Plastic Man

Salone del Mobile was ending, and Delta’s Sunday one-thirty business-class service from Milan to J.F.K. was full of well-heeled American retailers and marketers of design. Before takeoff, passengers circulated in the cabin, quizzing colleagues about what they had liked at the huge weeklong industrial-design fair, and fortifying themselves for reentry into a less stylish country with complimentary orange juice and champagne.

A man from the home-furnishings department of Bloomingdale’s was talking to a buyer from the gift shop at the Museum of Modern Art about the growing popularity of what he called “the fashion bed”—designer-made furniture for sleeping. “What we’re wodering is whether the customer who goes for Calvin’s sheets may push over into Donna’s bedding,” the Bloomies guy said.

Karim Rashid barely made the flight. Rashid is six feet four inches tall, and he was dressed in the white suit he often wears on public occasions. Every time Rashid, who is forty, had surfaced in Milan during the previous week, his appearance had caused a stir. But here, among the businessmen on the airplane, he was just another unshaved and scruffy-looking designer.

Rashid was exhausted from his week of meetings and parties and acclaim. His hair was cropped close, and his goofy square glasses, set off by his almost perfectly round head, made him look a little like a stick drawing—all circles and straight lines. He sad down in the seat next to me, took his mp3 player out of a fluorescent-orange bike-messenger-style bag, tucked it into the seat-back pocket in front of him, and settled in for the nine-hour flight. Yet another potential client had called that morning, he said, wanting to set up a breakfast meeting, but Rashid had explained that he absolutely needed to get back to New York. Along with all the work that had been commissioned in Milan, there was a tsunami of ongoing projects, including designing and building a hotel in Los Angeles, the Gershwin West, and another one, the Semiramis, in Athens, for the Greek industrialist Dakis Joannou. He also had an upcoming opening at Deitch Projects, in SoHo, where one of his concept pieces, Pleasurescape, would be unveiled.

He hated to turn down a job, Rashid added, but he was working too hard these days, and his back hurt, and in a recent picture in the Times Home Design Magazine he had looked, he said mournfully, a bit “chumpy.” Plus, “I think I might be getting sick again.” Rashid’s travel schedule—in the past year, he had been away from New York on business for two hundred days—makes him something of a germ vector.

Delta’s business service had been recently redesigned, and Rashid was not impressed. The flight attendants were dressed casually—the men in open-collared shirts, the women in tailored slacks (the two attendants we spoke with, a man and a woman, both seemed miserable in their new attire; “It’s so unprofessional,” the man whispered)—and the toiletry kits, which used to come in soft, leathery-feeling rubber bags, are now packaged in fake-antique toffee tins.

“How stupid is this?” Rashid took the metal box out of the seat-back pocket. “They’re so hard!” he said incredulously, hefting it. He gestured around the cabin. “It’s amazing how much bad design there is in airplanes. Why are the bathrooms so small when there’s so much space in here? You end up peeing on the floor and splashing water all over the sink. It’s terrible, and yet every single airplane is the same way.” He signed and said, “Take a look around at your environment sometime, wherever you are. Ninety per cent of the tuff you see is an absolute fucking mess.” But Rashid has big plans for your environment, as the title of a handsome new book of his work, “Karim Rashid: I Want to Change the World,” makes clear.

In previous years, Rashid did what most product designers who come to Salone del Mobile do: he trudged around, portfolio in hand, to the hundreds of different manufacturers’ booths, hoping to get a commission to build something—a stereo, a light fixture, a chair. This year was the first time Rashid let prospective clients come to him. “I had six incredible meetings today,” he told me one evening in his hyperbolic, excitable conversational style. “I mea, amazing meetings.”

