Ottawa Art Gallery: Function, form and fun with designer Karim Rashid

Karim Rashid and some of his designs in the Ottawa Art Gallery. Photo: Peter Robb

When the internationally known designer Karim Rashid was a young lad of seven, his attention was often focused on a coffee table in the family home.

His father Mahmoud had made the table and while that was important, it was what was placed on the table that inspired young Karim to think about a career in design.

On the table were books featuring the works of Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior and Yves St. Laurent. There was the quirky designer André Courrèges who only wore white and pink as Rashid does often today. There was Picasso. His father, who was an aspiring painter, loved Picasso.

And then there was Raymond Loewy, the French born American designer of everything from cigarette packages to space ships.

“That coffee table had everything from the physical world, from fashion to architecture,” Rashid said. The books basically showed Rashid his future. He decided very early on that he wanted to do all that and more and industrial design was the way.

Some 4,000 pieces later, and a career that spans the globe, this graduate from Carleton University’s School of Industrial Design in 1982 has a retrospective exhibition of about 200 highlight pieces in the new Ottawa Art Gallery.

“These objects are most of the more important of my career,” he said in a media preview of the show Karim Rashid Cultural Shaping.

“I graduated from Carleton 36 years ago. I then went to Milan to work and study for about 18 months and then came back to Canada to work in the prominent industrial design firm KAN Industrial Designers. They had been responsible for furnishings at Expo ’67 and in Habitat (in Montreal). They also did a lot of products for Black and Decker and worked with VIA Rail.”

Karim Rashid’s work is often sculptural and curvilinear. It reflects his belief that nature isn’t square. Shapes in nature flow more freely, said the curator of the show Nicole Potvin. Photo: Peter Robb

Rashid did a lot of what is called Below the Line Industrial Design then which includes “products that a lot of people don’t realize are designed. I have done 15 products with Black and Decker. You pick up a drill, but you may not realize somebody designed it.”

He has designed mailboxes for Canada Post that are still in use today.

After KAN, Rashid taught at the Ontario College of Art and Design for a couple of years, headed to the U.S. and taught some more.

Finally he just decided to set up his own shop in New York City in 1993 “to see what I could do.”

It took about a decade, but then things started to really happen, he said.

“I did a lot of products that became very successful in the market. For example I did the OH Chair” )that has sold some 4.5 million units for Umbra, the home design company). He also designed a small waste basket called the Garbo for Umbra, that is his best seller at 12 million units over 25 years.

Rashid is an artist, of that there is no doubt. But he is also a canny and practical businessman. He knows his metrics.

“The market determines the success of a designer. A designer’s products should sell. A lot of designers want to be more creative artists so that idea doesn’t necessarily appeal to them. They don’t like fact that the market is judging.

“But I think that if you put a good product into the market, that people love, you have been successful. Something like the OH Chair shows how design can stimulate the economy and help build a successful business.”

Karim Rashid on the OH Chair: “What was successful about the chair was I tilted it back more than most chairs made back then. I cut holes on the sides which made handles, made it  stackable and made it lighter and cheaper. It came to market for $30. It’s flexible so it moves with the body.” Photo: Peter Robb

He said that in his experience, when he became too self-expressive in his work that would lead to disaster.

As a designer, he said, “you have this little window to say something, to do something that is kind of smart and functional. It really has to work for people. If it doesn’t it doesn’t last.”

That understanding has taken him a long way.

In New York, after a few years of product design he got his first few interior design jobs. That led to a true breakthrough. He was hired to design the restaurant Morimoto in Philadelphia for celebrity chef Masaharu Morimoto.

Rashid said that he wasn’t sure what he was doing. “I was very afraid of doing something on a larger scale. The idea of a larger space was intimidating but it was such a successful restaurant” that it led to more and more interior design work. And that led to designing hotels (some 50 worldwide now) and hospitals and eventually buildings.

Three years ago he launched his own product line. He wanted to move past the co-branding that goes along with industrial design.

