WHAT is Karim Rashid on? Whatever it is, I want some. The "greatest living designer in all the Americas" has created a dizzying number of products, as well as more prototypes than you can shake a stick at. That would be a plastic stick, of course, because the prolific Rashid is the poet of plastic, the prophet of polypropylene, although he sees himself as a philosopher and an artist who happens to be a designer.
This unshakeable self-belief has led to accusations of pretentiousness from some quarters, while the design dynamo himself has created a hostage to fortune by writing a sumptuously produced monograph-manifesto ambitiously entitled I Want to Change the World - and he means it. If Rashid could change the world, you would have to throw out everything you own every five years. "Every object would have to be perfectly cyclical so as not to collect waste," he explains. "Generations would not be able to pass down anything in its original form. The idea of antiquity would be a simulation."
So it’s out with the Wedgwood plates and the Chippendale chairs then? "I loathe antiques," says Rashid, whose latest book, Karim Rashid: Evolution, has just been published. In it he surveys his products and projects, which number several thousand. The book features luscious colour images of his designs for everything from soap dispensers to perfume bottles for Issey Miyake and Rashid’s own cyber-couture fashion, as well as tableware, furnishings and interiors. The text, set in sexy shapes that emulate Rashid’s logos, tells of his desire to create a world filled with "sensual minimalism".
Minimalist his designs may be, but Rashid, who is surely the world’s most industrious industrial designer, is so productive that it is difficult to work out whether more is less or less is more in his vision. In 2003 alone, he designed 324 new products that went into manufacture. Not surprisingly, he has been acclaimed as "a channeler of the zeitgeist". And it all started in 1996 when he created a wastepaper bin.
His colourful, inexpensive, sensuously shaped plastic bin - an astonishing three million of which have been sold - comes in jolly colours such as lilac or lime green and has become one of the most covetable objects sold around the world in recent years. It’s a wastepaper bin that makes you want to throw things away - if you are not using it as a vase, say, or a champagne bucket. But if you don’t own a Garbo, you will most certainly have been sitting comfortably somewhere on an Oh, his ubiquitous cheap-as-chips stackable plastic chair. These techno-organic objects - or "blobjects", as he describes them - have become instant icons since their launch in 1999.
The Rashid revolution, though, has only just begun. As the architecture and design critic Marisa Bartolucci points out, the designer is "fluent in state-of-the-art computer and manufacturing technologies and is a media-savvy sloganeer".
The whip-thin 6ft4in 44-year-old looks like a rock star or a rapper. He favours chunky bling-bling rings and his own-design silver "blob" jewellery. Indeed, in November 2003, I was at a swish party marking the launch a new homeware store on New York’s Sixth Avenue and saw Rashid being mobbed by autograph-hunters. Wearing a white leather suit, white-rimmed shades and luminous orange-and-white shoes, he was surrounded by giggling teenagers on the red carpet, while men in grey suits circled him protectively. Everyone wanted a piece of Rashid. Certainly, that evening everyone bought a piece - since he had designed a range of inexpensive funky containers for the store.
But then the radical Rashid specialises in reasonably priced objects of desire. Half-Egyptian and half-English (his late father designed sets for television shows and his teacher mother is from Yorkshire), he has won 50-odd awards for his work. Please don’t ask what a sensual minimalist does with the inevitable dust-gathering trophies that accompany all those glittering prizes. "It’s time the trophy thing changed," he says. "It’s kitsch." They are functionless things, and Rashid prefers his objects to have form and function.
"I’ve lost count of exactly how many things I’ve designed now," he admits when we meet in his Chelsea studio in downtown New York, which he shares with his team of a dozen designers. Dazzling white, with rainbow-hued metallic and plastic furniture and shelves full of his neon-coloured designs (including those iconic Issey Miyake perfume bottles and his shapely containers for homely washing-up liquid), the studio has a meeting room where we sit on orange and turquoise plastic chairs at a lime-green glass table.
He lives in a large loft above the studio with his wife, the digital painter Megan Lang. The couple, who married in 1995, sport matching tattoos based on the recurring vocabulary of symbols he uses in his work, such as the plus sign for love. Theirs is a "perfect" marriage, he confides - and the foxy Lang can be found looking model-girl glamorous, reclining with her husband, across various curvaceous sofas in Evolution. In some of their publicity shots, she wears only that tattoo and crimson lipstick.
Toweringly tall, trendily attired and with close-cropped hair, his zippy orange leather boots complementing his orange plastic watch, Rashid dresses only in pristine white, and has a penchant for the French designer Alain Mikli’s outr square-shaped spectacles. At the end of 1999, to mark the new millennium, Rashid gave his 30 black designer-label suits to a charity shop in the city; black was the past, white the future. He says that he and Lang live their lives forwards, not backwards, hence his inability to remember his many achievements - although his website and 15-page CV will reveal all, he points out modestly as he sips a glass of water.
