How to Become an Internationally-Recognised Design Superstar with Karim Rashid
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How to Become an Internationally-Recognised Design Superstar with Karim Rashid

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Karim Rashid is one of the most prolific designers of his generation. He has over 3000 designs in production, has won over 300 awards and has worked in over 35 countries. His work features in 20 permanent collections and he exhibits art in galleries worldwide. He is also a perennial winner of the Red Dot award, Chicago Athenaeum Good Design award, I.D. Magazine Annual Design Review, and the IDSA Industrial Design Excellence award. He holds honorary doctorates from the Ontario college of Art & Design and Corcoran College of Art & Design. Karim is a frequent guest lecturer at universities and conferences globally, disseminating the importance of design in everyday life.

But how does one go about forging such an impressive international career? Here at Freshome this is something we just had to find out and we were sure that you guys would also love to hear the story of Karim’s Rashid’s rise to dizzying heights of the design hall of fame. We also asked him for his top tips and advice for making it to the top. Here is what he had to say:

Have you always wanted to become a designer? Can you describe the moment that you first knew that this was the path you wanted to take in life?

KR. I realised my life’s mission at the age of five in London. I went sketching with my father in England, drawing churches. He taught me to see. He taught me perspective at that age, and he taught me that I could design anything and touch all aspects of our physical landscape. I remember drawing a cathedral facade and deciding I did not like the shape of the windows so I reshaped them. I did not like the severe points. I also remember winning a drawing competition for children on the Queen Elizabeth ship as we left England to move to Canada. All the children were drawing ships and families, but I drew luggage (I was perplexed by how we managed to move our home in just some crate sand bags so I drew my own ideas of how to travel). I read books from artists all over the world. Since my parents were quite cosmopolitan I was exposed to all the applied arts and too many cultures.

You studied Industrial Design at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Was there anything that you did whilst studying that helped you get your foot on the ladder in your professional career? (i.e. internship, networking etc?)

KR. Firstly I don’t believe in networking. Talent and hard work is the way to succeed. I originally wanted to study architecture but applied much too late so they were full. They told me they could accept me in the architectural stream of Industrial Design. So I went to the university expecting to study architecture, but fate had it, that the second I took some industrial design courses, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I assumed that you had to be an architect to design a chair or coffee machine (since I loved the Italian product design landscape and all those products were designed by architects. In fact Italy did not have an industrial design school until 1984).

I went to do post graduate studies in Italy with Ettore Sottsass, Gaetano Pesce, Andries Von Onck for a special graduate programme near Naples in Italy. I also took night classes with Achille Castiglioni at the Polytechnic and I interned with Rodolfo Bonetto in Milano, Italy. I recently received two honorary doctorates in fine arts and design and was a full-time associate professor for 10 years.

What was the first design job you had after your studies and how did you get it?

KR. For my first design job in 1980-1982 I worked full time designing business telephones and switching systems for MITEL, Canada while I was doing my undergraduate degree. I had a professor, Scott Gibson, who had designed for the company. I idolized him and so I applied to MITEL and managed to get a summer job. My first job was to design two business telephones. I had no idea what I was doing so they were somewhat derivative of all business telephones at that time. Funnily enough, I was recently in a hotel and the front desk was using that same phone 30 years later! Looking at it now I would have done it very differently.

I eventually worked for seven years with KAN Industrial Designers in Toronto designing x-ray equipment: a mammographer; power tools for Black and Decker; trains seats; and mail boxes for Canada Post. I eventually opened my own office in 1993 in NYC with no connections, no money, and no one. It was really difficult. Many times I thought I would just quit and become a full-time academic.

What was your first big break in terms of your career?

KR. When I started my office, after approaching about 100 companies from Lazy Boy to Coca Cola, and Ethan Allen to Gillette, I only got one client. None of them were interested in me. I was really disillusioned. I was quite desperate and barely surviving. With that one company – Nambe in Santa Fe – I designed a collection of tabletop objects that became very successful. They sold about $3,000,000 a year and entered permanent museum collections. I still design for Nambe. This relationship gave me the confidence that I could really contribute some meaningful and successful objects to the world.

You now have over 3000 designs in production. What has been your favourite thing to design and why?

KR. I can remember the satisfaction I felt from designing the Garbo and Oh Chair for Umbra back in the 1995. I love when my ideas are materialized in the form of products that are accessible, high design, and usable on a day-to-day basis. Completing the Morimoto restaurant in Philadelphia in 2001 was a turning point for me because it was so successful and it really gave me the opportunity to design about 100 interiors since then. Lastly I am very proud of the book ‘Design Your Self’ that was published in 2006. It has now been published in six languages. It is not a ‘design’ book but a book about my philosophy for living a fulfilled life and how everyone can take control and shape their lives and their future.

