words Marcus Fairs
Karim Rashid has landed. Bam! Kapow! America’s design superhero is here and he’s going to save us from bad design. Rashid is the most successful, most self-promoting and fastest-talking designer on the other side of the Atlantic and his first UK projects – a boutique hotel for MyHotel in Brighton and the interior of a second one at Paddington, West London – are underway. Marvel as he banishes dodgy headboards! Gasp as he eradicates shitty phones!
You can’t miss Rashid: he’s 6ft 4in tall and wears white suits (he gave his black wardrobe to charity at the turn of the millennium and now always carries a bottle of stain remover with him) and big Ali G goggle-shades. The 43-year-old is half Egyptian (and half English – his mother is from Yorkshire) and was born in Cairo but was brought up in Canada and is now a resident of New York, which he refers to as his “helipad”.
Rashid can do anything. He made his name designing furniture, perfume bottles, clothes and household goods, with more than 800 objects to his name. He lectures and DJs, and has released a couple of CDs; and now he is moving into interior design and architecture. As he prepares to conquer the UK, icon caught up with the man who wants to change the world at the MyHotel Bloomsbury (which he didn’t design).
Karim Rashid is hypersensitive!
You’ve criticised boutique hotels for being just about scattering designer furniture around. How will your hotel projects be different?
Design is becoming a hyperstyle in the sense that we’re laying over everything that exists with a contemporary aesthetic. Aesthetics in its true definition is about feeling; it’s not visual. It’s experiential. So when you experience space it’s very different from experiencing an object or product. Mind you, even though I’ve been designing products for 20 years, space is quite new to me. I’ve only entered this kind of world in the last few years. But what I’ve realised is I have a kind of hypersensitivity to the way people move and behave and experience space, so the few projects I’ve done have become phenomenally successful. The restaurant [Morimoto in Philadelphia] in particular. It’s probably because I’ve been working at human scale for 20 years that I work “inward-out”. For example, when I design a room, I work from lying in the bed and moving outward rather than architecturally considering the physicality of the building and the skin first, then moving in. So I think there’s a big difference there. When you think about human space and human experience, and you put people in restricted spaces, you have to really be sensitive to the interface, the human engagement.
Do most interior designers and architects get this wrong?
That’s a little harsh for me to say that, because so many people have been doing this over the years. It would be a bit critical, it would sound incredibly arrogant if I said something like that, right? I’ve stayed in several thousand hotels. I never try to stay at the same hotel twice, because I want to feel what the next one is like. But I have to say that 90 per cent of them don’t work.
What’s wrong with them?
Well, you know, if I tell you that then someone is going to design and put out a hotel before me, so I won’t go into all the details. But a very obvious thing is that the space around you is not just about cool furniture, or about the right colour or the right carpet. The interior design profession – more so than the architectural world, because I think architects in general are somewhat educated as thinkers – tends to be more style driven and more about specification. They tend to think “what shall I put on the walls?” or “what should I use on the floor?”, and sadly enough – and I hate this about interiors – we’re very limited in the amount of materials that we really use.
It’s almost unfair in a way. Think about the wall treatment – you can paint it, that’s the most inexpensive way; second to that is probably wallpaper. But it’s kind of all about cladding. It’s not really about the real essence of what you’re doing. That you’re putting somebody in a space – a pretty contrived and tight space – for a certain period of time. So you gotta bring something more to their lives.
The boutique hotel phenomenon started because at one time hotels were very much this idea of trying to replicate home away from home – ie post-world war II, the Holiday Inn idea, that you could go anywhere in the world and feel you were back at home, feel comfortable. It was about selling the familiar. It’s the complete antithesis now – we’re looking for new experiences because it’s harder and harder now to have new experiences. There used to be a time when shopping was kind of interesting; it spoke a lot about the culture. But all of a sudden now the stores are the same around the world. Sadly, if I walk along the Champs-Elysees, I have the same stores I have on Madison, on Via Condotti in Rome or Via Manzoni in Milan. I drink the same Starbucks around the world; you start thinking now we’re becoming more desperate to have new experiences. So that I think is the real point of entry. The success of boutique hotels is about having a new experience.
Yet Karim Rashid is a superbrand with a distinctive visual language. How do you avoid every restaurant or hotel you design around the world being the same?
Yeah, that’s a good question – I don’t know. I haven’t really done enough to know what the result of that could be, if that makes sense. We have to remember we have a big world – we have six billion people. So even if tomorrow we had 30 Karim Rashid interiors around the world, that’s only 30 interiors for six billion people. So it’s very ineffectual in that regard, so they could be very similar and very branded. Let’s face it – we all, as designers, have in our DNA a certain language, we see the world in a certain way.
