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In many ways Rashid is more like an itinerant industrial evangelist than a designer. He traveled 200 days last year. He claims to have been to every major mall in the country, where he signs his products in high-end design stores and trolls about observing humans interacting with the objects around them. He has taught at design schools for more than a decade, and his work has been in 11 art shows in the past eight months. But mostly he has proselytized the barbarians--corporate America. And like any good missionary, he has learned to speak the language of his converts. One of the first things he does when he gets new clients is tour their factories to understand their manufacturing capacity. He also visits the retail outlets to see how the product might be displayed. And he really knows how to sell, especially himself. "I work with a guy in L.A.," says Rashid, declining to name him. "He made a lot of really bad furniture. His business was hand-to-mouth. I proposed seven or eight projects. The pieces I've done for him have already become iconic." The title of his monograph, Karim Rashid: I Want to Change the World, is not ironic, just characteristically immodest.
"Most industrial-design studios try to interpret a client's needs and come up with a style," says Paul Rowan, co-founder of housewares manufacturer Umbra. "Karim has his own personal vision." It helps that Rashid's vision incorporates things that Rowan needs, like a design that will stack and ship easily and that creates little waste in the making.
Rashid's father was a set designer for Canadian TV who rearranged the family furniture every Sunday. So perhaps it was ordained that Karim would grow up to become one of the pioneers in non-cheesy plastic, making objects that have energy and personality but aren't wacky. He, like many of his generation, has championed the could-only-be-designed-with-computers blob. But his is not just a blob for its own sake. His Oh Chair is reminiscent of a pelvic girdle. His New Move glassware for German manufacturer Leonardo looks like a forest floor, with mushroom bowls, fern candelabras and lily-shaped vases.
Then there's multifunctionality, the watchword of '00s design. Rashid didn't invent it, but he has pushed it. "Every new object should replace three," he says. His packaging for an Issey Miyake perfume was a corrugated polypropylene envelope that could double as a toiletries purse; his Bozart children's chair is also a toy box; and his Q Chaise converts from a table to a chair-and-footrest and then to a daybed.
Whether or not Rashid succeeds in raising the profile of design, his own profile is way up. In April, while at the Salone in Milan, the world's biggest furniture fair, Rashid took off the shoes he had designed to lounge about on one of his installations. When he returned, one of them was missing. Just one. It probably wasn't stolen to be worn. It was a trophy.