Interview With Mauro Porcini and Karim Rashid
Karim Rashid is one of the most prolific industrial designers of our time.
Things should function well, feel well, be positive, and all the built environment should raise or elevate one’s sense of well-being.
MAURO: For the longest time, design only existed for the elite and for a small insular culture. I’ve worked hard for the last 20 years trying to make design a public subject. I’m quoting the guest of today. Time Magazine describes him as the “Most famous industrial designer in all the Americas”. He’s an Egyptian-born and Canadian-raised designer. His award-winning designs include luxury goods, furniture, lighting, surface design, branded entity packaging and interiors for companies like Veuve Clicquot, Umbra, 3M, Samson, Hugo Boss, Audi and PepsiCo. His work is featured in 20 permanent collections, multiple publications, and he exhibits art in galleries worldwide. He’s a perennial winner of the Red Dot Design Award, of the Chicago Athenaeum Good Design Award, ID Magazine and Well Design Review, Idea [saying?] Industrial Design Excellence, and many other awards.
MAURO: He’s a frequent guest lecturer at the universities and conferences globally, disseminating the importance of design in everyday life. He holds honorary doctorates from OCAD Toronto and Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington. He’s been featured in magazines and books, including Time, Vogue, Esquire, GC, World Paper, and countless more. Karim Rashid, welcome to In Your Shoes.
KARIM: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Mauro.
MAURO: It’s such a pleasure to have you with us today. Really, really a pleasure. You’re one of the most eloquent designers that I ever met. Somebody that on top of doing great things across so many different categories, is also able to talk about design and to inspire people with your words. So today is really, really a pleasure to have you with us.
KARIM: Maybe you should say that when it’s over.
KARIM: Whether I’m very eloquent in this discussion or not, you know, so…
MAURO: I’m putting pressure on you, Karim.
MAURO: I’m joking. Full disclosure, Karim Rashid and I, we’re really good friends, and we had many of these conversations in so many different kind of situations over the years. So today, you are seen by everybody as a global citizen. You are a design star renown all around the world in every corner of the planet. But as anybody else, you started from somewhere. You were born in Egypt, in Cairo.
MAURO: And then your journey in life and your professional journey brought you all the way to New York where you live today. But once again, you really are a citizen of the world. So how can anybody else coming from any city around the world do a journey like the one you did? What was your secret? What was your journey? Can you tell us a little bit about that journey?
KARIM: Sure. You know, first of all, this September I turn 60, Mauro.
KARIM: So I’ll talk about my childhood, which was 1960 when I was born. And if you think about that time in retrospect compared to the time we live in now, they’re worlds apart. It’s as if we have a whole new planet and a new population, and you know. It’s fantastic, the shift in 60 years, what’s happened to the world. First of all, my father was a painter and a artist and a set designer for television and film. And when he was studying, after he finished Cairo, he spent many years traveling around Europe studying under great painters, Andre Laut-en-Gromaire in Paris. He was in Athens. He was in Rome. And when I was born, and my brother was now at this point two, the two of us, my father decided that he really needed to leave Egypt again. I think he was a very restless type. He was probably the black sheep in the family because he was the oldest of 11 children. Can you imagine?
KARIM: So he probably felt he had a lot of responsibility in Cairo with the family, and being an artist. He was the only artist in the family, really. So we went off to Rome from Cairo. And when we got to Rome, my father had a job with Cinecitta, and he worked on film set design. And so you know, I was very, very young. I don’t remember this very well, but after a year and a half in Rome, we went to Paris. And after a year in Paris, he had an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris he took, so he just packed up, took the family. It was a little white Austin Mini that he had, a 1958 white Austin Mini. They drove, you know, from Rome to Paris, you know, for like five days, or whatever it took. We got to Paris, and then in Paris after his exhibition ended after four or five months, we moved to England, which my mother is British. In England, he worked on a job with BBC Television at that time. CBC in Canada owned BBC and they invited him to come to Canada. So when I was now about seven, we got to Canada. And on that ship going to Canada, there was a little drawing competition for children.