But at the same time, within that, I’m also dealing with new places, new locations, new experiences, different clients, different budgets – you know, different things to say – so there’s an evolution there as well. So I would say by the time the Brighton MyHotel is open and the Paddington one is opened, I have a feeling at the end of the day that they’re going to be quite different. And that has a lot to do also with contextual issues – at Brighton I’m doing the architecture, at Paddington I’m only doing the interiors; that’s a major difference.
Karim Rashid defends style!
You said that interior design is often about simply coating surfaces; what about when you design furniture? A criticism that is often made of your work is that it’s just more shapes.
Let me say something. First of all, design is so steeped in style; I would say 90 per cent of it is style. And style is not a bad word, but the design community wants to believe it’s a bad word. Well, it’s about time they started to admit that part of our position and our premise is to shift people’s sensibilities. And you shift sensibilities and you make movements through style. In painting, we speak about style. In fashion, we speak about style. But for some reason in design we don’t want to speak about this thing called style because there’s something superficial about it. But in reality, if I take a Louis XVI chair and make it in another material I’m doing exactly what you just said. If I take the sofa, there’s been tens of thousands of iterations to the point where there’s really nothing left to do. So a lot of it is going to be about form. About changing a form, or changing a material, or changing the technology that produces it, which I’m very interested in – for example, I’ve just done a sofa in Germany that is completely robotically made. There are very few pieces of furniture in the world like this. So when someone sees a form of mine and says, oh, Karim style, they don’t know what’s gone on behind the whole work, and at the same time they have to question what it is. And if it is a sofa there’s not a lot we can do with it any more. So I would argue that almost every well-known designer and all the pieces we see in Milan, for example at the fair – 90 per cent of it is very much style-driven. But we have to start letting go of this word and understand that these are also important factors of our well-being. We need these changes, we need this evolution.
So when you’re designing a sofa you’re really just styling it, whereas when you design a hotel room it’s a deeper process?
There’s really so many more things to deal with. In actual fact, you know what really works with space? Sound is absolutely critical. Smell is critical. I mean there’s nothing worse than going to a good hotel and you walk down the hallway and smelling that same generic shitty carpet cleaner. You know? It’s universal. And it throws you off, and it taints the experience. So when I say experience I mean real experience. When I sit on a couch there are experiences – even the feeling of the cloth; picking the right material. Dealing with issues like… a good example is, I designed a couch that was written about a lot. I found this aerospace fabric in Japan; you could pour a can of Coca-Cola on it and it would sit on it, it wouldn’t seep in, and you could wipe it right off. Amazing material. So I designed the couch around the material. Those are real subtleties that need to be there. I want to ask you a question, because you’ve hit a nerve now. Why is my work style? I could argue from Ron Arad to Ross Lovegrove to Philippe Starck – I could name a plethora of designers…
Karim Rashid challenges Anish Kapoor!
Or here’s another comparison. We did an interview with Anish Kapoor, and he said he hated design because it was all about style, which he thought was superficial. He said that his art involved “discovering content” – creating forms that were symbolic or metaphysical – yet his work still has a clearly identifiable style.
I would love to sit on a panel and have a debate with him about this. I saw a recent project of his which was this huge chrome blob with a tiny model of a man standing beside it [see icon 002]. I have exactly the same thing sitting in my office that I’ve done. The blob is the same blob I’ve been doing for years. I don’t understand his argument. The argument is that the intimidation and experience and feeling of walking around a massive form like that would be incredible. So you should see the object that’s sitting in my office. You would be shocked. It’s that big, chromed, it sits there like that. I don’t want to sound offensive about it because to be honest I don’t really care. I think at the end of the day you know what I realise is? I produce work that tens of thousands of people love in the world. A lot of the products I’ve designed have sold in millions, meaning that people like my work. So I don’t really need to be judged by the design community. The design community has an inherent problem and that is a thing called jealousy. And it will always be there.
You say you’ve only recently started to move into designing spaces, and they’ve been very successful. Is this something you’d like to do more of?
Yeah, very much so. I’m very interested in doing larger projects, larger buildings. I’m doing two buildings right now – the hotel in Brighton and a small, modest hotel in Athens, which opens this fall. And I’ve just started a project for an 11-storey building in San Francisco, which will be a major project. That’s all I can say, I only got the contract a week ago, so I have to be careful.
But I just want to go back to one other thing you said. What I realise, and this has just occurred to me, is that style is a way of… what’s the word… referencing, of speaking about history, so we can categorise things; categorise movements. And I think that’s the fear of the word style; it means you’re just borrowing the language, but in actual fact I think what’s interesting is that’s why I don’t really believe in looking back, I don’t believe in referencing history, because that’s styling. And I think the fashion industry is caught up in that.
