Designer Karim Rashid on Shaping a Better World

Designer Karim Rashid discusses objects that improve lives, his best-selling trash can and his hope for a more colourful future.

Designer Karim RashidPhoto: Shutterstock

15 Minutes With Designer Karim Rashid

Reader’s Digest Canada: Your retrospective exhibit at the Ottawa Art Gallery is called Cultural Reshaping and you’ve said that the role of a designer is to improve the world. Can you expand on that?

Karim Rashid: Design is human-centric—it’s about making our experiences better, more functional, more seamless. People make the mistake of thinking what I do is superficial, but consider this: when you get on an airplane, that cockpit was conceived to be the most efficient, most perfect interface. Someone designed that. It’s amazing how many objects we have produced since the Industrial Revolution that make our lives better, and our society more democratic. All of us are living a much better life than we were before that time—not just the people who can afford to.

When you look at your extensive body of work—comprising over 4,000 creations—is there one that best achieves that objective?

The Bobble. It’s a portable water bottle with a built-in carbon filter that creates drinkable water for people in over 100 countries, and was important in moving society ahead. It’s not the answer to solving the world’s drinking water problems, but it’s a step. The Bobble is also a good example of something that’s not just functional, but also sleek and sexy.

How does beauty play into your creative process?

So much has been designed by this point that, if I sit down and start sketching form for form’s sake, it’s going to end up being derivative. When it comes to designing an object, as opposed to, say, a hotel, I tend to focus on its function, the user and the production method. Inevitably I end up with a form that isn’t what I would have intended.

You have designed everything from luxury hotels and restaurants to manhole covers and vacuum cleaners. Is there a common look?

I have used the term “sensual min­imalism” to describe my work. I’m doing things that are fairly reductive, but also using shapes that are organic and human, whereas most minimalists tend to be obsessed with hard angles.

Twenty-five years ago you designed the iconic Garbo trash can, which has gone on to sell over seven million units. How does it feel to be famous for something into which people toss their garbage?

On the one hand, I’m proud of it. But also, that was a long time ago. Back then, design was starting to focus on the banal—light switches, thermostats. That stuff used to be so ugly and the attitude was: why should a utilitarian thing look good? And then Garbo came along. I just hope when I die, I’m not still best known for a garbage can.

You tweeted that you’ve lost out on jobs because product developers are afraid of colour. Why is that?

As the Internet shrinks the world, and the world becomes more money-driven, it becomes more similar. A pizza place in Brooklyn looks like one in Egypt and the trend is no colour. In condos, it’s grey walls and beige carpet. That’s what sells. When I was growing up in Toronto in the ’60s, it was wild—a psychedelic moment. Maybe that’ll come back now that marijuana is legal. 

Next, check out design tips from Brian Gluckstein you’ll wish you knew sooner.

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Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada