The power of colour

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - PURSUITS - Karim Rashid is a key­note speaker at IDS Vancouver, which runs Sept. 20-23. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit­te­ri­orde­sign­ This in­ter­view has been con­densed and edited.

Karim Rashid knows he has to start small to move con­sumer tastes from drab to dy­namic. As the de­signer tells Laura Gold­stein, part of that in­volves break­ing down gen­der stereo­types

Karim Rashid pulls a sur­prise move by wear­ing yel­low, in­stead of his usual pink at­tire, dur­ing his Skype in­ter­view from New York. But then the Cairoborn Cana­dian prod­uct, fur­ni­ture, restau­rant and ho­tel in­te­ri­ors de­signer is of­ten un­pre­dictable; a whirling dervish of ideas, opin­ions, New Age phi­los­o­phy, crit­i­cism and wit. Once crowned “the Prince of Plas­tic” by Time mag­a­zine, his cur­va­ceous plas­tic util­i­tar­ian Garbo wastepa­per bas­ket, de­signed for Cana­dian com­pany Um­bra in 1996, kicked off his ca­reer. It’s since sold more than seven mil­lion units world­wide and is still go­ing strong. His Oh Chair, also for Um­bra, is in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of MoMA in San Fran­cisco. At 57, he es­chews trends in favour of in­no­va­tion and is an agent provo­ca­teur syn­ony­mous with more than 4,000 de­signs and 300 in­ter­na­tional awards.

Here, he speaks about the ap­petite for colour, why he loves pink and his cur­rent projects.

You use colour like a po­lit­i­cal state­ment, to pro­voke and in­spire. But there’s a fine line be­tween over-the-top de­sign of a ho­tel lobby and what the con­sumer finds ac­cept­able in their own liv­ing room. How do you get it right?

Well, I don’t know if I get it right all the time. Some­times, it’s very wrong. My re­ac­tion to that is to say that peo­ple will ac­cept colour on a mi­cro level – like a mousepad or kitchen gad­gets. In the high-tech in­dus­try, you see colour in speak­ers or I re­mem­ber when Nikon brought out a pink dig­i­tal cam­era in 2013. But when you start get­ting into large fur­nish­ings, you start nar­row­ing your au­di­ence. All of a sud­den, only 5 per cent of con­sumers will buy an orange lounge chair.

So, in fact, as you de­sign larger and larger, con­sumer con­sump­tion gets smaller and smaller. That’s some­thing I’m aware of.

Why is Western cul­ture so afraid of colour?

This is a phe­nom­e­non I’ve no­ticed for decades. In coun­tries such as In­dia, Mex­ico, Chile, even Sin­ga­pore, those coun­tries had so much colour in their cloth­ing and makeup for cen­turies. In fact, the closer you are to the equa­tor, the more colour­ful the cul­ture. But now, even those cul­tures are be­com­ing very neu­tral. You’d think it would be the op­po­site – north­ern coun­tries such as Canada, for ex­am­ple, where it’s dark and cold in win­ter should wear bright colours. The vis­ual age has ac­tu­ally cre­ated a more ho­mo­ge­neous ap­proach to colour.

Ev­ery­one is just copy­ing one an­other. And not just in­te­ri­ors, but build­ing ex­te­ri­ors. The op­po­site is the ex­ten­sion of OCAD Uni­ver­sity in Toronto de­signed by Wil Al­sop and how beau­ti­ful that project is – but he was a great painter. I’m sure he alien­ated a lot of po­ten­tial clients, just like I do. Lots of clients are afraid of meet­ing me. They say, “We’ll hire you, but we don’t want pink.” In a way, I’ve been pi­geon­holed.

Why is pink your favourite colour?

It’s pos­i­tive; it’s the new black. So many men have is­sues with it be­cause they still think it’s too fem­i­nine. I’m try­ing to break down gen­der is­sues in ev­ery prod­uct I de­sign.

What are you work­ing on now that takes the fear out of ac­cept­ing colour?

Right now, I’m work­ing on about 11 ho­tels around the world, in­clud­ing bud­get ho­tels for the Radis­son Ho­tel Group’s Prizeo­tels across Ger­many and a hos­pi­tal in Tel Aviv. My staff and I are look­ing at our screens and talk­ing about colours and I find my­self be­com­ing more con­ser­va­tive.


Yes. When I open up ren­der­ings I did 15 years ago, I’m shocked at the colours I com­posed. Well, there’s al­ways a com­pro­mise, be­cause I want the project to hap­pen. But how much do I com­pro­mise? Last year, there were three restau­rant in­te­ri­ors I was work­ing on in Nor­way, Ukraine and Athens. I lost all three clients be­cause all three wanted this bor­ing, postin­dus­trial look of brown, ex­posed brick, or a wall of old books – I just don’t do that.

If any­thing needs a re­design with colour, it’s hos­pi­tals, where peo­ple are ill and of­ten afraid. What are you do­ing for the hos­pi­tal in Tel Aviv?

I’m just start­ing that project, but I’ll do what I al­ways do for ho­tels and that is an amaz­ing space with a high-en­ergy vibe. I think that you can make peo­ple feel bet­ter and get bet­ter with a pos­i­tive feel­ing. I spent quite a lot of time in hos­pi­tal in New York when I had cancer and it was in­cred­i­bly de­press­ing, not only be­cause you think you’re go­ing to die but be­cause I had to hang out in this dis­gust­ing, drab place for weeks on end.

Karim Rashid, who was once dubbed ‘the Prince of Plas­tic,’ has more than 4,000 de­signs to his name.

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