You’re seen as being part of the “blob” movement, along with people like Ross Lovegrove and Ron Arad as you said, and architects like Will Alsop. And you’ve described your work as “blobjects”.
Blobject is a word I created, yes. Um, I don’t sit there though. If you really look at my body of work, at some point the form is irrelevant. Meaning that I’ve gone everywhere. That’s not really the issue; the issue is the product itself. If I design a little thing for Issey Miyake, like two little bottles that go inside each other, right, because of the way its moulded and the geometry and everything it became this perfect little cube because it had to be, because the two had to be identical. So it had nothing to do with “blobject”.
In your monograph, I Want to Change the World, the design critic Aaron Betsky describes you as “the first true stylist of data-driven fluidity”.
Oh that’s interesting. I like that. It’s a beautiful term. For example, the whole organic thing is for me unlike the organicism of the Forties, which was all about this idea of trying to be inspired by nature. I’m not inspired by nature at all. I’m inspired by data and the digital age. So I’ve developed some products that I’ve allowed the computer to design. I created a software programme where I made the blobject, where the computer developed the geometry, and evolved the geometry, and I ended up calling it the asexual object because it fucks itself. I showed it in a gallery in New York and I made 30 rapid prototype models in my office from the data and I put them out on a table and you see the object basically screw itself.
And I’ve created geometry that never before in history was plausible. And so I’m actually even allowing the digital age and technology to do things that have never been done before. And why? Because it’s an opportunity to do something original. And the search of most artists in general is to create some level of originality in the world.
So your inspiration comes from data?
Well, that’s one part of it. Inspiration is a very loaded term. The last place it comes from for me is from looking at somebody else’s work or by looking at a book and copying something. Which is, sadly enough, something a lot of people want to believe is inspiration. That’s not inspiration. Inspiration is from your lifetime experiences. In 20 years, I figure I’ve worked with 400 or 500 companies. Which means the amount of production machinery I’m aware of is awe-inspiring to me. The way things are made is inspiring to me. The way people behave – because I travel all over the world, I’m very receptive, I watch behaviour – that inspires me like crazy. So there is a multitude of levels of inspiration. And technology and data is definitely one too. I love technology. Technology for me is ultimately the unifying global language. Binary notation, zeros and ones, is our language. I have a little strange idea about the recreation of the Tower of Babel, that we will reach the heavens because we are all becoming one culture once again. And it’s the technological revolution that is bringing us to that point.
Karim Rashid bangs his head!
What else can you tell us about the Brighton and Paddington hotels? What will be new?
The first thing is that when you walk into a space, things have to be seamless. You shouldn’t really have to think very much. The plug-and-play movement of the last ten years is exactly that. We don’t really read manuals any more. There’s nothing worse than buying a piece of technology and having to sit down with a manual. So that’s number one. So when you walk into a hotel space, if there’s new technologies in the room, they need to be seamless. So that’s definitely going to be taken care of.
Number two is that the whole physical, literal experience will be at ease. So, for example, automated things in the bathroom, or lights that are automated via voice recognition, or the fact that there’s no sharp corners anywhere. Maybe because I’m 6ft 4in, I’ve spent my whole life bumping into things and scarring myself. There’s a gym right next door to here and I was on the treadmill yesterday. When I ran I smacked my head on the ceiling. I can’t even have a good experience in the gym. So I want those things to be seamless. It’s like service. Service is number one in hotels. If service is great, it’s irrelevant what the physical experience is like.
I stayed at what is considered to be the best hotel in North America – the Four Seasons in Chicago. It’s absurd. A room this small, $600 (£375) a night. At the end of my trip I went to the front desk and they said by the way we’ve got some faxes for you. One was dated two days before, the other one day before. Why weren’t these delivered to my room? That’s service. I left very angry at the hotel, realising I’d missed some important issues. I got in the limo to go to the airport thinking I’ll never stay at that fucking place again. Now, I can’t design service – obviously – but I can definitely design experiences. You can sit with your clients and be catalytic to a lot of those things. You can talk to your clients and say we should worry about these things. I do that when I design restaurants.
Design is often used as a replacement for service – it’s a designer environment, so they don’t feel they need to try so hard.
Maybe, I don’t know. Anyway what you really need to do is… it’s rare you go to a hotel and think “wow, that was an amazing experience, I can’t wait to be back”. So if somebody says that about one of the hotels I’m doing, that would be the kind of remark I’d like.
Your book is called I Want to Change the World. How do you want to change it, and why?