KARIM: And I, by the way, probably from the age of one, maybe two or three days a week I spent with my father drawing buildings, churches, objects. We were always drawing together, and really discussing, obviously in a very epicedian way, discussing design, really. So it was a drawing competition of maybe 200 children and I remember everybody drawing around me, and I really didn’t know what to draw, because everybody was drawing the ocean and the ship, or the family and the sun. And I was fascinated with the fact that we took our apartment in London and packed it in a few crates, and managed to put it on this ship and were leaving forever. So I drew luggage. And that’s what I drew. So I drew boxes with my father’s shirts lined up, and my mother’s shoes, and the way they would open. I kind of drew really distorted drawings of how they would open and close with the little drawers. And I won the drawing competition, [LAUGH] which I’m very proud of. I think that’s the award in my life that I’m most proud of, you know?
MAURO: The first one.
KARIM: The first one. And we got to Montreal. I was seven, and it was expo. And Expo 67, you know, if you’re young and you don’t know much about it, it would be great to do a lot of research about it. I think it was probably the last great global world exposition. And Buckminster Fuller did the U.S. pavilion, and Neurve [PH] did the Italian pavilion, and it was amazing what was shown and what was done for that Expo Montreal. And there was something called Man and His World, which was very sci-fi like. It was really fantastic, with Habitat, with a whole apartment complex called Habitat, that was built. They were override trams that were electromagnetic. It was all very space age, in a sense, and very much about a utopian future in Montreal. And since my father had two months to wait to get his job, we went every day as children. You can imagine the influence and the impact that had on it. But then even more so, here I am now in school learning French and English, and my brother, which is older than me, he was learning Italian when he was in Rome, et cetera.
KARIM: I think just having parents that were very disparate cultures and the amount of traveling they had already done. They got married in Athens. I think we were so exposed to all that, that there was a sort of restlessness in our family, where we never really felt anywhere was home. After Montreal for a couple years, when we went to Toronto, and Toronto at that time was a village compared to now. Montreal was the city in Canada at that time, the more avant-garde place. But in Toronto, you know, we grew up there. But and even in Toronto, down the street that we lived on where [there was a?] downtown, right beside me was like the Polish district with six or seven Polish bakeries and delis. Around the corner was the Italian district. Around the corner from there, there was Greek and Greek Orthodox. Then there was Jamaican town. And Toronto was very much like a small New York, in a sense of really multicultural. And such a melting pot.
KARIM: I’d say much more so even than New York, and more so than the States, because everybody that came to Canada were more or less, you know, first generation. So the diversity of cultures I was brought up with as a child. So when I was sitting in class and every child around me was either Punjab, Croatian, Yugoslavian, you know, Russian, I just assumed this is the world. I assumed as a child at the age of 10 that the whole world is like this. And until I actually traveled independently, and I think the first time I actually got on a plane and left North America, I went to Rome at the age of 22 to go and study my Master’s in Milano. I landed in Rome and I got to a place that was chaos and beautiful. Amazing, but it was completely uni-cultural. It was Italian, you know. Everything was Italian. Everything, you know.
KARIM: And if you were a foreigner there, you were a tourist, you know, looking, you know, walking around in there. And I landed there in August, by the way, which I won’t go on about.
MAURO: You were by yourself. [LAUGH]
KARIM: Yes. I ended up sleeping in the train station, you know. I remember I couldn’t find a pensione, because everything was full. For me, it was quite an experience. Beautiful experience, actually, but hard. You know, I got robbed. Everything went [OVERLAP]. I finally got to Milano. But anyway, so just to go back to what you said, is I think in me, there’s always been the sense that the world is one and there shouldn’t be any boundaries or borders, and we should just be able to maneuver and travel the world. And just because I’m born in a certain place, I don’t really believe because that land under me at that point in time, belongs to whoever, that I am automatically of that culture, that place, and have to be nationalistic or patriotic, et cetera.
KARIM: I feel like eventually, hopefully, one day there won’t be any boundaries and borders. And that one part of the earth, I can go live there if I like. I can choose anywhere I’d like to live. And that sense of Nomadism in me has always kind of prevailed and always made me, how can I say? Never quite feel like I belong anywhere in a way, you know? But for me in a good way. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I feel very free, I’d say. I’ve always felt this way.
