One of the Arab world's most prolific designers has just released a limited edition cover for Sony Ericsson's new Xperia Arc S phone.
Karim Rashid: 'Technology makes good design accessible'
Inexplicably, the conversation has turned to toothbrushes. I only have 10 minutes of interview time with Karim Rashid, one of the biggest names in design, and I somehow find myself discussing the finer points of toothbrush composition.
"If you pick up a toothbrush from 20 years ago, you can't even brush your teeth with it," he says. "The way we design them now, the injection moulding, the grip, the way it comes into contact with the teeth, it's really advanced. I think that shows that design has penetrated almost everything. Frankly, I'd love to design a toothbrush.
"I have about 100 projects under way right now, but at the same time I keep in my mind designing and wanting to design all the projects I don't have… and I like to design things that are very, very banal."
Even a cursory glance at Rashid's notoriously prolific portfolio reveals this to be true. In among the furniture, lighting products and high-end hotels and restaurants, there are waste bins, bookends, clothes hangers, umbrella stands, dog bowls and dish racks. He has a preoccupation with the minutiae of everyday life that stems from his belief that good design can - and should - touch everyone.
"The amount of objects that we are interacting with on a daily basis is around 600 to 700 objects. I think it's great that we are beginning to understand that these objects around us have a huge effect on our public psyche and on our daily lives. They really have an effect on our well-being," he says.
"At this point in time, design should be done in a very seamless way that anybody can enjoy," he continues. "The challenge in design, and I've struggled with this, is being able to find and work with companies to produce something interesting that is very inexpensive and available to everyone."
Much of his frustration is directed at the furniture industry. "Most of the really avant garde, interesting, beautiful furniture is in the super high end of the market but it doesn't have to be at all. A lot of times if I design a couch for an Italian manufacturer and they tell me at the end of the day that the couch is retailing at €7,000 [Dh34,021], I'm shocked because I know that the way we could produce the couch, and in the right place to produce it, it could be €700 rather than €7,000. So I'm quite frustrated with that business. It's quite hard if you have a very low budget to find really nicely designed contemporary furniture."
For Rashid, good design is about more than styling - it is an essential signifier of the times we live in, and should respond to the specific issues of a particular age. Copying is anathema, as is regurgitating the styles of the past. "I always look back at how we have understood the history of humanity, and we have done that through artefacts. If I excavate an urn from the Ming dynasty and I study it, I can understand the civility of the time, the vision of the time, the social behaviours, all those things.
"So when I design something for 2011, I consider whether that object will inevitably become some artefact that denotes the time in which we live. The profession of design is really about shaping the contemporary and future landscape. It's not about styling or about going into the past and borrowing languages; it's about addressing issues and dealing with our momentary existence."
Toothbrushes aside, Rashid is not nearly as wacky as one might expect. There are the bright pink socks, of course, and the trademark white suit (which, one suspects, are as much about self-branding as they are about self-expression), but there is also a measured seriousness and a hyper awareness of the world around him.
"As a designer, you have to be an incredibly objective person," he says. "Your tentacles have to be out all of the time and you have to be highly receptive. You have to think perpetually as if you are not part of this earth, as if you're a satellite looking down on earth and really dissecting everything about the way we live. That's how I navigate through the world," he says.
We are in Rashid's design studio in Amsterdam, which is suitably bold, bright and frenetic, to mark the launch of one of his latest projects, a limited edition cover for Sony Ericsson's newest phone, the Xperia Arc S. Rashid describes the phone as "a beautiful, seamless and pleasurable object", lauding the fact that the "way the hand touches the back of it is just sensual enough that it has a real humanising quality about it".
For his cover, Rashid took inspiration from the architecture of Chelsea, New York, which presented an interesting juxtaposition to the phone's natural curvature. "It has this sense of a slight texture, but really when I started drawing I wanted to speak not only about the urban fabric but about this idea of connectivity, which I find to be a beautiful phenomenon.
"Up until 20 or 30 years ago, before the digital age took place, the world was a segregated and disparate place full of boundaries and borders in every sense of the word, be it socially, behaviourally, politically or religiously. And now borders and boundaries are disappearing because of the digital age. I think when we talk about globalism it's because the global language is now the zeros and ones of binary notation, which is allowing us to translate and communicate."
This idea of globalism is fundamental to Rashid's ideology, and is unsurprising given his quarter Egyptian, quarter Algerian, quarter English, quarter Irish heritage, and the fact that he was raised in Canada and has spent the best part of 20 years living in New York. Rashid remembers a time when companies would create different products for different markets - "there'd be a product for Western Europe and then they'd cosmetically change it for Eastern Europe; Asia would always have something more progressive and America would probably have the most backward version" - but says that he has always favoured a more universal approach.
Recent events such as the Arab Spring only reiterate how the digital age is creating a more global, seamless world, Rashid continues. "What went on in Egypt and Libya and Tunisia is all about creating one world where we can be omnipresent and where we can all live together. So I think the landscape will become much more about universal products. And I like that idea, in a way, because it is humanising us and it's bringing us together. We're all humans, we all have a voice, and technology has really empowered individuality and creativity."
As our interview draws to a close, I ask Rashid whether there is enough design coming out of the Arab world, and he responds with a resounding no. "Every time I go to Cairo, I say, 'You know what? The pyramids were done 3,000 years ago; it's time to do something new.' Everywhere in the world you need to build new landmarks, you need to push boundaries, you need to innovate. I don't like to generalise but as a rule, Arabs are quite good engineers and quite mathematical. That's what I got from my DNA. With that kind of ingenuity and intelligence, there's no reason why the Arab world shouldn't be producing things. They shouldn't be stuck in the past."
Ever the optimist, Rashid believes this will change - another inevitable repercussion of the digital age of which he is such a fan. "Skype was created by two guys from Estonia. The digital age has shown us that wherever you are in the world, as long as you are on the pulse and you have an idea, you can make it happen."