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‘It will be a design war in the corporate world’

Karim Rashid says design is the key to brand identity

Karim Rashid, the world-class industrial designer famed for creating the Bobble bottle and Oh! Chair, is coming to Seoul for the iDEA Herald Design Forum slated for Oct. 5-6.

Often called the “Prince of Plastic,” Karim has over 3,000 products in production and has won hundreds of awards. He is brand specialist and one of the most demanded designer for exhibitions, banks, carmakers, hotels, and electronic companies.

The Cairo-born New Yorker says design is going to be the only real brand differentiator in the corporate world in the future, especially among gadget makers. He believes design is the key to brand identity and it is what differentiated Apple from Samsung, Sony, LG, Panasonic and Toshiba.

Because companies now have to deal with highly educated consumers with a high sense of style, and because comparative shopping has become so easy, design will become ever more important.

The following is the full text of his interview with The Korea Herald.

Q: Your designs almost never fail to be a hit. What is your top priority when you design?

A: I have stood by my life’s mission and continue to change the world with every new design. It is design’s responsibility to shape our physical landscape, and thereby make a better world. Human beings touch an average of 600 objects a day. That said, if you look around the world we live in, we’re bound to have relationships with these inanimate things: Our favorite chair, our favorite piece of jewelry, our intimate mobile phone, our automobile, etc. And that’s a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful thing for a designer to actually get to design objects and spaces that people have that kind of association with. That’s a very big challenge -― to design something that, although accessible to all consumers, touches people’s lives and gives them some sense of elevated experience or pleasure. But more importantly it is most important to improve this world, make it more comfortable, improved, more technological, simpler, easier, more experiential, more poetic, more passionate, more sustainable, and shape a perfect borderless seamless humanized world.

Q: Please pick the most memorable of all your designs and why you would choose that particular piece.

A: There hasn’t been one singular memorable moment, but more a building journey. I can remember the satisfaction I felt from designing the Garbo and Oh Chair for Umbra back in the 90s. They have sold millions globally but also proved to me that the world desires design but at an affordable price. I love when my ideas are materialized in the form of products that are accessible yet highly designed, and usable on a day-to-day basis. Also when I completed the Semiramis in Athens, that was my first hotel and I felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment. Recently, I won 37 awards in 2010, and was inducted to the Interior Design Hall of Fame. But more than anything I am looking forward to what this year will bring. I just have unveiled the Nhow Hotel, Berlin, the Naples Metro Station, and Agatha Ruiz de la Prada boutique in NYC.

Q: You have teamed up with many Korean companies including Hyundai Card, Paris Baguette, JUS and Aekyung. Was there anything you wanted to emphasize for each of these designs? What kind of designs do you think Koreans prefer?

A: You forgot one of my favourite companies that I worked for in Korea ― Samsung! I have much more freedom with my work abroad (in Europe and Asia), as opposed to North America, and the clients tend to be more open to challenging the boundaries of design and commodity culture. However, in all countries I work in, clients come to me because they are seeking my contribution, so aesthetic tastes are arguably similar on some level. In Korea their aesthetic is very fresh, young and playful yet precise.
Karim Rashid
Karim Rashid

Q: What made you pursue your dream as a designer, when do you feel the most happy as a designer and what projects or aspirations do you wish to pursue in the future?

A: I was born into a creative context. My father was so inspiring since he designed everything possible from movie sets to furniture to clothes. He was an artist and set designer for film and television. He taught me perspective at a young age, and he taught me that I could design anything and touch all aspects of our physical landscape. I think every artist, designer, always wants to contribute something to culture I’ve always been obsessed with doing this, making a real impact on people’s lives. Even as a four year old child I used to draw pictures of buildings with my father, but I always wanted to change something: the windows, the doorway, etc. I knew back then I wanted to be a designer. Secondly, I almost consider myself more of an artist than a hard-core industrial designer, because there’s this weird drive internally to do something original in the world.