Most artistically acclaimed product designers establish themselves by first creating expensive avant-garde furniture of restaurant interiors; some then capitalize on their fame by making inexpensive housewares. Rashid launched his career backward: he made his name by designing an eight-dollar plastic trash can, the Garbo, and a forty-five dollar stackable chair, the Oh, and then used his credentials as a democratic designer, inheritor of the Bauhaus tradition of good design for the masses (which is one of the most enduring tenets of modernism), to get commissions for undemocratic design for the elite. In Milan, he showed a one-off furniture installation called Surfacescape: a four-piece, reconfigurable seating concept produced by Edra, an Italian manufacturer of expensive furniture. At the party for the sofa, Rashid introduced me to Valerio Mazzei, the head of Edra, by saying, “I love him. This is a dream. He understands completely what I’m doing. It’s as if we are one.”

Italian design firms like Alessi and Magis have been making housewares for years (colanders by Phillippe Starck; garlic presses by Guido Venturini), but these products generally sell to aesthetes in museumlike settings, such as Moss, a store in SoHo, at prices that are ten times higher than those of ordinary colanders and garlic presses; they’re classics. Many of Rashid’s products—perfume bottles, credit cards, pens, backpacks, mouse pads, lighters, and coffee cups—make no pretense to classicism. His specialty is designing F.M.C.G.s, or fast-moving consumer goods—products with relatively short life spands. Some of his best designs are disposable, like his shopping bags for Issey Miyake, which are made of transparent polypropylene sheets that fold into shape, with a rubbery handle. He is opposed, he says, “to this old modernist idea of permanence, when designers produce so-called classics that will live forever. Because I don’t think we’re living in a time where anything will love forever anymore.”

The strain of trying to redesign the offending ninety per cent of the world, while at the same time keeping pace with fast-moving stream of consumer goods, did not look easy. Rashid closed his eyes and took a brief nap.

To find a precedent for a designer like Rashid, you have to go back to the product designers of sixty years ago, men like Norman Bel Geddes, George Nelson, and above all, Raymond Loewy, the French-born designer who developed the Coldspot refigerator for Sears, redesigned the Lucky Strike cigarette package, and remodeled the Greyhound bus. Loewy’s generation found a visual vocabulary, streamlining, that transformed toasters, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and cars into objects of consumer designer. Rashid and his generation are creating a new kind of commercial-design language—a twenty-first century streamlining—which can be seen in laptops, cell phones, portable music players, G-Shock watches, Oakley sunglasses, Oral-B CrossAction toothbrushes, and, of course, sneakers. The new streamlining has put on weight. It’s softer, curvier, more colorful, and “swoopy,” a favorite design word for describing those urgent yet sinuous, Gehryesque forms that new plastics can support. The old geometry of cubes, spheres, and cylinders has given way to a digital geometry of “nurbs,” “spines,” “metaballs,” and other shapes produced by computer-aided-design software (CAD), which allows the designer to create manipulate forms on the computer. The shapes look organic, but the mathematical calculations on which the CAD software runs give their surfaces the hard sheen of crunched data. In “I Want to Change the World,” Rashid calls the new style Blobism.

Rashid’s products are made of digital-age materials. He uses rubber that looks practically edible, and plastic that feels almost like flesh. The colors are acid shades from the Twister-board sixties, a little washed out, in a way that reflects the passage of years. But although Rashid is technologically innovative, in his relationship with the business side of his practice he is a throwback to Raymond Loewy, who once said that the most beautiful curve is a rising sales curve. Rashid himself says, “I’m a businessman. Artists are businessmen. ‘Business’ has come to seem a bad word, because it means compromise, but we are all part of a commercial process, aren’t we?”

Are we? The architect R. Buckminster Fuller accused commercial designers like Loewy of being little more than servants of advertising and marketing, engineers only of planned obsolescence, rather than makers of useful improvements for mankind. The same criticisms could be made of Rashid’s work. Obsolescence is part of the essence of his F.M.C.G.s. “A lot of what Karim does is take old designs from the fifties and make them curvy and kooky,” one design nabob told me. “They’re superficial glosses on classic designs. I liked his Prada packaging, because it’s all about waste and consumerism, and that’s what Karim is best at—it’s an ideal marriage of his talent and a product. He has a great talent for the ephemeral.” Starck invented a new style; Rashid is more of a medium for new trends in the design world. His Oh chair has been on the cover of Crate and Barrel’s catalogue, but Murray Moss does not show any Karim Rashid products in his store. “Rashid is brilliant at communicating design to the masses,” Chee Pearlman, a design columnist for the Times, told me. “But often his work is too easy.”

