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6 Dec, 2019 09:14

We’re moving into the age of transparency – designer

Improving our lives with the help of everyday objects – the philosophy of design is about comfort and function. We talked about this to one of the most iconic and prolific figures in contemporary design – Karim Rashid.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Karim Rashid artist, designer.

Karim Rashid: Hello.

SS: Hi. Great to have you with us today. You look wonderful.

KR: Oh, thank you. So do you.

SS: Gray Moscow day and you're all pink and some sort of ray of sunshine.

KR: Well, in the winter, Moscow gets a bit gray, but, you know, most cities around the world get quite gray.

SS: But then they have you to work around.

KR: I try, I guess.

SS: All right. So I want to start off with one of your mottos, which is “you should grasp the luxury of freedom instead of luxury of the physical world”. But then I know that you’re super famous and super in demand and you do all kinds of designs for high-end five-star hotels. Where does that fit in the ‘luxury of freedom’ concept?

KR: First of all, you made a mistake. Most of the hotels I do are two-star, three-star and more democratic. In fact, I did a hotel about seven years ago in Germany and it was two-star. So when you go and stay... Forget the stars. When you go stay with thirty-nine euros for the stay…

SS: Like a hostel basically.

KR: Almost. But with private rooms, super designed, very high-designed, very comfortable, casual, experiential. The hotel is beautiful. And I kind of to prove to the world that it's not about money, because a lot of developers and people think that design means high budget. Just for example, for many years we always saw design as an elite subject or a high art, but it's actually not a high art at all. Design should be, like the Industrial Revolution taught us, for the mass market - it's for accessibility.

SS: So most of the stuff that you do - if it's not for hotels, but like designer pieces - how much would it cost? Because, yes, you're absolutely right: anything that is a designer piece of furniture or anything is like having a piece of art - it's an elitist thing. It cannot be democratic and for everybody.

KR: Yes, but that's changed now. Look at that: a good comparison of what's going on now in the design world is what's already happened in the fashion world. The very high-end fashion brands, luxury brands - a lot of them are having trouble. Meaning financial trouble, but also just trouble in the sense of vision. A lot of them don't really even know where to go anymore. And there was a time when if you went back 30, 40 years, that every fashion house had a very different sensibility, vision, style, right? And they took ownership. So, for example, Coco Chanel was very, very different then. I don't know. Gucci - and Gucci was very different than Prada. It goes on and on. Today there's such blurring because everybody is following the trend, which has to do with the digital age, too. But also as if they're running out of vision or ideas... so what happens is the only way they can compete is the name. So I'm always amazed at this. Like you open up the spread of a magazine and you see a track pant for a woman with a big stripe down the side and on the stripe, you see ‘Moschino’ or ‘Prada’, because the name is the only thing that's differentiating now. Now, in the design world, the same thing is starting to happen. The competition there is that you have the H&Ms and the MANGOs, and all the mass market is powerful, and it's really giving in a way - you could argue - a good design to mass. Now, you could say, in design there is the same thing. The IKEAs of the world and the mass market of the world are showing the world that a beautiful contemporary couch could be one-tenth the price of the luxury couch. So it's more accessible. And I think this is a beautiful thing. I've always been a big believer in this notion of what I call “designocracy” - democratic design, where we all can have a better life, all of us said, as it is for a majority. And what's taught us this is the digital age. I read the other day that there's one and a half billion smartphones in the world.

SS:I have a whole block prepared for the digital age. I just want to talk a little bit about the concept and the design. So talk a little bit more about the luxury of freedom and the luxury of the physical world. What is a luxury of freedom?

KR: In history and in our analogue one hundred thousand years of humanity, we defined luxury through materiality: precious stones, or precious materials, or certain craftsmanship - these sorts of things. So 40 years ago, it took 40 men and three months to make a Rolls Royce. And today you make it robotic. You make it like you can make a Nissan. So luxury is being, I think, questioned and redefined in a way. But what I realise now is that luxury in the digital age versus the analogue is about having the means of seamless communication. The world is becoming one, luxury is to have a thousand friends around the world. Luxury affords me to work and I'm working in 49 countries right now. If Frank Lloyd Wright was alive today or Le Corbusier or Picasso, can you imagine what they could be doing? How prolific they could be? We thought they were prolific then. You can be very prolific now. So these are the new forms of luxury. And personally, I realised in the last couple of years what is a luxury for me. And I concluded that it was free time because I realised that the majority of us work so hard and we're so inundated with a lot that when we have that moment to be alone, or to be with someone we love, or to be with our family, or to meditate, or to exercise alone, do things that are really personal - this is the luxury, real luxury. And my second definition of luxury is that you're on this earth to do what you were put on this earth to do. That means you live a luxurious life. In other words, if you can reach a position where the passion you have inside you, you're fulfilling, you're doing it - I think you're living the most luxurious life.

