Egyptian designer creates affordable beauty

Karim Rashid made a name for himself with a trash can

March 23, 2003|By Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub | Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub,Special to the Sun

You may not recognize Karim Rashid's name, but you may have walked in shoes he designed, put flowers in one of his vases or tossed trash into one of his garbage cans.

This Egyptian-born industrial designer has created more than 800 products, won a multitude of design awards and has been asked to lecture everywhere from Miami to Moscow. His designs, which range from simple soap containers to upscale European furniture, are used in homes all over the world. More than 70 of his creations are in museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the British Design Museum in London. His work has even made it to the hipper side of TV land, appearing on VH1, HGTV, the Style Channel, MTV Cribs and Friends.

But despite all this success, he is far from a money-is-no- object designer.

"I want to walk in and do the best $10 toaster that exists," said Rashid, who's written Karim Rashid: I Want to Change the World (Universe Books, 2001). "I feel I'm doing human good by reaching the masses."

This philosophy is more than just talk. When Copco recently asked him to design a high-end teakettle, he rejected their idea and told them he wanted to design one for under $20 that most people could afford.

Some folks may say he is unparalleled now, but just 10 years ago it looked like no one would ever hear of Rashid or his work. He was 32 and had just been fired from his full-time teaching job at the Rhode Island School of Design with only $1,400 in his bank account. To survive, he slept on the floor of his brother's New York apartment for six weeks until he found a part-time teaching job at the Pratt Institute.

Life was looking pretty grim. Despite his undergraduate degree in industrial design from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and graduate study in Italy, he struggled to make a living. His first three years in New York, his salary was a measly $12,000.

He took his ideas to America's top 100 firms and was rejected by 99 of them. The one that recognized his talent was Nambe, a small company in Santa Fe, N.M., that creates vases, bowls and other decorative accessories. His client list now includes Yves St. Laurent, Herman Miller, Armani, Alessi, Maybelline, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Villeroy & Boch and Sony.

But, ironically, what this giant of a man (he's 6 feet 4 and 187 pounds) is best known for is Garbo, a small trash can he designed for Umbra in 1996. The 5-gallon can, made of high-impact polypropylene, has graceful curves and a decorative opening on each side that can be used as grips. It has sold more than 4.5 million units at $8-$10 each.

"It became an icon and got me known," Rashid said.

That recognition is not just with adults and not just in big cities. When he was visiting Halifax, Nova Scotia, he said a 12-year-old girl approached him and asked him to autograph her Garbo.

And yet, as well-known as he is in the design world, he isn't able to design much furniture in this country. European manufacturers get what he is trying to do; American companies don't. Five years ago, he went to the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, N.C. The results were disappointing.

"I met with companies and found that they were doing mostly traditional furniture," he said.

How about the design of his own New York home? He said his wife, artist Megan Lang, just lets him do what he wants.

Right now, the entire place is carpeted in pastel pink broadloom carpeting. A pink synthetic suede version of Omni, a five-piece sectional he designed for Galerkin in 1999, is prominent. (By the way, he said the musician Prince has one, and so does actor Kevin Spacey.)

His home is contemporary cutting-edge. Although it has been in 160 magazines worldwide, Metropolitan Home is the only domestic design magazine that has featured his home.

Rashid predicts that every manufacturer will go contemporary in the next 20 years. Likewise, he has updated his personal look. He, like many designers, used to dress in all black. After the millennium, he changed his uniform to all white. The only touch of color, which varies with his mood, is in his sneakers.

"All the beautiful details are lost in something black," he said. "It all becomes flat. White is cathartic for me. It's a freedom from the last century."

Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub is a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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