Karim Rashid wants to talk to you about your stuff
From pillowcases to alarm clocks, shoelaces to phones, the design of the material world shapes our everyday experience. The average person, according to Karim Rashid, touches more than 600 objects each day.
In his keynote lecture for the “Cultural Shaping” exhibition at the Ottawa Art Gallery, Rashid argued that our interactions with the material world should be seamless and gratifying to our senses. Each of us would wear the minimum amount of clothing required for comfort. Tools and software would operate from fingerprint recognition, freeing us from the need to carry keys and remember passcodes. Design would no longer be a physical barrier, but would instead simply announce the transition from one activity to another. There would be no purses full of clutter, no mountains of laundry, no extraneous buttons on our clothes. In this futuristic utopia, traditional architecture would begin to dissolve, and spaces would be defined by screens and projections. Our material world would be as bright and as instantly satisfying as Times Square at night.
Rashid made his point with his words and his clothes. Clad in pink and white sunglasses, tight, translucent white jeans, a white undershirt and a preppy pink sweatshirt with the armpits cunningly and seductively removed, Rashid used his own clothing choices to underscore how the edge of the human body constitutes the beginning of the designer’s project. Normally, this writer would refrain from commenting on a speaker’s wardrobe or body, but Rashid placed his physical presence on the agenda, referring again and again to the interface between the physical body and the material world.
Rashid’s talk, “On the Future of Design,” was full of pithy assertions. Some of them were true. There were two main lines of argument: first, that the way to reduce humanity’s reliance on the material world is to design new, flexible, recyclable products. The second was that the current global mood of confusion and instability can be directly attributed to the transition from the “analog age” which began when humanity first forged tools 50,000 years to the “digital age,” which apparently turned 40 last year.
As Rashid spoke, images of his products floated across the screen behind him: Method soap dispensers, Umbra’s Oh Chair and Garbo wastebasket were some of the most recognizable consumer goods. Rashid’s firm has also designed numerous hotel and apartment interiors worldwide. Rashid spoke of his joy at operating a global design firm, and of the ease of travel from site to site, making his career as spreader of design goodwill easier than say, Frank Lloyd Wright, who had to travel by boat and wait weeks for replies to his letters.
In Rashid’s ideal travel world, flight attendants and hotel receptionists would all be replaced by touch screens and robots. Why? Because social interactions with strangers are “hit or miss,” vulnerable to the vagaries of human mood and personality. In Rashid’s ideal world, we would limit our interactions to positive exchanges; the boundaries of our physical and emotional existence framed by cheerful biomorphic plastic forms.
Rashid’s forms, of course, are wonderful, and the installation of his work at the OAG is excellent. Since graduating from Carleton in 1982, Rashid has designed bottles, chairs, lights and tables for some of the world’s best-known and most prolific companies. The forms are bubbly and optimistic, many of them echo the body-conscious work of Eva Zeisel, Eero Saarinen, and Aino and Alvar Aalto. In the brightly-lit gallery space, the forms of his work shine appealingly.
Rashid is under no illusion that we live in a world of unsustainable materials; almost all of his work is manufactured in some kinds of plastic. Design, he argued, should not be forever: recyclable plastic bottles deserve more attention that tombstones. Rashid cheerfully lanced one of sustainability’s favourite targets when he compared the environmental impact of 1.2 billion cars now on the road, each vehicle now up to 80% polymer content in addition to its emissions; with the lowly, but controversial drinking straw. Another reality check was airplane travel: Boeing’s new Dreamliner is 75% polymer, and very little of the plane will end up in the recycling basket. Rashid’s omnipresent consumer items are undoubtedly being thrown the global waste pile as you read this.
However, he is keenly aware of the boundaries of his role of industrial designer within a capitalist system. His clients hire him to help sell their products, after all, and he is under no illusion that he is an artist operating without market constraints. Rashid is keenly aware of the potential and the environmental impact of the materials he uses, and his firm has done several projects which have pioneered waste reduction.
In the future, he believes, a well-designed world will free us from toxic waste and the current “tumultuous tightrope of fear” brought about by the transition from the analog to the digital. Freed from material constraints, we will all be creators, and our world will be more beautiful. I can’t have been the only one in his audience who doubted Rashid’s optimism, but I can’t help hoping he’s right. See the show.
Karim Rashid: Cultural Shaping/Forme Culturelle is at the Ottawa Art Gallery until February 10, 2019. Admission to the gallery is free.