SS:I want to talk to you a little bit about the whole historical DNA that lives in us, even though we live in a completely different era. And every day there's such technological breakthrough that we can't even catch up anymore. But you're saying that we shouldn't be looking into the past for inspiration and we shouldn't be nostalgic. But then I feel like so many good things came out from renewing past things. For instance, like neoclassicism came from antiquity or, I don't know, steampunk came from the Victorian age. You know what I mean? Why forget everything that was in the past, if we can use it and transform into something beautiful of the present or the future?

KR: What the question there’s: is it beautiful or is it just kind of a momentary blip, trend or something? I have to say, when you define we say the word ‘beautiful’, beautiful is not just aesthetic, it's a feeling, it's emotional feeling, and I'm sure you can take things from the past and revisit them and do something that may be a little bit interesting, maybe beautiful. But I don't really believe in this. And the reason I don't believe in this is because it's like the remixing of music. I hear so much music because I've been deejaying for 40 years and I hear so many tracks that I know the origin of the track and the origin of the track for me was enough that you didn't really necessarily need to revisit it. But as a designer and as a creator, our goal is to do something original and new, and to move, and progress, and evolve humanity, make a better world in a way. So every time and every project I do - for me it's very important that it's about now. It's not about trying to copy a style. And that's the danger. The problem, the hesitancy of humanity is we live in fear. And the biggest fear we all have now is that the digital age is so amazing and so seductive that we're hanging on to what we think it gives us as some sort of security, which is past.

SS:I think a lot of fears regarding the digital age are instinctive as well. Because right now, when we go full-fledged into that age - because it's inevitable, there's no turning back - we still don't have any sets or rules of how to exist in that world. And I'll tell you what I mean. For instance, not having a bag and being able to just walk around the world or fly around the world with your fingerprints or with a chip here. So you google here, you photograph from here. Your fingerprint is all you need to get access to your bank account or to your phone. Yes, it gives you a great deal of physical freedom because you don't carry anything around, but there's always someone who is going to be on top of that in terms of controlling you. So when you have a chip inside you, that is when you lose your freedom completely, because there's always the other side to that.

KR: I don’t agree, but yes.

SS: But don't you agree that there's a danger? Such danger exists unless we all get together and say like “this should be our personal freedom, but it either is regulated by us” because otherwise the whole Big Brother thing. It's the reality of the chip inside you.

KR: Let’s try a different argument, OK? Historically, 3 percent - 2 percent of the world was rich and 98 percent was in poverty. Then we developed a middle class with modernism. Today, 30 percent of the world is the middle class. So history was always about a massive occasion, a suppression, I should say, of mass. It was the pharaohs, it was the dynasties, it was kings, it was politicians - always putting everybody down. Keeping the majority down. Even creative people were exiled, hung - the anarchists, anybody who was artistic was odd or different. But the mass had to be controlled. So the mass was always controlled. Now we get to a point of the digital age and we sit there and worry about Big Brother. But the reality is that if you are a decent, civil, good human being, you have nothing to hide. So whether someone knows about your existence or not. So what? The only thing, the best thing that can come out of all this is all the corruption, and all the greed, and all the violence, and everything that's, let's say, relatively illegal, is exposed. And I just want to say really quickly, I have a theory called ‘the Age of Transparency’. We are moving into this epoch. Transparency - do you know what that means? It means that with WikiLeaks, it started 12 years ago, with being in Shanghai on the 98th floor of a building, my hotel room is only glass between me and all of Shanghai. I can stand and lean on the glass - that's transparent. So from a physical, and metaphysical, and a spiritual level - everything - we are going to move into this real honesty. The other day, a massive corporation. I wanted to speak to the president, the CEO. I googled his link on LinkedIn, I got his email address, I sent him an email, he sent me an email back. Boom. This is the new world. This democratic world empowers each and every one of us creatively. We all have a voice. We all can disseminate our being, our existence. And in the digital age, we're all free. No borders, no boundaries. And we are equal.

SS:Why do we see more walls then raising up, more than ever? Physical and metaphysical.