MAURO: So if I listen to what you are saying, the idea of diversity, not just in yourself, but in the people that surround you, has been at the base of everything you always did. It’s been at the core of your way of innovating and doing design. Not just, once again, in the way you grew up, but in the people that you surround yourself with. Today we talk so much about diversity. What’s your point of view on that on the base of your background?
KARIM: Well, you know, when you said that, my immediate reaction thought was when I physicalize the world, when I manifest things that people interact with, I always had a global take on it. And I remember, actually in university, my undergraduate. There’s a lot of classes called icono-classicism and cultural differentiation, and how and Remington would make an electric razor for men, or Norelco, or Phillips, and they would change it based on the country and the place. You know, so for example, the Phillips in the States was gold trim back in the late ’70’s, with a kind of artificial wood grain in it. But the Remington in Germany was black with silver with black leather, and the one in Europe, in the warm countries, had something else. And even the product differentiation gender I never believed in, either. I always thought a great product is for everybody.
KARIM: An eight-year-old and an 80-year-old should use it, which is what I was brought up also with, because I learned under Victor Papanek who wrote a fantastic book of design for the real world, which until today is the number one design selling book ever in history. Something like 23 million copies or something of it. And it’s a fantastic read, because it was all about designing for the real world. It was designing ecologically, but it was also this sense of democracy, that design, good design, should be for the poorest person and the richest person, the same object, the same thing, the same how we interact. So that sense of when you look at industrial design really at the mass level, the sense of differentiation, how can I say? Has become less and less and less now from when I was I school. So today, Apple makes a laptop that’s the same globally, let’s say. You know? You make a Pepsi graphic or can that can be the same globally. Of course, you go through differentiation, and you have to, because food is another animal in a way, in a sense. But that was always with me, this kind of democracy, let’s say.
KARIM: And in a sense of differentiation of people, I always just believed that everybody should have, in the small time that we’re all here, a good life. And that these object, these things, our environments, our spaces, even if it’s minimal, even if it’s just, you know, how can I say? A frugal approach, somebody deserves still to have a decent life. Things should function well, feel well, be positive, and all the built environment should raise or elevate one’s sense of well-being.
MAURO: Is that the role of design? Creating that kind of condition for human beings? Is that the purpose of design?
KARIM: [Tony Sosa?] said to me when we were lying on the beach today, I’ll never forget this, down near Naples, besides looking at every girl on the beach, he said to me, nothing should really exist physically around us unless it brings us some sense of better experience.
KARIM: And it stayed with me, that, because what I realize is, if you look around the physical world that we built, the things we do, there’s so much that’s not additive to our well-being. Not additive to a better life, but the opposite. They create stress. And Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher, he called all those things “obstacles” to the meaning of life. And even in a material world and a world of hyper-consumption, even more so. That we’re so caught up with the consuming, but we end up, in turn, mostly consuming a lot of obstacles. It makes our lives more difficult. It is obstructive, in a way. And that harps on notions of, you know, Dieter Rams saying you know, less but better, or Mies, or-was it Mies?
KARIM: I always forget. Less is more, et cetera. You know, they have different definitions of that. Less is more I always had an issue with, because less is more was about being super reductive, and a lot of us can’t really be that reductive. We need ornament. We need things. But the question is, how much do we really need, right?
MAURO: Yeah. And you know, it’s probably all about being focused on those needs or wants and desire and dreams. And for some people, that hyper-reductive solution is exactly what they need. For some others, they search some form of romanticist, being that [product?], poetry. And for them, the perfect solution is something I mentioned, is not minimal. It’s just different. Tell me. Tell me.
KARIM: Mauro. I’m sorry, but at the same time the extreme case you talked about, or let’s say the two extreme cases, if the physicality that’s around you is some sense of an addition to the beautification of your life or others, great.
KARIM: Be it maximalist or a minimalist. The question you have to ask one’s self all the time is, do these things provide us a better life? And it’s like function. The most basic essential, lowest common denominator of design you could argue, is that something should function, firstly. And function well. Right?
