Balanced By Design: Karim Rashid’s Democratic Vision

By Allison Geller

Karim_Black & WhiteWorld-renowned industrial designer Karim Rashid grew up making art at the same time as he was hearing his father’s admonition: “never be an artist.”

Rashim’s father, a painter who was deeply acquainted with the struggles of the artistic life, moved the family from Cairo to Rome, Paris, and London before settling in Toronto to work as a set designer for the CBC. As children, Rashid and his siblings would spend weekends watching their father design models for TV, cinema and theater sets. Learning from imitation, they began drawing and making their own creations. “Design was part of me from a very, very young age,” says Rashid.

A gifted math student who loved to sketch, Rashid realized when he entered university that he was best suited for a profession that would use both hemispheres of his brain: the logical left brain and the artistic right brain.


Design school, Rashid says, taught him to manifest his visions into objects that were practical and marketable— to sync creativity with criteria. “Design itself is a program,” Rashid says. He honed the pragmatic creativity that would become the hallmark of all his designs, from hotel interiors to luxury watches to mobile phones.

After a career of over three decades, Rashid no longer has to deal with each criterion separately: he accommodates the set of conditions given to him by his clients as he sketches. If Rashid is designing a chair for a company that sells inexpensive furniture, for example, he already knows he’s working in polymers or plastics. Maybe the chairs needs to have holes, be stackable, or fit the body a certain way. “My first thought is not usually one form or statement. It’s more like bringing all this criteria together simultaneously. That, in turn, informs the chair. I always say you have to inform form,” Rashid says.GLocal Portrait

If design school taught him to deal with practical challenges, Rashid’s early days as a designer were a lesson in the importance of marketing. Working in a design office in Toronto in an era where companies were still dubious about the role of creativity in industry, Rashid had to satisfy clients as practically minded as Black and Decker, the post office and the Canadian military. He realized that he had to educate his clients, but also to sell them. “Over time, I got better and better of convincing people of my ideas,” he says. “’Let’s make this happen; this is great because.’”

Understanding and not resisting corporate culture, while still maintaining his unique vision, has ultimately made Rashid more successful than some of his purely intuitive, right-brained artist/designer counterparts.

“If I can’t tolerate listening to why my designs are being compromised and can’t deal with those issues, I’ll really never produce anything,” Rashid acknowledges.

His goal with any new project is to produce the “right” design instead of a purely creative one. The design should do real work for the company, increasing its brand awareness, its market presence, its bottom line— and in turn, his own success as a designer.

“You have to understand what [each company’s] agenda is,” he says. “I think of that every time someone comes to me with a project.”

The same goes for Rashid’s building designs. When Rashid began working in architecture, he set his sights on designing functional spaces with an innovative touch, but never at the expense of environmental cohesion. A building, he says, should add to the urban fabric and “denote the time in which it is built,” rather than be a kitschy reproduction of another era’s aesthetic.

With over 3,000 working designs and 300 awards under his belt, the work Rashid is most proud of is not art or luxury, but “democratic design”: the $50 chair, the highly designed hotel room at the lowest possible price point. Ultimately, Rashid believes that design is a “social act.”

Karim in Pink Suit_02Increasingly, that act is becoming an ecological one. Rashid is the creative force behind the Bobble bottle, a reusable plastic bottle with a high-quality carbon filter that’s good for 300 refills. Rashid hopes the Bobble can make a “small dent” in the 60 million disposable plastic bottles that are tossed into U.S. landfills every day.

In the end, though, Rashid finds that ultimate fulfillment as a designer comes from striking the right balance between the aesthetics of art and the service of design.

“I always say to myself, if you can imbue 70% of your sensibility in a product you’re kind of lucky,” says Rashid.