Who would argue that we live in a plastic age? The modern material has given designers permission to reshape our environment. We will biomorph into the millennium.
New York designer Karim Rashid must have envisioned a soft landing in an "Oh Chair," a $50 molded plastic wonder on the cover of Crate & Barrel's fall catalogue. The Container Store has picked it up, too. For the designer, Oh was an exercise in form as well as price control: The chair has no straight lines, leading one fan to suggest its shell is as enveloping as a womb.
"I'm trying to design products with the Zeitgeist," Rashid explained by phone. "I am so interested in the moment we live, I'm obsessed with materials, production, the digital age, the behavioral shift."
At 38, Rashid sits atop the contemporary American design heap. His distinctive brand of "sensual minimalism" earned him the title of Young Designer of the Year from the Brooklyn Museum of Art last year. House & Garden magazine calls him "the design world's hippest jack-of-all-trades." A student of Ettore Sottsass and Gaetano Pesce, Rashid also is admired for the way he thinks.
In a Web link from his distributor, Totem (www.totemdesign.com), he instructs: "Objects are signs of popular culture; a social identification, and a codifier of beliefs, social groups, structures, a tool, a fetish, a communication instrument, a language, a fashion, a theory of form, a commodity and a conformation of prevailing values."
In person, he proselytizes about "casual engineering," retooling the stuff we live with to suit the way we really live. It's as simple as designing the Oh Chair for people who slouch. Or giving the trash can a fashion makeover.
"I have this kind of desire -- I'm not sure where it came from -- to really change the physical landscape, and change the way we think about objects in our daily lives," Rashid said.
A self-described nomad, Rashid was born in Cairo in 1960. He grew up in England and Canada. His artist father designed sets for television and film. Rashid recalls "being 18 years old and thinking I want to design a chair. Basically I wanted to replace Charles Eames."
Establishing a studio in New York in 1992, Rashid has brought forth soft-edged plastics for Umbra; elegant metals and bar ware for Nambe; avant-garde furniture for the Japanese company Idee, and packaging and bags for Issey Miyake that are as shapely as runway models.
Tomorrow, a line of vinyl CD holders and desk top accessories will be introduced at the New York International Gift Fair by Totem, the SoHo store that represents his work. Monday through Oct. 1, a mini-retrospective puts him in the spotlight at Bergdorf Goodman. Rashid sofas and ceramics are considered as reflective of the Zeitgeist as menswear from Jil Sander, Armani and Calvin Klein.
If Rashid is designer of the moment, Oh (that's what people are said to have exclaimed when they sat in the prototype) is the chair of the season. Made by Umbra, it has been marketed in slick magazine ads showing a slim blonde model in ice-blue tee drifting across a mint-colored chair. She barely touches its surface. The designer has noticed that we no longer sit straight. Oh is forgiving, which must be its charm.
That's why Gail Shultz, co-owner of Totem, sees Rashid as "the designer for the next millennium." Les Mandelbaum of Umbra likens him to a home-grown Philippe Starck saying, "His kind of casual sensuality seems to be really right on."
Like Starck, Rashid is succeeding by designing down as well as up. "Garbo," a $10 translucent plastic wastebasket he designed for Umbra, has become an icon among housewares. The company has sold 2 million in three years.
These days, Rashid is working on a heat-sensitive table that will change color on human contact like a giant mood ring. He envisions clothing imbedded with a microchip. He also hints at a top-secret project for a credit card.
We are left to imagine the ultimate statement in plastic style.