In Milan, Rashid was certainly an easy target for those who feel that F.M.C.G.s might not be the best direction for modern design to take. An alternative design group calling itself Latebloom had gone to the trouble of having signs printed that said “Fuck Karim Rashid,” and had stuck them around Milan during the fair. (Other famous designers were similarly honored.) Someone had stolen one of his customized fluorescent-orange Puma sneakers when Rashid removed them at the party for Surfacescape. He seemed startled by the evidence that not everyone in the world meant him well: “I mean, would someone actually steal my shoe?”

After we were aloft, Rashid asked one of the flight attendants for some extra-strong coffee, giving her exact instructions on how to make it, and offering to show her, if she liked. I liked him how he became a designer. “As a child, I never liked nature,” he said. “I had all these allergies, for one thing. I always felt sick when I was in nature. And then I didn’t like nature because it was already done. It was designed. You couldn’t do anything to it.”

Rashid was born in Cairo. His mother was English; his father, an Egyptian, was an artist and a theatrical-set designer. In England, where Rashid spent his early years, his father worked as a night watchman, because he could not find work as a set designer or an artist; eventually the family moved to Canada, and his father became a set designer for Canadian TV and the BBC. Mr. Rashid kept his skills sharp by rearranging the family’s furniture almost every week. There were three children—Karim; Rashid’s older brother, Hani (a founding partner of the SoHo-based firm Asymptote Architecture); and his younger sister, Soraya, who is now a singer-songwriter living in Manhattan. “Dad was always drawing us, over and over again,” Rashid told me. “He would take me with him in the afternoons when he went to sketch. When I was four, I had an epiphany—I was drawing a church, and I realized I could change it.” After dinner, the Rashid men would sit around the table sketching one another.

Rashid obtained a degree in industrial design from Carleton University, in Ottawa, and then spent a year in Italy, where he studied with Ettore Sottsass, one of the founders of the Memphis school. He worked as an unpaid intern for a year and a half in Milan, and then returned to Toronto, where his parents lived, and took a job with KAN Industrial Designers, working for clients like Black & Decker and Samsung. Rashid developed a drill, and designed post-office boxes for Canada Post, replacing the red steel Victorian-looking boxes with containers made of aluminum, cast iron, and plastic. “I did stereos for Toshiba, designed a space heater, a sniffer for detecting parts per million of heroin, laser processing devices, farm equipment, medical equipment, that sort of thing. I spent ten years in that world. And it’s all about commodity. It’s certainly not about beauty and meaning—the people you’re working for couldn’t care less. But you learn how business works.” David Shearer, who sells a wide range of Rashid’s products in Totem, his Tribeca store, says, “A lot of designers come up with beautiful designs, but they have no idea what they cost or how complicated it is to make them. Karim understands what it takes to bring a product onto the shelf.”

In 1991, Rashid quit and moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he had found a job teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design. He left after a year. According to Rashid, he was fired because he insisted on getting students out of the ivory tower of craftsmanship. (RISD says his contract was not renewed because there were differences in teaching philosophies.)

“I was in this decrepit town, Providence, I was very depressed, and I didn’t know what to do. I had to make a choice—go to New York and try to be a designer, or go back to Toronto. My brother and sister were in New York, so I went and slept on Hani’s floor for six weeks.” In 1993, he got a position at the Pratt Institute, in Manhattan, where he taught for four years. He also taught at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia.

Rashid pitched more than a hundred companies in 1992 and 1993 before he got his first commission, from a Santa Fe-based company called Nambé, for a line of tabletop accessories. He was turned down by the elite European manufacturers he approached; they weren’t interested in a guy who did drills. He decided to concentrate on the second-tier manufacturers, companies like La-Z-Boy and Ethan Allen. He rode Amtrak into New England, making a Captain Willard-like journey into the cradle of American manufacturing, once the home of early Yankee machine shops and now a postindustrial landscape of fast-food chains and malls.

