Eight years ago, Karim Rashid was sleeping on the floor of his brother's New York apartment while peddling his industrial design portfolio from office to unreceptive office. That didn't last long, though: Two years later, the Museum of Modern Art included a couple of his pieces in a show called "Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design." Today he's spending the nights—when he's not on a job or lecturing—in his own sleek loft, recently featured in Metropolitan Home. He is, quite simply, the top product designer in North America. The press has noticed, and articles about Rashid have appeared in more than 30 magazines, arguably making him the 21st century's first designer celebrity. All this fits his ambitions fine, because at 41, Rashid has made it clear he's after more than a good name: He's out to dominate the world of modern design.
"His work is amazing, terrific; he's one of the hottest and most exciting young designers working in the field today," says Marilyn Symmes, a curator at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.
At an appearance in Washington, D.C. this past spring, Rashid dressed in black and wore oversized, mod, plastic-framed glasses, bright-orange running shoes and two immense blob-like silver rings—he has designed several products on the "blob" theme. He looked... well, very cool.
He calls his design style "sensuous minimalism." It combines clean and simple lines with soft, rounded, organic, even biomorphic, shapes, resulting in objects that are beautiful and interesting despite their lack of ornamentation. "His designs are always fun. Even though he draws a lot of inspiration from other design eras, he reinterprets them in a very futuristic way," says Paul Rowan, vice president of Umbra, a Toronto home-accessories manufacturing company that was one of Rashid's first clients.
As a product designer, Rashid creates the stuff of daily domestic life: sofas, chairs, candlesticks, table lamps, CD players, perfume bottles, cigarette lighters and, recently, rooms to put all that stuff in. His designs reflect his philosophy of living completely in the present. "I want to develop things that are about this day and age in which we live, because the reality is, we don't live in the past. If I go out tomorrow to buy a coffee table for my home, why isn't that coffee table a kind of celebration, why isn't it in a relationship to this day and age?" Rashid asks.
His shapes are possible because he creates his designs on computers. He's enamored of technology and how its efficiencies reduce manufacturing costs, allowing him to be a designer for the middle-brow masses, not just for habitués of high-end galleries. It takes only $8.00 to buy his best-selling product so far, a curvaceous translucent-plastic wastebasket named Garbo, introduced by Umbra in 1996 and sold throughout North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Garbo is "not just a garbage can," Rowan says. "It's a beautiful vessel that's used in a variety of ways, from champagne bucket to child's toy container."
Underlying Rashid's tremendous talent is no less passion. "I do what I do because I want to. It's in my DNA. It's a personal obsession," he says. He visited 100 companies in his first year or so and only two took him on: Umbra and Nambé, a manufacturer of decorative tableware and accessories in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He still travels a lot, and last year he spent some 200 nights in hotels meeting with clients, attending trade shows, giving lectures and visiting manufacturers to learn about new production methods. "He has a very deep knowledge of industrial processes and materials and techniques, and his product design grows out of that," says Kathryn Hiesinger, curator of decorative arts and design at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
On the road or in New York, Rashid is a blur of multi-tasking motion. He puts in more than 70 hours a week, including weekends, and he rarely takes time off. His brain seems to operate in overdrive, and he is overflowing with observations and opinions about design, all of which he imparts with keen intelligence and the evangelical, self-promoting zeal that is a key to his current popularity: Who else can get people excited about waste baskets, lobby chairs and the feel of a 99-cent cigarette lighter? Last year he ended a decade of teaching at three top US design schools to finish up his first book, Karim Rashid: I Want to Change the World, released in July.
Rashid's roots are far from the New York scene. He was born in Cairo to an Egyptian father and a British mother. The family left Egypt when he was two years old and later settled in Toronto, where his father, an artist by training, worked as a set designer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He encouraged his son's interest in art and design. At 12, the younger Rashid painted his bedroom orange. "My mom was upset, but my father loved it," he says.
He earned industrial design degrees from Carleton University in Ottawa, attended graduate school in Naples, and worked in Milan for a year before returning to Toronto to work for KAN Industrial Designers. He started at the bottom, making things like space heaters and a drug-detection machine used by customs officials. His first big seller was a plastic snow shovel.
He followed his elder brother Hani, an architect, to New York and opened Karim Rashid Inc. in 1993. In the years following the display at the Museum of Modern Art, more than 70 of his designs have been added to permanent collections in museums worldwide. His client list includes household names— Sony, Armani, Tommy Hilfiger and Estee Lauder—and some surprises: ConEdison, Union Carbide and the Canadian postal service. These days, he's working hardest on a new frontier, interior decorating, starting with hotels in Los Angeles and New York; he's also doing architecture for another hotel in Athens.
Interestingly, Rashid does not consider himself successful—yet. "I think I am just beginning," he says. If that's the case, his future accomplishments just may include taking over the world. No doubt he'd make it a much cooler place.
Susan Mandel is a freelance writer who lives in Northern Virginia.