At the Corcoran Gallery of Art this week, a futuristic designer in pink leather shoes crashed through the symbolic morass.
Karim Rashid, creator of pastel plastic trash cans, sexy squeeze bottles for dish soap, high-fashion bags, seating for lounge lizards and, lately, digitally enhanced hotel rooms, had come to talk about living fabulously in the here and now. Overhead, a shapely lime-green DJ station gave way to an undulating "pleasurescape" for sprawling in style on the floor. Images of dozens of new designs flowed in Kool-Aid shades of strawberry, tangerine, kiwi and grape. The colors were sweet, but the message was tart.
"The whole problem of the human race is nostalgia," Rashid said.
Neckties and weddings are high on Rashid's list of absurdities. So is conventional furniture, which he dismisses as "a derivative of a derivative of a derivative" of something created back in the 16th century.
"Why do we keep hanging on to these things?" he asked. "Why are we afraid to evolve? I have no idea."
On Tuesday night, Rashid raced into the auditorium with enough energy to melt one of his plastic chairs. He was the second major design-world figure in the "Eye on Design" lecture series, which coincides with the launch of the Corcoran College of Art and Design's master's program in interior design. On Sept. 28, Frank Gehry reflected on his struggles as a revolutionary architect. The dean of American interior designers, Albert Hadley, will dissect 20th-century style on Tuesday. Rashid used his appearance to introduce the elements of Nutopia.
The 44-year-old industrial designer has been orchestrating a glamorous nirvana of the new and now from his New York studio since 1993. Creative vision is deeply rooted. The child of Egyptian and English parents, Rashid was born in Cairo and grew up in London and Toronto. His father, Mahmoud, who died last year, was an artist and designer. Brother Hani Rashid, who practices architecture in New York with his wife, Lise Anne Couture, as the firm Asymptote, is considered a leading force of a new generation of avant-garde architects.
On a visit to Washington last year, Hani Rashid explained the origin of the brothers' futuristic vision. "When we were small and lived in London, my father told us we were moving to Canada," he said. "He told us we were going to the New World."
Upon arrival in Montreal, the boys were taken straight to Expo '67. There, on two islands in the St. Lawrence River, the world's fair offered the most futuristic skyline ever seen. Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome bubbled up 20 stories. Everything was linked by monorail.
"That's where we thought we were going to live," Hani said. "We thought we had arrived in the New World."
Instead, the Rashid brothers grew up in the suburbs of Toronto. As designers, Hani said, "what we're both trying to do is kind of a correction. We really believe in a powerful, poetic, magical future."
Karim Rashid's laboratory is an apartment over his Chelsea studio. A palette of pink and acid green has a techy quality, like colors on a computer screen. Materials are tactile and slick. Shapes are softly rounded, never sharply angled.
Rashid's favorite pink can be as unrelenting as cotton candy, but it's hard to argue with the essential question driving his work: "Why isn't our whole world beautiful?"
In a new monograph, "Karim Rashid: Evolution," due next month from Universe, the designer describes Nutopia as a place where "everything is beautiful, romantic, positive, energetic, intellectual and seamless, with no banalities or tedious human paradigms, where we live in constant inspiration -- where we are smarter, faster and stronger."
That's a lot of psycho-baggage for a $10 translucent plastic trash can -- the Garbo wastebasket is still Rashid's best-known product design -- to contain. But the designer pushed his argument at the Corcoran.
Why do so many people cling to the past? "It's this idea that somehow the past was better," he said. "It's not. It's better now."
Rashid circled the stage, dressed as usual in a slightly rumpled white suit, soft-soled shoes and funky black-framed glasses. Most men in the auditorium wore dark jackets and ties. The clash of cultures appeared unresolved.
Three years ago, Rashid wore black on the cover of his first monograph. The brashness of the title -- "I Want to Change the World" -- drew as much commentary as the portfolio of designs. There was never a date certain for Global Style Liftoff. If "Evolution" tamps down the rhetoric, Rashid's enthusiasm is undiminished.
"The time that we live in is such a beautiful, poignant moment," Rashid said.
In the big picture, borders are disappearing, ideas are flowing and technology is offering opportunities to make the physical environment as exciting as the virtual world. Still, the real world has its gritty moments. As a frequent flier born in Cairo and traveling on a Canadian passport, Rashid has been searched and "interrogated perpetually" in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. But his belief in Nutopia is unshaken.
"I have not only not changed my view," he said, "but I see an even quicker, stronger and more omnipresent engagement of the contemporary, of design, of technology, of beauty and of betterment."
Consumer products and interior architecture inevitably express the mood of their era. Rashid's designs record a pure strain of optimism. Technology is allowing him to cultivate pearls in shapes Mother Nature never dreamed of. He is designing a plastic kit house to be assembled in a day. He hopes for "smart" clothing that will respond to body temperature.
This summer, Rashid completed his first boutique hotel interior. At the 54-room Semiramis Hotel in Athens, colorful carpets, wallpaper and mosaics at the swimming pool have digitally generated designs, which Rashid proposes as New Age herringbone. Check-in can be accomplished by iris scanner, though no guest has yet tried. Electronic message boards outside each guest room are linked to a keypad so travelers may transmit messages to passers-by in the hallway. Instead of "Do Not Disturb," Rashid suggests, "Hello, I'm single. Please come in."
In an e-mail Wednesday, he fumed over the "banal," "antiquated" and "pompous" rooms in which he sometimes has to spend the night. While in Washington, Rashid stayed at the Cosmos Club.
"It was quite an odd old-school experience," he reported. "I am not comfortable in old places. I have nightmares."