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March 30, 2010

Plastic Reality

Just upstairs from his studio, designer Karim Rashid's Manhattan loft is a swirling showcase where even the soap dispensers are his own creations.

With his close-cropped hair, snug-fitting suits, and thick-soled shoes, the industrial designer Karim Rashid looks a bit like a grown-up Pee-Wee Herman. (Very grown up: The lanky 42-year-old, who was born in Egypt and raised in Canada, is six feet four inches tall.) So it's fitting that the candy-colored New York City loft he shares with his wife, Megan Lang, suggests an adult version of Pee-Wee's Playhouse: an ultrahip gingerbread cottage, stripped down and teched up for the cyber age.

The couple moved into the floor-through Chelsea apartment, directly above Rashid's 15-person design studio, three and a half years ago. "It was completely dilapidated," he says. "There were pigeons in here, and rats. Basically I just cleaned it out and made a series of white boxes." He filled those blank spaces with a jivey assortment of furniture and objects—amoeba-shaped tables, curvy sofas, brightly patterned rugs, glossy plastic chairs—almost exclusively of his own design. "I've been told it's egocentric or narcissistic to live with all my own stuff around me," he says. "But I think it's a normal thing for an artist to do, because you work off what you've done before."

What Rashid has done since he arrived in New York City and set up his own firm, in 1993, is become one of the very few well-known names in American product design. It's a considerable achievement in a profession that's usually practiced with the anonymity of medieval cathedral builders. Rashid's detractors say that his almost-famous status is less the result of innovative talent than of raging ambition, canny marketing, and furious self-promotion—charges exacerbated by the title of his 2001 book, I Want to Change the World. "Some people did think that was arrogant," he admits. "They say, 'Well, we're still waiting for him to change the world.' I'm working on a second book that I'm tempted to call I Give Up."

Rashid's admirers argue that he is a genuine design star, certified by both the guardians of high culture and mass-market consumers. His work is well represented in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the British Design Museum in London, and many other important taste-making institutions. Paola Antonelli, who, as a curator of architecture and design at MoMA, is one of these influential fans, says, "Rashid displays a masterful command of manufacturing techniques and materials. He can keep the function high and the cost low, yet still achieve a distinctive new shape." His products fly off the shelves at Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, and other populist chains. In fact, Garbo, a slinky $10 polypropylene wastebasket he designed in 1996, has sold more than two million units in North America, while sales of the $50 Oh stacking chair are approaching one million.

When Karim Rashid talks about changing the world through design, it's the mass market he has in mind. "I was in my twenties when I had my first piece at the MoMA," he says. "It was an amazing feeling: Wow, I've made it!" But soon after, he discovered that what made him prouder still was seeing metal-alloy tableware he had designed for the company Nambé in stores like Marshall Field's and Bloomingdale's. "Customers liked it and bought it," he recalls. "I saw that my work could have a real effect in people's lives, not just an academic or intellectual one. That meant everything to me."

Rashid became determined to make the public aware of the importance of good design by bringing as much of it as he could to their daily lives, by making banal objects better. It's a process of creating what he terms a "designocracy." A good example is the Dish Soap dispenser that he created last year for Method Home Care and sold at Target, among other places. The seductively shaped container is made of polymer with a warm-textured surface that's soft to the touch, a material he's used with Prada cosmetics. "What I've done is bring the high-end world of cosmetics into the low end of consumer packaging," he explains. "Why shouldn't an everyday $4 soap dispenser be as beautiful as a wine bottle or a $70 cosmetic package? Design has many agendas; mine is to elevate the level of pleasure in life."

Of course, many of the 800-plus products Rashid has created are far from mass-market, both in cost and conception. Omni, a made-to-order, five-piece, closed-circle modular seating system designed in 1999 for the California firm Galerkin, dominates one end of his apartment. Not many everyday living rooms could accommodate the Ultrasuede-covered behemoth's 10- to 12-foot diameter, nor many everyday budgets cover its $12,400 retail tab. But Rashid insists that the serpentine piece could be manufactured in injection-molded polyurethane foam in large quantities at a low price. While that may be true, he would still have to overcome the inherent resistance of most Americans to contemporary design; it's one thing to get the average consumer to buy a snazzy trash can or a sensuous soap dispenser, quite another to commit to a large circular sofa that has to be clambered over to use.

