What does an ‘Oh-chair’, a cigarette lighter and a Bozart chess set have in common you may wonder.
One look at them and you may say they are made of plastic. But they share yet another common denominator. They have been fathered by none other than Karim Rashid, dubbed the Poet of Plastic by Time magazine. In town recently, for the Hotel Show where he blasted all time-honoured and conventional notions of luxury and design that the Middle East has so diligently followed, MEI caught up with the renowned designer set to inaugurate his first solo art exhibition at the Courtyard Art Gallery.
For those that don’t know, Karim Rashid’s unmistakable genius has transformed the world of design since he exploded on to the scene as a young designer at the age of 19. Since the late seventies, this New York-based designer has grown steadily to attain iconic status as he has reinterpreted objects, giving them a Gene X mode rooted in today’s techno-culture. Most well known for his Garbo Garbage Can, The Oh chair and The Bozart Chess set, Karim Rashid has designed hundreds of art objects as well as left his imprint on furniture, lighting, fashion, restaurants and hotels like the Semiramis in Athens.
Elaborating on his unshakeable bond with plastic in his famously lucid manner, he says: “Although I love and work with all materials, I love plastic and the liquid polymer world – plastics are outperforming any natural material and have phenomenal property possibilities and opportunities. The opportunity to develop new forms, objects that are highly complex or/and organic, can only really be done with plastics. Also plastics can make products more democratic due to high-speed production processes. Another sort of precision and convenience is offered by smart materials like polymer resins. While we expect material to change due to weathering and age, smart materials anticipate variance and they can mutate into a desired state under certain conditions. For example, thermoplastic mouthpieces for athletes undergo molecular change when heated. To achieve a perfect fit, you submerge the device in boiling water and then hold it in your mouth for a few minutes while it conforms to exact contours of your teeth and gums as it cools. There are so many diverse polymers with which we can accomplish so many aspects of our built environment. Something like 60 per cent of hospital components are plastic, cars will be all plastic, plastic is everywhere and has increased performance, cost, beauty, function, and aesthetics.” At the Hotel Show visitors witnessed first-hand Rashid’s love of the material where he was nominated by Depa to create one of 10 mock-up future hotel rooms. Candy-coloured plastic made in fluorescent shades glowed in shades of pink and pale blue. “Yes, in my work I like to use a lot of colour. I love the vibrancy of the psychedelic effect, so I like lime and oranges and pink types of colours and I tend to use a lot of those colours, they kind of speak up about the information age since I am trying to comment in a weird way how people live now. But my personal favorite is white, which I generally wear with a bit of pink. “
He showed up for MEI’s interview wearing – proto types of jewellery he did for Georg Jensen from Denmark, a pink large blob-watch designed for Alessi, shoes he created for Fessura, a black and white suit made for Armand Bassi, and the almost signature shape glasses designed for Issey Miyake made of titanium. And the pink fluorescent t-shirt that reflects through the thin white suit is made by American Apparel.
His tendency to flaunt, it does not end with just the clothes he wears. “I designed my house in New York where over 90 per cent of the things in there are designed by me – the dishes, the champagne glasses, the cutting board, the toaster etc. There are two reasons why I like to do that – one is that it allows me to learn from what I have got and then groove about it. I always think I could make something better. It’s an ongoing class. I have been to houses of designers, who prefer to have none of their work surrounding them but when I was young I did a trip to Picasso’s house and I saw that it was furnished with everything he had created and strangely it did not look to be narcissism. The second natural aspect is, when the company sends me a couch I designed, of course I am going to sit on it. That way I don’t need to buy anything. I have even designed my laundry detergent, the dish and hand soap!
“ In my loft apartment I created a very hard Cartesian white 'blank' gallery-like space with white rubber epoxy floors and a hint of fluorescent orange (the bathroom is fluorescent lime) for the front space and a pink carpet field for the rear half. It seems like I am forever changing the space. I was brought up with my father changing and moving around the furniture, paintings, etc. every month and I find I have the same habit. Generally, the furniture changes every month with new prototypes, old ones, production pieces, like a revolving ongoing dynamic gallery. It is wall-to-wall broadloom in light pink, with the Omni fuchsia ultra suede undulating orgiastic couch, a yellow glass wall between the bathroom and the living space, a new bathroom that has a black high-gloss morphscape pattern laminate floor, and the living space has new rug prototypes on a high gloss self-levelling epoxy floor. The kitchen is minimalistic and stainless with morphscape white plastic laminate cupboards.”
Colour play: Room of the Future
For all of Rashid’s popularity in the region, he has yet to make inroads into it and secure any firm contracts which explains his recent appearances in the city.
He comments: Although I am half Egyptian, by birth I was one and half when we left Cairo for Europe, then to Canada. I also stayed in Italy and then moved to New York 14 to15 years ago. I came back to the Middle East for the first time when I was 45. I was invited to show a gallery in Cairo and when I went there I was really shocked at how familiar I felt with the culture.
“Now I am doing a lot of work in Cairo including a shopping mall and a hotel. I am working on a lot of work in the Middle East in general. So, all of a sudden now I am very proactive in this region. I am not doing any projects in Dubai yet, but I must soon. There must be diversity, alternative, something unusual yet interesting, inspiring and conservative in my work.
“Over the last 10 years, people have noticed Egyptian influences in my work – that is more from the subconscious since I have an affinity to the country. A couple of years ago I did a Turkish collection.
After having dabbled in art, light music, interiors and furniture, one would imagine that he would have reached the climax of his repertoire. Apparently not however: “There is a lot of work in industrial design because it involves practically every product in the world. So, even if I have done a lot, there is a lot more to do. I would really like to design an automobile, something like a hybrid car,” he says.
“I would also like to design some private houses since I’ve already done hotels and supermarkets. At the same time, I would like to have a clothing line, a jeans label that is nothing like anybody else’s, just for the sake of showing a different direction of design. And am also keen designing my own perfume someday which will smell a bit like coffee, chocolate and plastic, as well as do more street and public furniture, most of which you find is quite old fashioned now,” Rashid adds.
You would imagine that eight design awards in 2007 would be cause to party for any designer. But, Rashid has had more than his fill of accolades. “The first award I won was when I was accepted by the Academics of Intellectuals, then after that when I started winning more and more, I started caring less about winning.
So, for me the reward is when I have given the average Joe something better in his life. That’s my award.”
As to his immodest Karimmanifesto, which brags in no uncertain terms…..“I want to change the world” he says he really believes in design’s power to do just that. “When I was a teenager I wanted to be an artist and designer. My father was a set designer for film and television and a painter. I had decided I would go into design because I felt I could reach out to more people’s lives, make it a better place. That I can solve daily issues, that I can help cultures. But if I were only in art I would be in a bit of an elitist world.
“I was recently in Cape Town where I offered to redesign shantytowns for the government. They had an architect who had created a concrete park with a square window and a door, which was very depressing. And this would have cost them some $300,000 and I know for that price I could offer them the most beautiful, colourful variable, plastic, acrylic interesting house. So, design can make a huge impact on our lives,” he maintains.
His weight in the world of design is not small. Sometime ago, at a Hotel Show for a photo-shoot he slipped off his shoes for a picture. A few minutes later he found there was only one left. The other had obviously been stolen… most probably to be kept as a memento.