“I remember I went to Ethan Allen, which is based in Danbury, Connecticut. This was about nine years ago, when they were closing a lot of stores around the country,” Rashid said. “I thought, Here’s an opportunity. I know why they’re closing these stores—it’s because fewer and fewer people are interested in buying simulations of an antique, which is what Ethan Allen sells. The generation that started buying contemporary furniture at Ikea is growing older, and now they want something that’s a little higher quality and more substantial, but they’re used to contemporary designs, so where are they going to go? If they move to Italian stuff, then the American companies are over. Maybe not tomorrow, but then years from now, all those antique sofas and highboys are going to be gone. Because the mindset of youth culture—and I’ve picked this up from my students—is that they don’t care about the past. The past is pointless. It’s over. Their mentality is skateboards, MP3s, and Nike running shoes, and eventually that’s going to affect the furnishings they buy. But, of course, Ethan Allen wasn’t interested in what I had to say—here’s an arrogant guy telling them what to do with the furniture of the company.”

Finally, in 1995, Umbra, a Toronto-based company that makes inexpensive housewares, agreed to try an idea of Rashid’s—a trash can made of high-impact virgin polypropylene, which would sell for less than twelve dollars. “The idea was extremely simple,” Rashid says. “We were limited by the height of the can, but I thought, If I raise the handles, it will appear to be higher, and then the top will form a kind of rim to catch stuff you throw. And having a rounded inside rather than a square one would make it easier to clean. And I knew a lot about plastic, so I knew they’d have no trouble molding it, and in fact when they did the first injection of plastic for the Garbo it molded perfectly—usually when you do a first injection it doesn’t hold together. In 1995, plastic was still kind of on the outside, aesthetically, but it was amazing how quickly the aesthetic landscape changed and plastic became the thing.” He built a better trash can, and the world beat a path to his door.

The coffee arrived. It was satisfactory—barely. Rashid reached under the seat for his bag and brought out several large design magazines: heavier-than-Vogue tomes celebrating the cross-over of fashion, art, design, and advertising. I pointed out that he was lugging around a lot of weight for a digital guy, and Rashid responded that it was absolutely ridiculous that print still had such a powerful grip on the world. He said he had done away with all the books and CDs in his home. “All I want is a chip in my eye, that I can download information to directly,” he said. “Remember, it’s not the camera, it’s the picture you take with the camera that’s important. It’s not the phone, it’s the conversation. I’m not proposing doing away with physical goods—I produce physical goods. It’s this fetishization of things I’m opposed to.”

Nonetheless, Rashid has designed more than eight hundred things since 1993, and he has fifty projects going at the moment, everything from cosmetics to an “absolutely fantastic” proect he was working on for a Swiss company called Golay—a line of jewelry with cultured pearls, which would rescue the pearl from the neck of the debutante.

I asked what accounted for his extraordinary drive, and Rashid said he wasn’t interested in the money; he was interested in getting his ideas manufactured. “I want to create original things, original ideas,” he said. “I want to see what I can contribute to humanity while I still exist.” He may be a celebrity in the design world, but to a lot of manufacturers, particularly Americans, a famous product designer is nothing more than an uppity engineer. The standard rate for product design is about three per cent of the manufacturing costs. (Architects generally get between five and ten per cent.) From a business point of view, what a designer brings to the process—creativity—is what spreadsheets define as the “undeliverable.” (Part of Rashid’s success as a designer stems from his ability to define the undeliverable not only in terms of aesthetics but also in terms of publicity, which is something his clients find easier to measure.”