Both types of product coexist peaceably in Rashid's loft. In one emblematic pairing, a thermoplastic chess set he designed for Bozart sits atop his steel-and-glass Aura coffee table for Zeritalia. The abstract orange and green chess pieces are soft and luminescent, like tiny Brancusi sculptures made of radioactive jellybeans, while the game's clear acrylic storage box opens to form a playing board, silkscreened with polka dots rather than the traditional squares. Bozart sells an extraordinary 65,000 of this $60 dawn-of-the-digital-era chess set annually. The coffee table is also wittily inventive. It comprises a tiered metal frame on which three sheets of variously shaped colored glass—a blue ellipse, a fluorescent yellow rectangle, and an orange figure eight—can be arranged in a variety of configurations. The effect is that of a minimalist cake stand stacked with slabs of translucent Necco Wafers.

"I love change," Rashid says, looking around the expansive living area. "Probably twice a week something evolutionary happens here—I'll bring in a prototype from the studio downstairs, put up new wallpaper, switch the rugs, or move things around. I treat it like a stage set." This makes sense, since his father was a set designer for film and television in Toronto, and on weekends the young Karim would go to the studio and watch sets being raised or struck. But the loft feels like a stylized movie set, too. With its squiggly forms, bright Pop flourishes, and comic-strip boldness, it's a mise-en-scène for a modern-day Modesty Blaise—what the Swinging Sixties might have looked like if they'd had AutoCAD, plasma screens, and better plastics. Rashid has created a world that he and his wife can rearrange to suit their whims; they're like celluloid characters writing their own script, making their lives scintillate.

There don't appear to be any organic colors in the apartment: Everything has a synthetic glow—soft pink, lavender, chrome yellow, pale mint green. His wife's art, which is on the walls, is digitally produced. And although Rashid generally designs biomorphic shapes—Megan Lang's body has even served as a model for some sofas and chairs—there are no unambiguously natural textures or uncultivated ragged edges. All the furnishings look smooth, clean, untouched by human hand. The atmosphere of incandescent artificiality that Rashid conjures jibes with what he told The New Yorker about staying indoors as a child: "I didn't like nature because it was already done. It was designed. You couldn't do anything to it."

A few items in the apartment are the work of other designers—an amusing phallic vase by Ettore Sottsass, a horn-shaped Ara table lamp by Philippe Starck. But whatever an object's provenance, Rashid feels no emotional commitment to it. "There's nothing in here I'm so attached to I couldn't throw it out," he claims. "Besides, I have an addition-by-subtraction rule: To bring something in, I have to get rid of something else. Someone just gave me an Alvar Aalto vase, so now I have to decide which vase I'm going to take out."

There is one charming exception to this tough-mindedness. The stereo equipment in the living room is vintage Bang & Olufsen, the Danish electronics company that for more than 75 years has produced high-end consumer goods of surpassing elegance and functionality. "I bought my first B&O receiver when I was 14 years old with my paper-route money," explains Rashid. "It was 1974. I paid $900 and couldn't afford the speakers or anything else. My parents went nuts on me. This is a slightly later model that I found on eBay because my original one won't hook up to a CD player. It's in storage, the one object I can't let go of."

Rashid looks at the system thoughtfully for a moment. "There's no reason why you couldn't make inexpensive audio equipment that's as beautiful as this," he says. "No one's done it yet. I would love to."


New from Rashid

Industrial designer Karim Rashid is astonishingly prolific, and his design reach is boundless, from packaging (for Prada) to lighting (for Flos). Since opening his own firm ten years ago, he has worked on more than 800 projects for an international roster of clients: benches with molded-foam cushions for Zerodisegno in Italy; stools for Sputnik in Japan; glassware for Leonardo in Germany; carpets for Directional in the United States; and scent bottles for Issey Miyake in France. Rashid recently made four additions to this array. The Butterfly stacking chair is made of ABS plastic by Magis; the Triblob vase is smoked glass and was made by Frighetto; the Blob floor lamp, designed for Foscarini, is roto-molded plastic; and the Blob stacking chair, in molded plastic, was designed for Magis. For more about Karim Rashid-designed products, visit www.karimrashid.com.