Words – Dominic Bradbury
Photographs – Mark Luscombe-Whyte
He is a renaissance man for the 21st century. A pioneer of consumer friendly futurism – often dubbed America's answer to Philippe Starck – Karim Rashid hates being pigeonholed. He is a prolific, multitasking, multi-disciplined workaholic, a designer who ranges from lipstick cases for Maybelline to restaurants, from garbage cans to apartments, from perfume bottles for Issey Miyake to full scale hotels. His hot list hotel in Athens, the Semiramis, opened just in time for the Olympics and now he's working in the UK – on a new My Hotel opening in Brighton next year.
He thinks laterally and globally and at fearsome speed, churning out ideas for refinement and editing, championing new materials, new technology and mass production, liberated and enlightened by the possibilities opened up by his computer and its morphic powers, promoting a distinctive neo-organic, 'blobist' aesthetic.
Rashid also bathes his work in a clear cut philosophy of design, exploring its ability to improve lives and enhance pleasure, to defy rules and borders. His freedom of expression knows no bounds, from essays and teaching through to his own book – I Want to Change The World – and music, with compilation CDs drawing on his background as a club DJ.
"I made it a mission of mine that I would do what I really want to do in this life," says Rashid. "That's what I've done. I have done clothing, buildings, eyeglasses, watches, shoes, kettles, chairs, lamps, televisions. In a sense it's all part of the built environment."
Rashid's New York office, in the Chelsea district of the city, is a hive of activity with products and prototypes all around. His apartment, which he shares with his partner, the digital artist Megan Lang, is fortunately not too far away for one so busy. It's just upstairs in fact – a lab loft also dressed in Rashid's own designs and experiments, from an ergonomic DJ Kreemy fibreglass turntable deck to his shocking pink Omni multi-sofa designed for Galerkin.
In the year 2000 Rashid and Lang agreed to ditch all their old possessions – anything bought more than five years before, including Rashid's vinyl music and his books, which went down to the office – and focus on the here and now. They also agreed that for every new addition, something has to go, so retaining a flavour of fluid, sensual minimalism. The result is that the apartment is always changing, with pieces constantly coming and going, and Rashid always hunting for improvement with an obsessive's eye for detail.
Initially, Rashid wanted a blank canvas to work with and found it in the form of a hundred year-old derelict building. The ground floor had been used as a stable and the floor above for storage; buckets and ropes used for bringing alcohol in and out during the Prohibition were found still in place.
"It was great to be able to get into a raw space," says Rashid, who was born in Egypt and grew up in England and Canada before heading off to the States. "The worst thing is having to gut somebody else's work. That's why we wanted a place like this, although there aren't that many in New York. And we wanted to keep it open because in New York keeping it open plan helps to bring light through the space. One of the hardest things to get in New York is good light."
The bulk of the apartment is one large, long space, running from the front to the back of the building, with the kitchen and dining table in the middle, separating two lounges, one lighter and harder, with a white apoxy floor, and the other softer and more textured, with a pink carpet underfoot and the large pink oval sofa with glass coffee table at its centre. Only bathroom and bedroom are sectioned off.
Nearly everything in the apartment – with the exception of a desk by film director David Lynch and a sprinkling of Ettore Sotsass Memphis ceramics and lamps – was designed by Rashid, including the wallpaper on one section of the front living room wall and laminates in the kitchen, coating the dining table and units. Not that it will look this way for long. "Monthly the apartment looks different," says Rashid. "Every Sunday my father used to move all the furniture around in our house in Montreal and was always rearranging the living room. I think I've picked up that habit."
Since launching Karim Rashid Inc in the early 1990s – starting slowly but surely and then steering into the fast lane – he has designed around 1,000 products. His low cost, mass produced Garbo trash can for Umbra has sold over two million and his Oh Chair for them hasn't been far behind. Other clients and collaborators have included Cappellini, Edra, Bozart, Sony and Nambé. His work has become truly global, crossing all borders, like Rashid himself who has become a constant traveller.
"The interesting thing about design is that you never really know how successful it will be until its manufactured and physical," says Rashid. "There's a leap of faith that hopefully we are doing something right, whether it's a hotel or a drinking glass. I do know that if I try to deal with as many issues as I can, from economy to quality to comfort to touch, that the chances are the product will be competent enough. It's like writing a pop song. Whether it's good enough for people to love you, you just don't know."
American Designers at Home, by Dominic Bradbury & Mark Luscombe-Whyte, £25, is published by Pavilion Books in October.