KR: OK, in the last 40 years, we have something like 32 new countries, no less. Why? The fear. The fear that since the digital age is borderless and boundless, we're going to become nationalistic or patriotic because we're afraid. We're afraid and we're losing something. So people are becoming more fanatic, religions are becoming more fanatic. Borders and boundaries are closing. And it's only now because it's temporary, because right now is the tumultuous moment, I think, the schism between one hundred thousand years of analogue and 40 years of digital. So it's only the beginning. When you say a hundred years from now it may happen, great! My daughter, six and a half, since an average human being can live to 120, maybe she'll see that change. But I know what's going to happen with this world. My feeling with this world is right now is we're so confused and fearful. And there's a certain generation that is controlling all the politics around the world still. When that generation dies off and children that are brought up in this new freedom, who really are less materialistic, don't really care about these things, don't really even want automobiles, want to live right beside their job, want to ride a bicycle - this movement is global and it's going to the world that has to go in this direction and it's going to change.

SS:Are we not going to want or feel or long for any things historic ever? Because for me reading a book, smelling a book is priceless. And no app on my smartphone will ever replace it. And I know that if something catastrophic doesn't happen to that book, my kids will smell it the same way. And my grandchildren will. With the app, you replace it every year, any smartphone, or tablet, or discs, they don't stay with you. I don't see my grandchildren being, “Oh, this is the tablet of my grandfather or grandmother!'' Do you know what I mean?

KR: Sure. Let me tell you something. I just designed a mobile phone, a smartphone. It took two years. It was on the market for eight months. Just now for Oppo. I went to Oppo Shop to see the phone - it's already gone and replaced. The speed of this - I agree with you. So when I designed something in the digital age, I don't even get to really enjoy it. I design a chair, it lasts 50 years, it can be 100 years if it's a good chair. So I agree. And let me just say something, because I design physical things, so it's not like I'm so pro-virtual and I want to go and float in space. I love the physical world. I love touching things. I love smelling them. I love feeling them. I love hearing them. I love it all. I love the sensorium. When I design a hotel, I worry about the smell of the hotel. I work on the music of the hotel. I do it all. I love it. I'm a physical being like we are. We love each other's skin and the smell and the touch. There's nothing better than holding somebody or hugging somebody. This is in our nature. Yes? OK. So I’m on it. But when you talk about history, I have no problem going to the Cairo Museum and I see a folding chair from 3000 years ago. Beautiful! All these things are sacred and we should hang onto them. But we don't need to copy, and copy, and copy, and repeat them when they now have no relevance. So, I was in Dubai. All the buildings coming up in front of me have these terrible kitsch fake neoclassical facades. What a shame! Building three huge skyscrapers that have nothing to do with Dubai, nothing to do with the context, nothing to do with the age we live in, nothing to do with the technologies of construction that we can do now or the software of design. And when I'm designing a building in New York and the whole street is all brown brick - ugly little brown brick buildings - and they're very upset of the building I'm going to do… And I was making a white and pink modernist thing. The whole neighborhood got very upset, and they all signed a petition, and I said to them all… I stood and I had to bring all the neighbors together, and I had a talk, and I showed the rendering, and I said to them all, “One hundred years ago when those brick buildings were done, it was state-of-the-art technology. The window at one time was only this big. So we made a grill frame to make bigger windows. Then the window got that big. Today the window is from the floor, and I can do it four meters, one piece of glass. So why don't I use the technology of the day?” Just like one hundred years ago, the brick, the brown brick was the technology of that time. So all I'm saying is when you design, you design with the criteria of today to shape the future. I make this whole, let’s say, a glass box because that's the technology I can do today and maybe in 30, 50 years from now there is a better technology than the glass box and then that will be the next thing. And that's the progress and evolution of humanity. It doesn't mean to say that some of those brick buildings shouldn't be retained, if they're beautiful and they speak about an era. Like you go to London, the buildings are immaculate from 17th century, 18th, 19th.

SS: So do you think that the red phone booths in London will be reproduced in the future or we'll never see them again?

KR: No, but they can put one in a museum, in the gallery, we know what we can read about them. We can know about the history of them. Even books or these physical things you talk about - even if one day there are not books around, there'll be books around, meaning that we can hang onto books like a sculpture, like art or like something you hang on your wall or you have a piece of jewelry from your great-grandmother on your finger. These are beautiful things, they speak about history, they speak about our traditions, our culture. But there's no need to take that ring and make a fake. And this is the problem. I think a lot of the world is what… You know the German word ‘kitsch’? Kitsch by definition is a cheap replica of the original. Why make cheap replicas of the original? Let the original retain itself, stand, be beautiful.