The softly spoken Rashid (who is currently working on his first UK commissions - a hotel in Brighton and another in London’s Paddington, for the MyHotel boutique chain) has a go at recalling the flood of design objects, furniture, homeware, fashion and art he has unleashed on the world since establishing Karim Rashid Inc and becoming New York’s answer to Philippe Starck.
The list includes watches, trainers, throwaway cigarette lighters, packaging for Prada’s unique disposable daily cosmetics range, ashtrays, plastic pens, salt and pepper shakers, board games, a cremation urn, kettles, snow shovels, mobile phones, phone boxes, shoes, glassware, portable computers, mail boxes, spectacles, and a rubber chess set that was bought by 23,000 people in just six weeks, as well as fabulously futuristic furniture and organically shaped interiors for up-market restaurants. He has just finished work on a new hotel in Athens, the Semiramis, of which he is immensely proud.
There’s more, much more, but suffice it to say his clients include Este Lauder, Giorgio Armani, Alessi, Maybelline (he once offered them 20 designs for one lipstick case), Ralph Lauren, Sony, Tommy Hilfiger, Davidoff, YSL, Umbra, Yahoo and Black & Decker. He designed astonishing millennial manhole covers for Con Edison, and in Manhattan you can actually walk all over Rashid. "I don’t want to specialise," he says decisively. "And anyway, I work like a maniac; I have a tendency to do way too much. I always do six things at once, which means I’m never bored."
Cairo-born, but raised and educated in Canada, he has no truck with nostalgia and loathes the current mania for retro style. "I’m kind of sick of the past. The here-and-now is all we’ve got," he says, speaking at a rate that befits someone who rarely sleeps more than a few hours a night.
"We’re living in a time of disposability. What that means is you can perpetually have newness, you can change with the times and stay technologically on top, which is why I want to shape the future of the world."
But does our beleaguered planet need more plastic things? "I’ve heard that question a lot," replies Rashid. "The reality is that we need to use the materials that are around today. Plastic has revolutionised history. Our bodies can be replaced - 68% of our parts can be replaced with polymers and plastic. I just want to bring people up to speed. We should live for today. That’s why I say for everything you buy, give away another thing, so you stay at equilibrium and never consume more than you need. Consume experiences, not things - accomplish addition by subtraction. That’s what I say to the environmentalists.
So, in Rashid’s "rave new world", every product manufactured would replace three others. Multifunctionality is the dominant theme of his work. "Of course I care about the environment," he says. "I think that in the future we will have many more products and experiences, but we will own nothing. Everything will be cyclical, sustainable, biodegradable and seamless. The idea of permanence will be obsolete in everything from architecture to commodities. I look forward to the day when everything will be immaterial - when even great sex will be virtual."
Achieving his plan means Rashid has to juggle more than 40 projects at once. He is currently designing furniture and lighting for a dozen prestigious companies. He is also working on a plastic-covered bicycle, some avant-garde television sets, a range of glassware, interiors for restaurants in New York, Moscow and Mexico, and he has just opened his own shop a few blocks from his studio, on West 19th Street.
It’s like walking into a big jar of boiled sweets. Here he sells his own designs for everything from sinuous glass vases to those famous "bits and blobs" of plastic, from chairs to ball-point pens. There’s also a customised clothing collection promised, which will be sold on the internet, and in the future he’ll be designing carpets, toys, baths and toilets for a German company, as well as street furniture for Japan. And then there are the two CDs: Rashid composes ambient music, and in his spare time - which he surely hasn’t got much of - he DJs around the New York club scene. According to his website, you can hire him for parties. He has also created numerous art objects and has had three shows of his work in New York - an acclaimed exhibition of one-off prototypes at the Sandra Gering Gallery in Chelsea closed only last month.
Rashid’s plan for world domination includes changing the way we look at hotel living, so he’s interested in presenting a sensibility that is more human, more original and less "boutiquey" in MyPad and MyBright, as he refers to the two British projects. Sci-fi electronic check-ins, the use of digital fingerprints to open doors instead of keys, fully automated bathrooms and lighting that is controlled by voice recognition are all being considered for his hotels of the future. He is rethinking everything about the hotel experience, from the lighting to the sound our feet make as we cross the lobby. "Staying in a hotel should make people think about their own homes. I want guests to go away relaxed, but thinking how boring and banal their own surroundings are."