Rashid’s recent experience with Ronson, a once proud British manufacturer of premium lighters, is a good example of the kind of treatment product designers receive from their clients. Ronson was a good opportunity for Rashid, because, he told me excitedly after he was commissioned to design an inexpensive lighter, it would be the first time he had made a product that would sell for less than a dollar. Ronson was a famous brand that had been all but ruined by disposable plastic lighters, particularly beginning with the Flick Your Bic campaign, in 1974. In 1998, an American investment firm called Berkeley Capital Advisors, whose business is to invest in undervalued or dying British brands and reinvent them, became Ronson’s largest shareholder. One of the directors of Berkeley, Bahman Kia, persuaded the Ronson board to hire Rashid, the prince of plastic, to lead Ronson into the “premium mass” market by producing designer disposable lighters that would sell for twenty-five cents more than Bic lighters. This strategy was based on the new thinking that design actually does matter to the masses. (Berkeley ahs also taken a management position in Maclaren, a maker of strollers, and is trying to interest Phillippe Starck in designing a few.)

Ronson asked for twelve lighter concepts; Rashid presented thirty-eight. Eventually Ronson settled on three: the Gripper (sheathed in artificial rubber), the Pebble (a blob), and the Spindle, which looks like a microphone. Rashid also came up with designs for other Ronson product lines—a pen, a calculator, an AM-FM radio, and an artificial log shaped like a ball. Then he took it upon himself to reinvent the brand, replacing the old black Ronson typeface with an electric-red digital-looking script. So far, Ronson has put only the lighters into production. The company declined to follow Rashid’s branding advice and postponed action on the other production ideas. It seems that Ronson wasn’t ready for Rashid. “I think I scared them,” he says.

Out came Rashid’s sketchbook from his bag, a big, heavy black ring binder filled with thick paper. He sketched with an orange pencil (he usually works with a black Pilot fine liner) and listened to Dirk Diggler on his MP3 player. He was working on a new furniture project for Edra, the manufacturer that had produced the Surfacescape piece. When he is at the conceptual stage, his method is to go over the sketch again and again, move on to other ideas, then return to the earlier sketch, filling up a whole pad with a few projects. He keeps sketching until the “singular shift”—the change in form that will determine the identity of the product—emerges. Then he gives the sketch to one of his assistants, who enters the shape into a computer. (I could see how a product designer who works entirely by hand, painstakingly crafting physical models of sketches made with a slide rule and paper, might find Rashid a little irritating.)

The easiest way to see Rashid’s work in New York is to look for one of the hundred and fifty manhole covers he designed for Con Edison, which are exhibited mostly in the streets of Manhattan, particularly around Times Square. The design is a plumped-up version of the old Pan Am logo, made by tweaking a two-dimensional grid on a computer until it looked pregnant with information. Rashid tried to get Con Ed to cast the covers in high-impact, glow-in-the-dark translucent plastic, which could withstand as much weight as the standard iron covers, but Con Ed decided that the public wasn’t ready for translucent plastic manhole covers. However, Rashid did manage to get “DESIGN BY KARIM RASHID” built into the product—a literal form of street credibility.

You could also walk by the Rashid offices, on West Seventeenth Street, which have a faux storefront where plates, bowls, mouse pads, pens, and furniture are displayed in a Lechters-like setting. The Furniture in the showroom looks like something Rashid’s father might have come up with for a fifties TV drama about the future. Behind the showroom, fifteen studious-looking assistants work at computers. Rashid has an office in the back. He lives upstairs with his wife, Megan Lang, a computer artist.

Rashid is an apostle of “soft tooling”—a computer-assisted model- and diemaking technologies, which, when used along with CAD software, can drastically reduce the tooling costs involved in the creation of industrial products. Because manufactured objects are expensive to tool for—the average cost of making a die for a chair is three hundred thousand dollars—most products need to remain in circulation for at least five years if the producer is to make a profit. By making it possible for manufacturers to produce industrial objects more cheaply, in smaller batches, and to change the objects’ shape and color from one batch to the next without major retooling costs, the new technologies will enable industrial designers to cater to seasonal changes, as the fashion industry does. Meanwhile, fashion companies are relying to an ever greater extent on machines to do the tailoring that used to be done by hand. (For example, when you go into Zegna to get a bespoke suit, your measurements are fed into a computer-tailoring program, and a computer-controlled blade cuts the fabric.) Rashid is at the crossroads of these two converging production cycles, supplying the product industry with more transient goods and the fashion industry with less season-driven ones. “I think there’s a fourth dimension to all products, a kind of aura, a sensibility,” he says. “Right now, that dimension is very much a part of fashion, and I think we’re going to find it more and more in everything.”