SS:Just a little more about things from which we design and you design. You love plastic.

KR: Yes.

SS: Right? You said it's very agile. It's the thing of the future.

KR: It’s democratic. You can make cheap things.

SS: But now we see like everyone going from plastic bottles to glass bottles, from plastic bags to paper bags, and everyone wants everything in wood instead of plastic. Why do you still believe so much in plastic? What is it about plastic that resonates in you in the future?

KR: My history is this. When I was designing in the early 80s, in order to make a nice tea kettle or electric kettle, or electric drill I did for Black and Decker or a garbage can. These things had to be in plastic in order to produce them cheap enough for a majority of people. So plastic brought us a lot. It changed this world in the last hundred and fifty years. At the same time, we didn't know enough about it. It hadn't been around long enough for us to know the…

SS: The pollution issues?

KR: The pollution issues, but the results of what these things are going to do to us, the contamination, etc. toxins, all these…

SS: Side effects.

KR: Side effects. Yes, exactly. So we didn't know these things. With that said, now we have a lot of knowledge about it. At the same time, there are polymers out there that are amazing. They can do amazing things that are recyclable forever. There are polymers, for example, recently that I used, that's derived from sugar to create polyethylene. We used to take oil, go through seven stages to get the polyethylene. You take sugar cane, it goes to ethanol, goes to polyethylene in three stages. We don't need sugar - it grows rapidly, it's not a food source. In fact, it's creating diabetes and obesity and heart attacks. And we never ate sugar up until 240 years ago. We eat fruit and vegetables. So great! You can make plastic from that. Now think about the world we live in. I'm in a hospital and 70-80 percent of the things in the hospital are polymer plastics. The artificial hearts - plastic, we could go on and on, contact lenses - plastic. Plastic served an amazing role and it changed humanity. The problem was - we didn't know what was the good plastic versus the bad plastic. We didn't focus on making plastics that are biodegradable. Now I use a lot of plastics that are biodegradable: I did a famous garbage can twenty-five years ago. And it sold like 15 million. Now it's in biodegradable polymer, finally. Because the companies that are producing these things only really started the rigorous development of these things 15 years ago. And even now, the price points of these very good polymers that would save the planet are more expensive than the oil-derived polymers. Once the price comes down, it's like buying organic milk versus regular milk. Once the price starts to match closer, more of the companies which they should be using anyway - this should be a mandate - we'll be using those biodegradable polymers. So we will still have beautiful organic, soft human things that are plastic, democratic, cheap, but they'll be all biodegradable. And that's the evolution. In the next 20 years that’s what's going to happen. All of these plastics around us will be able to grind up into the soil.

SS: So you think this trend of glass and paper and wood coming back is just a trend?

KR: No, no, no, no. It's a necessity for a lot of other reasons. A lot of polymers we created that are toxic are giving off gases and are dangerous. Take the MDF, which is a fiberboard. It's used in furniture. The glues to glue this MDF together is gaseous. First of all, it’s toxic and it gives off-gas in your home. So the IKEAs of the world and all these people making knock-down furniture - everybody is like living with a bunch of dangerous toxins. The carpets are emitting… the polyurethane out of a lot of the furniture, it's all emitting gas. These are all polymers. So we all of a sudden are getting cancer, a rapid rate of cancer. You know, it's one out of three in America, one of the four in Western Europe. It's crazy. Hundred years ago, one out of 300 in America was getting cancer. So something's wrong, right? All of these polymers have contributed to a really dangerous planet. We go back to glass because then we're not drinking out of a plastic bottle, which, by the way, we have to stop. Everywhere I go, it's crazy. Every hotel, everywhere. It was nice, I got a paper cup with water in it, you know. So we have a lot of problems that we're solving. There's a lot of companies and a lot of amazing - I'm saying - amazing people out there that I know, that are aggressively making huge changes to this kind of toxic environment that we've created.

SS: Karim, it was such a pleasure talking to you. And I wish you all the best of luck.

KR: Oh. That's it?

SS: Yes. they're showing that we need to wrap up.

KR: Ha-ha! It was great talking to you, too. You're amazing. You push me.

SS: Thank you so much.

KR: I love being pushed. Thank you.

SS: Good luck with all your future endeavors.

KR: Thank you, sweetheart.

SS: Thank you.