THE YOUNG Karim Rashid grew up in Canada in surroundings that were anything but banal and boring. He and his older brother and younger sister were raised on the idea of sensuous minimalism. Every Sunday his father, Mahmoud, used to move the furniture around in their house. "Sometimes he would cut a hole in a wall to change the vista in a room. Now I like to relax by rearranging the furniture in our loft, so I guess I’m my father’s son, which is my proudest claim."
Rashid has been called "the prophet of a new and better way of life", and, as Marisa Bartolucci has written, it would be difficult to genetically engineer someone more suited to such a destiny. His parents met as art students in Rome, and married while completing their studies in Paris. After living for some years in Rome and then London, they moved to Toronto, where Mahmoud became a set designer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It was a close family, always open to change. In addition to reconfiguring the furniture, Mahmoud would draw a pattern and sew a new dress for his wife, Joyce, every Sunday evening.
Inevitably, the young Karim, who was "shy and introverted", wanted to become a fashion designer, although he was also a belting ice-hockey player. In high school, he became a DJ and graduated wearing a home-made pink satin suit. He had custom-made white leather boots that were "more outrageous than anything Kiss ever wore", dyed his hair pink and painted his fingernails to match.
The rag trade is in his genes anyway - his maternal grandfather was a founder of Ian R England, the venerable Yorkshire textile firm famous for its worsted wool.
At Carleton University, in Ottowa, Rashid studied industrial design. "Having been brought up as a painter, I kept wondering where the poetry was," he recalls. He felt that design should be intensely personal, but such views were not popular and he almost didn’t get his degree. After graduating, he spent six months in Naples studying with two of the "deities of modern design", Ettore Sottsass and Gaetano Pesce.
On his return, he began working for companies such as Black & Decker and Samsung. His innovative proposals included a kettle made from coloured, clear-tint polypropylene, which was greeted with blank stares. Ten years later, Apple used the same plastic casing for its iMac. In 1985 he and two architect friends founded a fashion company which wound down within a few years. In the late 1980s he began teaching, and in 1991 became an assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. His contract was terminated after a year. "Design is taught as if it’s about ‘making’," he says. "I don’t think design has anything to do with making. I wanted my students to think about issues concerning phenomenology, anthropology, commodity."
At the school, despite meeting, falling in love with and marrying Megan Lane, he was miserable. "I wanted to leave the profession," he says. "I was really fed up."
Today there may be more than 70 pieces of his work in the permanent collections of 14 museums around the world, but after his unhappy Rhode Island Design School experience Rashid was so broke and depressed that he was sleeping on his brother Hani’s floor in Manhattan.
Hani, whose own company has been at the cutting edge of computer-generated architecture, encouraged his brother to set up a design studio in New York. After six weeks with him, Rashid rented an apartment. It had neither a kitchen nor a shower. His studio consisted of a mattress and a Mac computer. He lost 30lbs, surviving on a diet of corn and pasta. He became very ill and intellectually lonely. "It was hard; I was penniless. But I persevered," he says.
He pitched ideas to more than 100 companies, targeting up-market European manufacturers, as well as "some really awful icons of American manufacturing". Only one company responded, Namb, a little tableware company in Santa Fe. Rashid "elongated, squashed and skewed" the company’s classic modern forms into technomorphic shapes and proposed 100 new designs, of which 33 went into production.
Throughout the early 1990s, he also bombarded the Canadian housewares company Umbra with his designs. They rejected everything - "but I kept going". Eventually, he proposed some inexpensive wastepaper bins with handles in translucent, acid-pastel-hued virgin polypropylene. Umbra liked them. A focus group least liked the Garbo, with its swooping rim. It was Rashid’s favourite, however, and Umbra’s executives put it into production. The rest, as they say, is industrial design history.
One of the secrets of Rashid’s success, he says, is his ability to edit his life. If he acquires something new for his home, he always gives away a similar object. "I do not want to live in a regressive environment," he says. "I have no ambition to be associated with the past at all. The past is pointless." In any case, he adds, all material goods are somehow transient. "My life experience is much more important to me."
The oldest thing in his loft is a Rosenthal vase from 1951 and he has a couple of vintage Bang & Olufsen stereos dating from the late 1960s and 1970s. He owns a few Memphis pieces and Sottsass’s iconic penis vase; otherwise, everything is his own design.
"I really am interested in everyday things, the banal stuff that costs only a few bucks. I think design has never been in that market. But just because people have very little money, they shouldn’t have to put up with bad products."
If, heaven forbid, his home and studio were to go up in flames, after his beloved wife what would he save? "Oh, the hard drive on my computer," he quickly replies.
"My life is on there. With that I could become smart, creative, organised and rich again. I’ll always work. I love it, and I love multi-tasking - laziness is the Antichrist." n
Karim Rashid: Evolution (Thames & Hudson, 29.95); www.karimrashid.com