“You can design a great product but it may end up with the wrong brand, the wrong company and it fails because they don’t know how to market it or they don’t believe in it. Then it’s over. Think about all the amazing things that never really got anywhere because of a problem in the selling of it.”

These arts — architecture, fashion design, product design — these are commercial arts, Rashid said.

“It’s not like you wake up in the morning as a painter and decide I can do what ever I want That is a very selfish act. Instead you have a whole bunch of criteria to deal with. You have a whole company that is worried about the bottom line. You have a developer who wants to make sure whatever it is, is going to sell.

“Within this existence you make things more interesting, more beautiful, more experiential. You elevate people’s lives. Can you inspire them with an artifact in their spaces? You can. I have always felt I was artistic because my father Mahmoud was a painter and an artist and obviously I got his genes, but he wasn’t a practical man.”

He inherited his practical side from his British mother, he said.

“I am always torn. I like doing something completely original. That’s the artist in me. Whereas the commercial drive is to make something that sells. I think about that all the time. For example, I spend 200 nights a year in hotels. Every one that I walk into I look and see how safe everybody plays them.

The Garbo has sold 12 million units. Photo: Peter Robb

“I need clients who are risk-takers. I don’t want to sell myself short.”

Rashid is a proud disruptor. It was evident as a university student. He told reporters gathered to see his show of a fight he had with the dean of industrial design at Carleton as they discussed his thesis project infront of the class.

“I had designed a lamp. I had a working prototype made by someone else.” The dean was not impressed. He felt that Rashid should have made it by hand.

He replied that he was a designer not a maker. That led to an outburst eventually things calmed down and Rashid graduated. He was chuffed to learn later that students afterwards were allowed to get the designs made by someone else.

He does worry about the impact of technology on design. It does speed up the development process, but it is also working to create a sort of global design culture.

“I’m seeing the same restaurant language all over the world all of a sudden. (For example) there is a trend going on with metal chairs, filament light bulbs and industrial turn of the century look. It’s copying, it’s not design. It’s a shame because countries seem to be losing their individual identities.”

And he knows design is powerful.

“The paper cup designed in Canada made take out drinks possible and that led to fast food. Design can completely change social behaviours. These objects resonate the way we engage with these objects has a huge impact on daily lives and well-being. Human culture has been shaped for thousands of years through our artifacts.

“Physical things tell us everything about a society. I was in a museum in Cairo and there was a wood folding chair from 3,000 years ago. It was almost like the ones we have today.

“I’m proud of what I do because, at the end of the day, designers are changing the world in a big way. For example if you design an interface for a cellphone that makes it easier to use has impact on millions of people. It makes their lives easier.” Rashid has designed a new phone for the Chinese company OBO that is expected to be used by about 300 million people.

“Design was and is a social act, an artistic act and a huge economic act. I have no issue designing products for people that gives them a better life. That I have no problem with.

Karim Rashid likes to use colour in his designs. Photo: Peter Robb

“I have never really chased success,” he said. “I am trying to do things that touch people’s lives; that are functional, beautiful and surprising.”

He says he’s also proud to have the show in Ottawa a city he knows has changed a lot over the decades.

The pieces in this exhibition were drawn from a larger show that closed recently in Seoul, South Korea. It showcases a variety of disciplines, from furniture to branding and packaging, to fashion pieces and table top pieces. The pieces are more sculptural, said curator Nicole Potvin, and they speak to the language of his design work over the years.

Having a major exhibition of design work is a brave step for the new Ottawa Art Gallery.

Gallery director Alexandra Badzak said, “In my opinion design is very much a part of the visual spectrum. From design to craft to art to film to new media, that is all part of our wheelhouse at the OAG.

“What is visual arts and visual culture? I felt it was very much part of our mandate to be looking at this stuff. Quite frankly Canada doesn’t have a lot of architecture and design institutions and we need to help that out a little bit because we have some superstars.”

Karim Rashid Cultural Shaping is on at the Ottawa Art Gallery until Feb. 10, 2019. For more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.