fluid curves, light tones in bright whites or rich strong hues that pop, yet fit comfortably into their surroundings – even in hot pink and lime green. He invented the word blobject to describe the circular nature of his designs, which he defines as an object without straight lines.

“The role of a designer today is to make the world a better place. By replacing the clutter of poorly designed objects with beautiful, high performing ones that are hopefully sustainable, ergonomic, and sensible yet seductive, we reduce the stress in our environments.”

— Karim Rashid

He places emphasis on shape-forming empty spaces, or cut-outs. Fluid curves cast shadows that look almost real, often creating patterns of emptiness. The fact that there’s nothing in a particular spot makes the object more intriguing to look at. Shadows cast by light creates depth and may ground the object, like the Lime Pierce sofa he designed for Softline. One object looks different from different angles but also because of the lighting situation or even the time of day.

The pea pod design of the White Vapor Lamp for Studio Italia Design in the image above appears again and again in murals, in patterns on objects like carpets or wallpaper, in the shape of a sofa and even as one of the many tattoos on his arm.

Rashid designs everything from the bottle labels on top-selling flavoured water to the interior of restaurants like the Amoje Food Capital in South Korea, hospitality design for nhow Hotel Berlin, budget hotels for Prizeotels in Bremen, Hamburg, and Hanover, public environments like Università Metro Station in Naples, Italy, the Kopperskape installation piece made up of a series of moulded seats surrounding a small stage in Edmonton Airport, in Alberta, and retail design for Fun Factory in Berlin and Munich. 

Garbo waste bin by Karim Rashid
The Garbo waste can designed by Karim Rashid in 1994-5, was an instant hit. Despite knock-offs, around 13 million of them were sold for about $12 each.

On his way to change the world by making design a public subject Rashid has collaborated on innumerable concept exhibitions with major corporate clients. His digital prints, public art/installations and sculptures are featured in permanent collections in art institutions around the world. His versatility has allowed him to design the environment in public places like subways, noodle bars, retail shops, motels, social and cultural gathering places, to cars, motorcycles, skateboards, sinks, bathtubs, tables and flatware, and even shoes, jackets, T-shirts, jewelry and nail polish.

In 2013, Rashid presented Out of the Box, the first exhibition in North America to showcase the history of sneaker culture, at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. The collection featured over 120 culture and industry-changing pairs of sneakers, representing the past 150 years from the historical beginnings of the sneaker in the 19th century, and his chosen form of footwear.

“I want to change the world”

— Karim Rashid
Karim Rashid para Interiores - Lupe de la Vallina
Karim Rashid para Interiores – Lupe de la Vallina

He lectures too. For this exhibition in Ottawa he gave a talk on Analog Versus Digital where he looked at ways the new world of digital, just 30 years old, will impact the world of design in a space where analog ruled for 10,000 years. This is an aspect of his work that has always been present and will only increase in impact as society becomes more reliant on technology.

Nine monographs later, beginning with I Want to Change the World, published in 2001, it would seem that he already has – changed the world. In his latest monograph, XX, there are 400 pages covering the recent 20 years of his career up to 2015. But, two years following the publication of his design memoir, Rashid launched KURV Architecture D.P.C. with partner Alex Hughes, leading us to believe that his adventures in design have only just begun.

by Cherryl Bird – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Twitter @ladycbird | Instagram @cherrylbird

Jan. 31, 2019, 6:15 pm: The first sentence was edited for clarification. Karim Rashid has an estimated “1,000 objects” in production now versus 4,000 over his entire career.

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