NEW YORK (Sept. 22, 8:30 a.m. EDT) — He has been labeled variously as the “Poet of Plastics” and the “Prince of Plastics.” He is a flamboyant, philosophy-spewing, globe-trotting designer of clothes, buildings and products — and an ardent fan of all things plastic.
He is Karim Rashid, and the polymer industry seldom has had such a colorful, high-profile advocate.
Born in 1960 in Cairo, Egypt, the lanky, 6-foot-4-inch Rashid — who is half Egyptian/half English — is internationally renowned in fashion and design circles.
Yet while he has worked with such luminaries as Giorgio Armani and Estee Lauder, designed award-winning architectural interiors and has dozens of his objects in art museum collections worldwide, Rashid derives as much pleasure from creating items such as plastic trash cans, kitchen utensils and stacking chairs.
“Twenty years ago, it was such an honor to be in a museum in a permanent collection. For me now, it's an honor to be in Kmart, Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, and the Container Store. You know, I almost have at least one product in every store in America.
“And that was kind of more my goal … to make good design really accessible and available, to be part of everyday life.”
Reared in Canada, Rashid studied there and in Milan, Italy, and has been based in New York for the past decade. In an Aug. 13 interview at his Manhattan studio, he shared some thoughts about his passion for plastics and their potential.
“I was brought up in the '60s, when … plastic was actually being considered, probably for the first time historically, a material of beauty,” he recalled. Rashid attributed the change in public attitude primarily to the Europeans, especially the Italians, who helped to humanize a family of materials previously considered exclusively industrial.
He traces his own love of polymers to youthful influences, and recounts being awed as a child by architect Buckminster Fuller's liberal use of plastics in the U.S. Pavilion at Expo '67 in Montreal. “It seemed like a material that had no limitations,” he said.
“I remember in '68 I had a Braun alarm clock that was orange plastic, that was sacred. I was 8 years old. I loved the form of it and the color and the vibrancy and the gloss finish. It was almost like a utopic product, because it seemed perfect.”
Those early impressions gained further currency when Rashid took a number of polymer engineering classes at Ottawa, Canada's Carleton University, from which he graduated in 1982 with a degree in industrial design.
“Then I began to see the potential in it. And you realize that the potential is far beyond the aesthetic, obviously. The power of plastics is what it can do for us in the sense of efficiency.”
Today, Rashid continues to push the envelope as regards plastics applications, and is excited by some new materials and effects.
“There are some new forms of phenolics that are actually allowing us to do colors and finishes that never existed before.” He referred to a stainless-steel, Copco tea kettle with a plastic upper half and handle that was on display in his small showroom. “We've been very successful with those. We have kettles going on the market that are white. White phenolics didn't exist before.”
He also is working with some new, high-heat-resistant melamines and silicones, and is enthusiastic about what he calls “a new way of clarifying [polypropylene] resin, that's way better.”
While declining to offer details, he said, “We're using a new polypro on a chair that will be relatively clear. A polycarbonate chair can be clear, but will cost you four to five times the amount.”
His new Swish and Sway trash cans employ what he calls “flip” PP compounds. The flip refers to how the surface color changes depending on the viewing angle and light reflection, and is controlled by manipulation of certain additives in the compound. He first used this technique in his Oh chair about five years ago, but continues to exploit it in new products.
He just created a 42-foot-long park bench in Japan that he described as a “triple flip — as you walk past it, the colors appear to change from pink to orange to dark purple.” Rashid added, “I've just been researching some new triple flips for an automotive company. I can choose the flips, and [the combinations] can go on forever.”
One of Rashid's just-released Butterfly chairs for Magis SpA in Motta di Livenza, Italy, graced his private office. The ABS chair consists of two shells that clamp together, yielding a smooth, nearly seamless body supported by a frame and legs made of chromed steel tube. While requiring two separate injection molds, the construction also affords excellent rigidity with about half the usual wall thicknesses of pure, unreinforced resin, according to Rashid.
“So that means it's perfectly recyclable, too,” he noted. “That's why I try to stay away from additives, especially glass fibers and things.”
With 65-70 projects in the works at any one time — from barware, cosmetics packaging and eyeglasses to Parisian cafe interiors — and a schedule that has him traveling more than 200 days a year, Rashid seldom pauses long to reflect on the past. So, when asked what his favorite project is, he replied: “The next one.”
“Probably the most successful thing I've ever done is the Garbo wastepaper basket, but I have a lot of products that are catching up really quickly, like the chess set,” he said.
The latter product, which he designed for Philadelphia-based Bozart, features a clear plastic playing board and soft, luminescent chess pieces molded of an undisclosed polymer.
Rashid's approach to cosmetics packaging reveals some of his innovative and environmental sensibilities.
“I probably designed one of the first all-plastic perfume bottles in the world a few years ago,” for Issey Miyake.
The challenge with packaging perfume in a plastic container is that the alcohol content over time will permeate the plastic and destroy the cologne.
So Rashid worked with suppliers not only to find an additive that would help render the alcohol inert, but also to make containers that were more mobile and held smaller volumes, which meant the contents would be used more quickly.
“A 200-milliliter bottle of cologne could sit on the shelf for two years.” He said. “Even sunlight will affect cologne in two years — you're supposed to use it, but people hang on to it forever.”
Additionally, he endeavors to make secondary packaging — the retail package in which the perfume container is sold — beautiful and reusable.
An example is the award-winning 5S Metasense perfume package for Japan's Shiseido Co. Ltd. The five-pointed, frosted lavendar container is blow molded from PP.
It is superlightweight, easier to ship than glass and features very thin edges and precise, articulated geometry. And the angular, translucent, pouchlike package can be reused, for example as a coin wallet.
Rashid believes the flexibility, functionality and efficiency of plastics in vital and wide-ranging applications — from toothbrushes to heart valves — more than outweighs environmental concerns about the materials.
“Plastics is in our clothes, in our eyeglasses, in our dental products and in our shoes. It's so much a part of our lives that to be critical about it is to be ignorant, actually,” he said. Yet he remains environmentally conscious. He works with biodegradable resins, designs for reuse and encourages clients to employ recycled plastics whenever feasible.
“I always bring this up. If I'm going to work with plastics a lot, then I have to be knowledgeable about it — that's my responsibility as a designer.”
Rashid also espouses an unusual, philosophical world view.
“We'll be very immaterial and very free, because we won't really own anything. Now, we're all leasing cars, not owning them, so we can dispose of them.
“The real contribution of the plastics industry is to eventually develop a seamless, perfect, cyclic, disposable world, where disposability is almost ritual. There is no guilt attached to it and consumption has no guilt. And that's going to be the future, really. It's starting to happen now.”
Asked if that wasn't an irresponsible approach, he replied: “Not if it's perfectly seamless and cyclic. It's not at all. It's about new experiences all the time. You don't need to own the DVD or own the VHS. Via the Internet, the entire world is our store or our flea market now. It's all about experiences. And you don't have to have more material to have more experiences. It's almost the reverse. The digital age has afforded us to have less things but greater experiences.
“The gathering of goods around you is about feeling like you belong. Like having a sense that you're going to go on forever. You're not.
“We're as disposable as our objects could become. I mean that in a positive way, not in a derogatory way.”
His 240-page, July 2001 book is titled Karim Rashid: I Want to Change the World. Plastics can help, he suggested.
“With or without me, they are changing the world. That's for sure. Because plastics are an integral part of our material landscape. …
“If plastics can help elevate the experience, to bring a heightened level of tactility or pleasure or aesthetics in [people's] lives, then that's what they can do for the world.”