The Shape of Today

Contemporaneity, the design project, packaging: free-spoken reflections of one of the most acknowledged exponents of contemporary design, Karim Rashid.

Sonia Pedrazzini

Karim Rashid is an Anglo-Egyptian designer who grew up in Canada and is resident in New York.
He is a multifaceted and prolific designer, he has designed all kinds of things, from cosmetics to furniture, to products for the home, to objects, to lights, clothes. He has imposed his creative touch on sectors such as design, graphics, communications, art, music (he is even a popular DJ) and his products have been used in films and in programs on MTV. Rashid’s work is much appreciated and sought-after by the big international brands (including, to cite but some, Sony, Armani, Shiseido, Prada, Issey Miyake, Yahoo) but also by young concerns that make design and innovation their own winning force, like the Californian concern Method, for which the designer has created dispensers and flacons revolutionary in concept and unusual in shape and use, pleasing to touch and appealing to the eye.
But not only this. His design projects are on show in the most important museums and art galleries the world over. He has also written, published, taught and held conferences around the world.
Karim Rashid considers himself a cultural provocateur and does not hesitate to express his ideas on design, on objects and on the contemporary world with force and conviction.

Karim, what is a “design project”?
I must define design. Design is not superfluous decoration. Design is not a bonsai arrangement, or hand painted decoration on flowerpots, this is all arts and craft. To design is to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan – to conceive and plan out in the mind, to make a drawing, pattern, or sketch for a specific program. Therefore it is a methodically planned program not an incidental craft. Design is really to develop a construct, a new condition for our manufactured world. I really define design as addressing and fulfilling our contemporary needs and desires. Design is also not about old styles or replicating past decoration but it is about developing contemporary solutions that are about the modus in which we live. A company today that engages designers and is design driven, deals with the social, political, creative, aesthetic and behavioural issues of today, not of the past. Today in a consumer society we do not need a lot but we desire a lot. Design is not anymore problem-solving but a way of developing solutions to these desires, to our poetic, aesthetic, emotional, and cultural aspirations. Design is also the means to progress and innovation, and design is a necessity for companies to develop goods that meet these new consumer expectations. If a company does not perpetually innovate today they cannot survive on the global playing field that has now opened and is here to stay. One cannot think locally anymore.

Did you have an ideal project (not necessary in design) that you had the possibility to realize?
I am proud to go beyond the industrial design field.
I have shown artwork now for five years (Sandra Gering gallery, Deitch Projects NYC, Elga Wimmer gallery NYC and many museums such as the Institute of Contemporary Art) and have been published in art reviews but the art world has trouble taking me seriously especially when you can buy my democratic products for very little. I am one of the few designers in the world that produces and shows fine art and I am proud of crossing that boundary.
I am also making music, film, and fashion. My real desire is to see people live in the modus of our time, to participate in contemporary world, and to release themselves from nostalgia, antiquated traditions, old rituals, meaningless kitsch. If human nature is to live in the past, to change the world is to change human nature. I realized that design has the power to radically change social, political, and human behavior, that design was a means to shaping our betterment, to sculpt a world of ease, a world, of beauty of intelligence, and of comfort, I realized that design is a term that describes the notion of contemporaneity, that when we refer to design, we are speaking about addressing contemporary issues, that we are shaping “the now”. When I was young imagined a world that is robotic, where all our objects and products would be produced without laborious hand labor. I also saw a world that would be seamless with technology, a place where we could communicate audibly, visually, in real time everywhere, anywhere, and I saw our environments as intelligent, energetic, hyper aesthetic places. I also believed that new visions of building, cars, products, furniture, clothing, art, would be really inspiring digital, infostethic, and I went to Expo 1967 in Montreal almost everyday with my father and brother and the world I saw being shaped by people like Buckminster Fuller, Sarrarin, Colani, Nelson, and so many others was the world that I was hoping I would grow up into. AND THAT WORLD IS HERE and even more beautiful, more digital, more visceral, more behavioral, more communicative, more phantasmal than ever and I want to continue that mission, so that we all can embrace and engage our contemporary world.