Design is finally a public subject. I made it my mission 20 years ago to do everything in my power to propagate design. Endorsing well made products and great brands falls into this. Fortunately so many others had the same agenda, especially media, and large companies such as target, Nike, Apple, Umbra, and others that are design driven. Design is in the contemporary mindset. Times are changing and I have proven to companies that a strong conceptual direction and vision can affect business, bottom line, and create products and business models that are successful yet original and beautiful.

Q: What made you the globally celebrated industrial designer you are today?

A: In all my work my self-imposed rules are that it must be accessible, sensual, organic, progressive, and speak to the moment in which we live in terms of lifestyle, ecology, technology, and functionality. I employ my philosophy of “designocracy” high design for all, not only for the luxury market, but to benefit the lives of everyday people. But I think what made me successful is perseverance, passion, obsession, diligence, hard work, and my prolific body of work. The difference with me and probably almost all designers is that I am an artist working in a very pragmatic profession, so in turn I have no boundaries and I produce art, and design, and architecture, and music, and fashion.

Q: A design war is raging in the corporate world. As seen in Apple, design superiority seems to equal product superiority. How do you predict the future global trend of industrial design?

A: I love this question and the idea of a design war. What frustrates me though is the fact that many companies honestly are in a war for business market share, but don’t realize that design is the only really brand differentiator today! Sony, Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Toshiba, etc. are all lost when it comes to finding their own vernacular, their own brand identity. They have no idea how to differentiate themselves as Apple did. Also since all these hi-tech objects are dematerializing, and most of the internal components are ubiquitous and the same it is even more important to use design to create and take ownership of a brand.

Also it is only recently that design has started thinking about all the sense, not only a visceral experience. Because of the Internet, and smart devices, comparative shopping is so easy, so the result is a very educated mass of consumers. The only way to respond is with better design. With the iPod, and now the iPhone, Mac proved that beauty is in all the senses of the beholder. The illustrious iPod has sold over 200,000 million units to date and this is a real phenomenon because until today, no company has even slightly cannibalized their sales with various spurious proposals. Why? Design is about total sensorial human interface, from the aesthetic to touch, into interaction, to navigation, to ease of use, to simplicity to the total human experience. In a world where we are bombarded with information, where we work a 57-hour work week (in the seventies it was 34), where both husband and wife both work, where there does not seem to be enough time to really even know why we exist, or how we can have a contributive fulfilling creative life, design becomes the key paramount proponent of making a better life, a more simple, more sensual, more engaging, more casual, less stressful life.

Q: What characteristics are most important to become a great designer? If you do not have such qualities, how might you acquire them?

A: I always tell designers to be smart, be patient, learn to learn, learn to be really practical but imbue poetics, aesthetics, and new paradigms of our changing product landscape. Conservative thinking will not help your growth, but instead cause a sort of “metooism.” You must each separate yourself from others. You must find new languages, new semantics, new aesthetics, experiment with new material, and behavioral approaches. Also always remember obvious human issues in the product like emotion, ease of use, technological advances, product methods, humor, and meaning and a positive energetic and proud spirit in the product. 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 lines and not worry about looking, behaving, performing like everyone else.

Q: What is your impression or image of Korea? How would you define “Korean design?”

A: Today we live in such a global environment, that the disparate separation in style and taste is diminishing. As the world gets smaller and smaller, and we have access to international markets through the internet and new technologies, the cultural lines begin to blur and fade. It is hard to speak about Korean design. In hi-technology I think the Korean companies are on top, but they are too serious and too banal and need to be more courageous, more radical. I think the Korean consumer is ready for anything and loves design but the companies are conservative and don’t take advantage of this notion. In other aspects of Korean’s built environment the Koreans seem to be a little more playful, and a little more risk taking, but they need to open their arms and celebrate our vast never-ending possibilities of shaping a far newer far more interesting world.

Q: Were there any Korean designs in particular that caught your eye?

A: I think the works of Kim Young-se are quite well-designed.

By Cynthia J. Kim (