The power of colour
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.