Concerning creativity and design. Do you follow a particular method when designing your products?
Every project has slightly different methodologies. About 50% of the time the ideas come to me during the first meeting; but I believe in a rigorous process so I try many concepts, many many sketches, researching processes, technologies, material, human behaviors and strangely I arrive back at the first idea. And with other projects it takes many concepts to get the perfect idea. I am inspired by words, by philosophy, by art, by popular culture, by music, by everyday life, by computers, and digital programs and tools and technology. But technology should now be seamless with the production of goods, the material, with the design process, and with the disruption, and recycling of the product. But it is not imperative that the consumer knows this. I think that the object should just play its human role and the technology take a back seat in making it democratic, high performance, poetic, and behavioral.

How do you see our future world?
Design will be our common landscape where it will not make a difference where something is made, who made it, but instead that it is experimental, behavioral, smart, seamless, soft, and human.
I believe that the new objects that shape our lives are transconceptual, multi-cultural hybrids; objects that can exist anywhere in different contexts, that are natural and synthetic, that are inspired through telecommunications, information, entertainment, technology, new behavior and production. Our object culture can captivate the energy of this contemporary universal culture of the digital age. The birth of new industrial processes, new materials, global markets all lend inspiration to reshaping our lives.

And about packaging?
It is time that all our products become beautiful and smart regardless of cost. Even the cheapest packages should be aesthetic! In the 21th Century every package is being reconsidered and designed. I believe that packaging is very necessary and can bring a greater, more engaging experience to people. Generally bottles in cosmetics become more important than the fragrance. But in cosmetics one is selling immateriality and there is so much work, expense, and complexity in creating scents, that the package must be the ambassador of that scent and communicate its essence. Essentially one is selling something immaterial that is complex and abstract so the bottles gives a fragrance, identity, brand, and a sense of the material interpretation.
Bottles have been overly embellished for hundreds of years and became quite monumental. Historically all products were far more decorative and ornate than objects today. They spoke of ritual, religion, class, luxury, royalty, and iconoclasm. Today high design gets relegated to a perfect rectangle; this is boring, we need a bottle that semantically speaks about the scent and attitude.
I designed many packages that have second functions (and utility) so that you never throw them out. I started this trend in cosmetic packaging.
I love designing cosmetics. I feel very comfortable in this field but I stay broad so that I never specialize in any field. I do not believe in specialization. I think that the world is borderless and I navigate between all the professions of Design, architecture, art, interiors, products, furniture, exhibitions, accessories, clothing, etc. Blurring these boundaries affords me to see each area, each typology differently and in a new way and each project inspires the next.

You designed the Prada monodose cosmetics, what can you tell us about that?
The concept of the Prada monodose packaging was the concept of travel, our nomadic existence, and being flexible to carry only one-time use doses that could be never be tainted by the outside air, so there are no germs or bacteria, so that you use perfectly fresh, concentrated, pure amounts that are no more than what is needed. So if you go on a trip you just take what you need, or if you go out at night, or to the office, you only take the right, perfectly sanitized amount. The packaging was complex and we developed 38 different small ampules, bottles, and vials, that were all developed from scratch being unlike existing packaging. It was a 3 year project with a great deal of engineering and research.

What is the role of objects in our society?
In the excrescence of goods, and the system of objects, the possibility of over-consuming, of addition, and immediate satisfaction of consumption is dangerous. We surround ourselves in life with effigies, objects, products, to find meaning in our existence, and to create a sense of memory, of presence, and of belonging. But we also consume to occupy time and to fulfil some strange need of reward and ego. We will forever have objects in our world, and I am not advocating not consuming them but rather being hyper conscious of our things and love and enjoy them. If not, we had better do without them. Objects denote our time, place, and relationship with the outside world and others. Objects can have a phenomenal relationship with our daily lives and us and at the same time objects can be perpetual obstacles in our life, complicating it, and creating stress. To add more to one’s life, one can also subtract or remove, so that instead of consuming, one “deconsumes”, a theory of addition by subtraction where less can be more. Yet not a minimal or reductive approach but instead, a way of enriching ones life, of increasing experiences through beautiful things, through things that we love, to edit our choices and have a richer life – ultimately creating the most important luxury of the 21st century-: free-time. If we can remove banalities, frustrations, time-consuming scenarios, with time on our hands we can spend more time thinking, creating, loving, being, and use our time in a more constructive way, taking on a more contributive role.
This could also just make us happier beings in that we are too bombarded with pettiness, with mediocre issues, with banal experiences.
A form of growth by subtraction.