You know, from the moment I wake up, and I’m lying on a bed that has a stupid headboard – which no one’s ever figured out yet – and I get up and go to the bathroom, and I look at the fucking counter, and the way the sink is styled and the knobs, and then I have to brush my teeth and I have to go through all the banalities of life, and I think to myself we’re living in a world where people design for us, and we just accept it. Just as we accept conformity. You know, we were brought up as children to be like everybody else. So I think the world has been designed this way, I didn’t design it, what can I contribute to the world, and how can I reshape it? And when I say reshape it, I don’t want to create a single utopia for everybody – that’s too complex and enormous – but I want to see if I can contribute in pockets, where I can elevate people’s experiences, and bring some kind of heightened level of pleasure through physical space and physical goods.
A lot of people in the UK bitch about you and your work…
Who’s a lot of people? Who’s a lot of people? You’re unfair as a journalist to say that. You gotta say who. Who? Qualify it. If they’re bitching about me then obviously I’m doing something right. So anyway, why are they bitching?
Maybe it’s a British thing… maybe people think you’re all about style. Maybe also because they don’t like someone who says things like “I want to change the world”…
I think you change the world in many different ways. I write a lot, and if you read what I write, I think it has a big impact on a lot of people. I think as an educator for 12 years I’ve done an amazing amount in America. And I think a lot of that is more relevant to the United States and more appreciated in the United States, because I tell you 12 years ago before I opened my practice in New York, design was almost a non-subject. It’s now a popular subject and I’ve made it a popular subject not through my work but more through what I’ve had to say. I’ve gone through every shopping mall in America and I’ve spoken to everybody and everything. And I’ve produced a lot of product that’s very mass-market in America, and things that are incredibly successful. So I have changed America to a certain extent. That was my agenda when I got there because remember, I’m Canadian.
But I just want to say, the statement “I want to change the world”… I think the part that really bothers a lot of people is that it sounds arrogant. Now, if I was Eminem and I said that, nobody would have a problem, because that’s the problem with the design profession – there’s a certain kind of strange paradigm of the way we’ve been brought up about how we’re supposed to behave, and the messages we send out to the world. But in fact the artist’s agenda is to change the world.
Karim Rashid attacks a telephone!
It seems that you enjoy the ripples that statement created.
I was setting myself up! What I realise by saying that is I created an amazing amount of controversy. In every country, people interpreted it differently. In Italy, people love it – it’s in their blood to feel proactive, like they’re doing something in the world. The British are conservative, you know I’m half British – my mother is British – so I know the whole thing. You’re very careful about what you say, you don’t just go and spew your mouth. So every culture… the French: half of them hate me and the other half say: finally someone had the guts to say it. You know how many young designers around the world come up to me and congratulate me? They feel like I opened some door for them.
It’s amazing what that inspires. It’s about saying, now it’s time to take some responsibility for what we create. It’s about saying, let’s make design as important to popular culture as everything else is, because design has never been an important subject. I was in Selfridges just now and I walked the floors, the fashion floor, I look at this and look at that, and I get to the furniture floor and it’s kind of trite – like, you feel frustrated in a way. You know what? We want to believe people care about this stuff but they still don’t quite care about it. There’s never been the messages and the information for them to care about it.
No one’s really said that last year in America – and it’s probably the same here – home furnishings outsold clothing for the first time ever: $220 billion (£138bn) spent on home furnishings, and clothing was something like $210bn. This huge fashion business which we all buy into is smaller than all this stuff, from this bowl to that couch to this pillow. And who talks about it? Who knows how many objects you interact with a day? I calculated with my students that on average you interact with 520 objects a day, and nobody has a thing to say about it. Where did this stuff come from?
Look, you know why I want to change the world? Look at that phone sitting in the corner there. It’s a piece of shit. And not only is it a piece of shit but roughly since I was born the phone has not evolved. The mobile phone is something different, but a line phone is sitting there and the handset still doesn’t fit properly into the cradle. Figure that one out. I was just in my room and every time, I realised my phone was off the hook because the handset didn’t wanna sit in the cradle. We should be seamless at this stuff by now, don’t you think? And that’s what I’m going to do, that’s my agenda. I’m trying to do something better.
1960 born in Cairo, Egypt
1982 receives Bachelor of Industrial Design from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He later studies under Ettore Sottsass in Naples and works in Milan
1993 sets up Karim Rashid Inc in New York.
1996 designs Garbo five-gallon waste-paper bin, of which over two million have been sold
2000 gives all his black clothes to charity and starts wearing white instead
2001 releases monograph, I Want to Change the World
2003 edits International Design Yearbook