How do you choose which companies to work with when it comes to designing new products?

KR. Working with clients is a collaboration. I always believed that design is not art; with art you can be very selfish, with design you must be collaborative. I can usually tell right away if a relationship with a client is going to work or not. If I don’t think my vision will work well with their needs, then I won’t take the project. It is important to me that the result of my work, and my collaboration with a client, manifest into something that will connect with the user, and sustain relationships with the consumer. Beautifying the world, and creating well-designed, provocative, stimulating yet calming products and environments is the impetus for everything I embark on.

Do you approach companies you want to work with or do they seek you out?

KR. For the most part, companies come to me because they want my vision. This is the best situation because then you know that they understand your work and believe in you. They know your credentials and trust you more. When I approach companies it is like I have to persuade them of my work and ideas. But there are a few great clients that I have pursued. I have so many things I want to do that I could wait a lifetime for someone to approach me, so that motivates me to solicit a company.

How do you find the time to design so many new products?

KR. I sketch and develop ideas constantly and have such a supportive, brilliant staff that helps me to manifest the ideas. The manufacturing world cannot keep up with my speed. I conceive more ideas than my clients can produce or want to produce. This year I developed about 330 projects. Of those projects maybe 100 will get to market. My clients cannot work fast enough, produce enough concepts, or turn around manufacturing fast enough. I am an industrial designer firstly but I created a Warholian/Eames-like multidisciplinary office where I design everything from interiors to high-tech products, furniture, lighting, jewellery, homeware, table-top, art, products, packaging, cosmetics, branding, and fashion. I am an advocate of pluralism and cannot thrive under specialization.

What are your main sources of inspiration?

KR. Well I am inspired by the hundreds of countries I have been to, the culture, the people, and the life. I am very passionate, focused, and perpetually inspired by the shrinking world, technology, and the desirous human spirit. I am also always inspired by the subject of the project. I always say form follows subject. I have always been inspired too by all the mentors, professors, and people I admired from philosophers to artists, from musicians to architects. If I am successful, it is not because of what I design, but more what I say. I think I have inspired a new generation of design from my lectures, interviews, and communication. The latest most beautiful inspiration to me was seeing new bioplastic degradable polymers in Brazil that are finally being used for ubiquitous packaging globally.

You have now won over 300 awards for your work. That is quite an achievement. What is it about your work that enables you to get this kind of recognition?

KR. I believe that design is extremely consequential to our daily lives and can positively change human behaviour and surely this resonates with my products. Objects and furniture must deal with our emotional ground therefore increasing the popular imagination and experience. Good design can shift and change human behaviour and create new social conditions. Design has evolved based on a plethora of complex criteria – human experience; social, global, economic and political issues; physical and mental interaction; form; vision; and a rigorous understanding of contemporary culture.

You now have an instantly recognisable style. Do you try to maintain this style in all the work that you do? If so why?

KR. I never think I have a specific style. I do not like that concept. I think that artists who repeat themselves are either out of ideas or lazy. Of course my work is part of my personal vision but that search and experimentation is always there on every project. Why do we each have our own fingerprint? We could be living in a far more poetic, human, beautiful world, and one day all of us will be able to leave our mark, our ‘creative’ fingerprint, on the ever-vast, changing world. This is only the beginning of liberalizing all of us to express our individualism.

Is there anything that you have not yet designed that you would like to work on?

KR. I would choose to design an electric car (because it should be nothing like a regular gas driven car) or a digital camera (since they are all pathetically trying to be analog cameras) or kitchen appliances or even a hair dryer. I have a big list of what needs redesigning like airplane interiors, and I could go on and on. The world is generally poorly designed and so much needs improvement on every level, from performance to comfort, and beauty to accessibility.

Could you please reveal to Freshome readers your top tips for becoming an internationally recognised design superstar?

KR. Be smart, be patient, learn to learn, learn to be really practical but imbue poetics, aesthetics, and new paradigms of our changing human landscape. Conservative thinking will not help your growth, but instead cause a sort of “metooism”. You must separate yourself from others. You must find new languages, new semantics, new aesthetics, experiment with new material, and behavioural approaches. Also always remember obvious HUMAN issues like emotion, ease of use, technological advances, product methods, humour, meaning, and a positive energetic and proud spirit in every object or space. This is what is missing! Many products have a very short shelf life, and they must capture the spirit of the time in their product essence, and not worry about looking, behaving, or performing like everyone else.

Freshome would like to thank Karim Rashid for taking the time to participate in this interview and for the advice and tips that he has shared with us. We hope that you have enjoyed reading this interview and we look forward to reading your comments below!

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