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"Today, if a company doesn't have a designer, it's over - design is the only brand differentiation left." - Karim Rashid
FUNCTION AND FORM: The Kaj wrist watch for Alessi.
FUNCTION AND FORM: Bobble Infuse bottles, used to steep fruits in water.
FUNCTION AND FORM: Oh Chair which is made from recycled polypropylene for houseware manufacturer Umbra

Relentlessly modern

Industrial designer Karim Rashid says design is not art and art is not design - design provides some level of performance in daily life.
Aug 20, 2016 5:50 AM

THEY call him Mr Pink, but don't confuse Karim Rashid with some cult character from a Quentin Tarantino film - even though he's had more than his fair share of close-ups. He may have a patented look - wearing only pink or white in public - but it's his patented products that have made a significant impact on the world we live in.

As one of the world's most prolific and well-travelled industrial designers, the Cairo-born, England-raised, Canada-bred and New York-based Rashid - whose style has been called relentlessly modern - is constantly in demand, constantly in motion, moving from one city to the next and working on a wide range of projects, from home furnishing and brand identity to packaging and hotel design.

He was in Singapore this week to conduct a masterclass at Lasalle on the future of design in the digital age, followed by a talk as part of the college's Public Lecture Series.

Over a 30-year career, Rashid, who turns 56 next month, has been responsible for some iconic creations, including the mass-market Garbo wastebasket (1996) and Oh Chair (1999) - both made from recycled polypropylene for houseware manufacturer Umbra - that have sold in the millions. Both have been deemed museum-worthy: the Garbo resides in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection in New York - not bad for a humble trash can.

Before he made pink masculine or trash glamorous, Rashid was an aspiring designer (who studied engineering and architecture at university), struggling to prove that he had the talent to create objects that people wanted to buy.

"In the early 90s, I called on a hundred companies in the US, hoping to start a project - I got one," he recalls. A company in New Mexico commissioned him to design a series of alloy bowls. "The reason is most of those companies were not interested in design; design was like a bad thing for the industry and not many companies had the need for a designer.

"Today, if a company doesn't have a designer, it's over - design is the only brand differentiation left."

Over the years, the soft-spoken designer has become something of a brand himself, with organic designs for global brands that have been described as "blobular" - hence his other nickname: Mr Blobjects. In 2001, Rashid published a book, I Want to Change the World. He still strives to do that through his work, but what he really wants is not to be pigeon-holed.

"Recently, a lot of people I respect have died - (fashion designer) Andre Courreges, David Bowie - and I started realising that when I die, what are people going to be writing about?" he muses, dressed in all white, from his eyewear down to his socks, shoes and glossy nail polish.

What would he want his epitaph to read? "That I was an inspirer, not a designer. At the end of the day, a chair is a chair."

Rashid wears many hats, preferring not to be confined to a category or defined as one thing or another.

He has performed as a professional DJ and also exhibited as an artist, although he is quick to emphasise the need to differentiate art from design.

"Design is not art, art is not design - design is addressing the human experience, providing some level of performance in daily life," he says. "As an artist I am completely selfish but as a designer I have to be selfless."

Even after more than three decades, he retains a fresh perspective for each commission. "I'm extremely excited to see a new project, I've never gotten bored and it's never banal or routine," he says. "With each project, I'm desperately trying to do something original and relevant, pushing my DNA to see if there is something I can offer.

"I need criteria to work with. If a client doesn't give me criteria, I make one up."

He cites the example of a chair he was asked to design where the parameters were not defined, so he intentionally reduced dimensions so that it could fit into smaller spaces.

"A lot of what we design doesn't really work; designers tend to fall into the kind of moment of visual impact and we tend to forget the rest of it - I'm interested in things that are about now, and everything I make is super functional."

Aspiring young designers are apt to forget that industrial design is still tied to manufacturing and mass production, he says. "Young designers aspire to do something special, not something that's for daily use - it's not about a good product anymore, it's about self-expression and being poetic." Those elitist ideas were introduced in the 1980s but times have changed, he says. "These days, everyday products - such as ceiling fans - are getting better."

Rashid draws inspiration from observing people and human behaviour around the world - he has worked in over 40 countries. "There's something about us - and modern technology - that inspires me," he says.

He designs for the masses and restricts the self-expression to the way he dresses, including the hard-to-miss collection of symbols tattooed on his body. Each bold work of body art - 21 from 20 countries and counting - is a reference to something inspirational or personally relevant, with the next tattoo scheduled for Tel Aviv in 2017.

He says his personal philosophy is all about living in the here and now. "If you live in the past, you're not alive."