But do people want to change their furniture and housewares the way they change their clothes? After a day of squeezing into uncomfortable shoes merely because they’re fashionable, you may want to just lie in the chair you’ve had forever and put your feet up.

About halfway into the flight, I glanced over at Rashid and noticed he had grown pale and was breathing hard. “Are you O.K.?” I asked. He shook his head, got up, and walked up and down the aisle, taking deep breaths. The challenge of being an artist who was also a businessman who was really an artist seemed to be causing a singular shift in him. He disappeared into economy class, where two assistants he’d brought alone were sitting.

These conflicting pressures were on display later in the week, at the Deitch Projects opening, in SoHo. Pleasurescape—a molded-plastic seating arrangement for sixty, all in white, made out of the material used for slides in water parks—sat in front of a forty-foot-long hot-pink panel. Jeffrey Deitch, a friendly, preppy-looking man dressed in a blazer and tie, was standing near the door. “Karim is part of something I’m very interested in,” he said, “which is the convergence of the audience for art, design, advertising, entertainment, and fashion. I’d like people to walk in and ask, ‘Is this art or furniture of advertising?’? Along one wall, framed sketches of Karim Rashid products were hanging, with the 1995 sketch for the Garbo holding pride of place. I stood before the drawing and asked myself whether a trash can, by virtue of being not only a good trash can but also an artifact of our throwaway culture—disposable itself—might be viewed as art. Something that Marcel Duchamp started seemed to have come to its logical conclusion: a best-selling eight-dollar trash can had made Rashid’s reputation as an artist.

The da Vinci for the disposable age was dressed to match his furniture, in pink pants and a white shirt. His wife was wearing a sleeveless black dress that showed off some Karim Rashid tattoos, which were on her upper arm. I asked Rashid if he considered the objects in the show to be art or product design. “Well, I’m an artist first. That is how I think of myself. I’m thinking about people dealing with space in an object culture. I’m trying to bring the experience of modern life, the banal experience of an airport waiting room, into galleries. I’m trying to do the same thing artists do—I wouldn’t be showing at Deitch if I wasn’t—but I’m also making products.”

When I said that I liked Pleasurescape because it was practical, Rashid seemed taken aback. “Yeah, I guess I have a tough time with that, as an artist. I can’t help myself.”

Twenty minutes after his escape into economy, Rashid was back in his seat. He said he sometimes got panic attacks. “I have a compulsive personality,” he explained. “If I have nothing to do, I’ll start rearranging the stuff in my office. I used to get depressed a lot, and if I worked I’d feel so much better, so now I work. And I’m starting to reach the point I’ve always dreamed of reaching, and that’s when I start to panic. As the demands get higher, I have to keep performing. My throat tightens, and my heart starts beating really fast.”

The plane landed at J.F.K. late in the afternoon. Rashid’s predecessors made streamlining the style of people on the go, the jet-setters, but the speed of the digital world has left air travel in the dust—nine hours seems like far too long for a flight from Milan to New York. Rashid hoisted his bag over his shoulder and walked up the passenger tunnel into the general banality of the airport. Weary travellers, some with children, were in the waiting area, preparing to board overnight flights. They looked as if they could use a Pleasurescape.

In baggage claim, the suitcases whirled around and around the stainless-steel carousel. When ours came, we carried them into the first-generation plastics of the customs hall. The elevator up to the parking lot didn’t work, and Rashid shot me a look that said, “See? The world is an absolute fucking mess.” But an elevator for the twenty-first century would have to wait until the designer had gone home and got some sleep.

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