Karim Rashid: Reshaping Culture One Design at a Time
A visionary in the design world, Karim Rashid has made his mark across the globe and returns to Canada with his exhibition at the Ottawa Art Gallery.
Inspiring. Prolific. Revolutionary. These are but a few words that describe the force that is Karim Rashid.
With more than 4,000 projects in production ranging from tableware to furniture and buildings, Rashid’s style is recognizable, employing striking shapes and colours while ensuring a perfect balance between form and function. As Rashid says, “Good design is when function and form or esthetics are inseparable.” The designer has worked in over 45 countries and has earned hundreds of awards and distinctions over the years.
This fall and winter, his work is being displayed at the Ottawa Art Gallery in a retrospective exhibition, Karim Rashid: Cultural Shaping (October 2018 to February 2019). Although Rashid has previously had retrospectives in various places around the globe, including Seoul, São Paulo, Munich and Moscow, this will be the first large-scale presentation of his work in Canada, the country he called home during his youth.
Rashid grew up with his family in Toronto. There began his love for design, enriched by his father’s creativity. Rashid’s father was an artist as well, a painter who went on to become a set designer for film and television, including the CBC, to support the family. Rashid credits being exposed, to art and design at a young age for his own love of design and success in the industry. “Being around him and that environment when I was a child, it was something that was almost like second nature,” says Rashid. “There [were] so many instruments to draw with at home, and there were stacks of books on architects and industrial designers and fashion designers and painters and artists, so I think I was programmed from a very young age.”
Rashid graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa in 1982. “You could argue that my education and the beginning of my career is Ottawa,” he says. After graduation, Rashid pursued postgraduate studies in Milan, then returned to Toronto for a few years, working with various design firms, before moving to New York to open his own design firm, which he has run for the past 25 years. More than three decades on, he is now returning to his roots with his Ottawa-based exhibition.
“Good design is when function and form or esthetics are inseparable”
Cultural Shaping will feature in excess of 200 of Rashid’s award-winning projects, including the Garbino trash can and the Oh chair, both designed for Umbra, as well as furniture for BoConcept. This impressive retrospective will illustrate what drives and inspires the designer. The title of the exhibition itself encapsulates his philosophy. “I always saw design as cultural shaping,” says Rashid, “and if you look at history … almost all of it we understand through artifact, through physicality.” By way of example, he explains how we can gain understanding of the Ming dynasty by analyzing a single urn. “It captures the civility of the time, the politics of the time, even the technology of how that urn was made [at] the time, so we shape culture through our physical commodity,” says Rashid. “We know that history through the physicality of the objects shaping things that we embraced and used.” Based on the object’s style and composition, we can glean information about the culture of the time it was created, because the way we create is indicative of the way we live.
In his own design, Rashid captures the present moment while also adding new aspects to change perceptions and challenge the status quo, whether by using new technologies, materials or production methods, or by highlighting issues of sustainability. “I’m just trying to make the world function and feel better … more seamless and more experiential and more positive and more energetic,” says Rashid. “[I’m] trying to bring these qualities, things that I personally need to be inspired or to feel alive — I’m trying to give that to others.”
Based on his style, people sometimes assume incorrectly that Rashid is not environmentally conscious. His plastic designs and striking colours do not conform to society’s prescribed signifiers of eco-consciousness. “We have this language of sustainability, right — it’s brown, wood, green, concrete floor — but it doesn’t have to be that way at all,” says Rashid. “I do all these crazy, beautiful printed colour floors with a company in Germany where the floors are completely biodegradable.” And in a project that debuted in 2014, he revolutionized plastic work by creating an injection-moulded chair made of plastic derived from sugar, instead of petroleum, named the Siamese chair.
When asked about his proudest accomplishment, rather than cite a specific project or design element, Rashid speaks about being an inspiration to others. The thought that students and young designers look up to him is one of the things that keeps him going. “To me, that’s more of an important accomplishment than the object itself, because at the end of the day you could make a great chair, but so what? There’s a million chairs — it’s not really going to change the world,” he says.
A single chair may not change the world, but undoubtedly Karim Rashid — with his innovations and his legacy — will continue to do just that.