KARIM: And I find this is where design and designers, in general in the build environment, disappoints me a lot of times and lets me down. I remember a commercial on television by Ikea in 1995, where they showed a Marc Newson pod chair with three legs. And somebody came and sat on it and it fell. And then they pulled out an Ikea chair. [MAKES SOUND]
KARIM: And they sat on it and they were comfortable. This was on air, on television, right? That 15-second commercial stuck with me because it made me realize that as designers, this is where we have to be careful. The things we do, we can get away with the most radical, most avant-garde, most interesting things. But first they gotta work. Right? It’s like Pepsi putting out a package, a new type of package, a new way of opening something, a new [MAKES SOUNDS]. And if it’s letting people down, it will be phenomenally unsuccessful, regardless of what you wrap around it. And I even noticed this in my career. I’m talking about real industrial design now. I’m not talking about doing interiors or limited-edition things or anything. In my career, the objects that I design that function seamlessly are still on the market, still extremely successful, and will keep going. And people talk about, you know, classicism.
KARIM: Classic, there’s nothing classic. It doesn’t exist, this notion of classic. Things stick with us if they’re still providing us with this kind of betterment of our needs.
MAURO: Building value. Building value for the society. I think in that way, if we all stick to that kind of purpose, we can really create a better world, create a better society. Collectively, we’re all driven by not creating anything that is not meaningful. That doesn’t build value in the life of people in a way or the other. And something very interesting, your philosophy of life and your philosophy as a designer is this idea of democratization of design. Making design accessible to everybody. Can you tell us more about that? For us in PepsiCo, obviously this is a topic extremely, extremely relevant because our products are all about the masses and we serve billions of people every day. And it’s what I’ve been trying to do in my life, making design accessible to the masses, is at the core of your philosophy. Can you tell us more about that?
KARIM: Yeah. Design touches us on many levels. It touches us physically, physiologically, right? Emotionally, mentally, spiritually. It sets or shifts or changes social human behaviors. It evolves and progresses humanity, you know? So design is quite a large facet, a large sphere. And within that sphere, there’s many different aspects of it. There’s consumption for a moment. Drink a can of Pepsi. Boom. You know? The longer term one could be something like the sketchbook you have in your hand that you’re using and after two months it’s full and it’s over with. It could be something very extremely disposable. It could be something that you just open up the package and let the water run and it dissipates. It’s, I don’t know, a biodegradable cornstarch polymer.
KARIM: And these are things that are in our mass world. But also design, you know, furniture is not really a mass market. There are mass market players in it, but a lot of furniture is done, 100 couches a year. It’s small stuff, right? Or I don’t know, interiors. Interiors generally are one off, you know? They’re all prototypes, really, like architecture. You know, architecture really and the end of the day, each building is a singular, right? So design covers all that. You can’t say, oh, well, design is democratic and it’s for everybody and da-da-da. No. There are various kind of specialized areas to a design. Design is even below the line design, like Peter Dormer talked about for many years. Below the line design is all design you and I, we don’t think is design. We know it’s design, but a lot of people who are not in this business would not think it’s design. When you get on the airplane and you turn left and it happens that the pilot’s door is open and you see the cockpit, those instruments in that cockpit are all designed. Everything is designed so that that pilot is flying with the best safety, you know, reach ergonomics, [and proper?] metrics of the space.
KARIM: All that’s being designed. But you and I, we don’t think about it. You get in there and then the first thing you think of if you think design is, how comfortable my chair is. Or do I have leg room? That’s design.
MAURO: Why do you think people don’t understand this? I totally, totally agree with you. I think a big chunk of my work, your work is the one actually I was explaining what is design that is much more than styling. It’s everything you describe until now. Why the world is not understanding this? What can we do then as designers to explain better what we do?
KARIM: Right. Oh my god.
MAURO: What happened?
KARIM: Are you there?
MAURO: Yeah, we’re here. Yeah.
KARIM: Mauro, I didn’t realize. Somebody called my number and it just like lost.
MAURO: Oh, okay.
KARIM: So where do I find you know?
MAURO: Can you see me?
KARIM: I cannot see you. I just had Zoom join a meeting. Did it cut the meeting? [NON-INTERVIEW]
MAURO: So Karim, why you think that most people out there don’t understand what design is about? A big chunk of what I do and what you do is also explaining what design is about. It’s exactly what you described until now. So why you think people don’t understand it? And what can we do, we as designers, to better explain to the world what design is about?
KARIM: Yeah. I think Metropolis Magazine back in the late ’90’s did a survey of a 1,000 people and asked them about name three designers. And they all named fashion people, first of all. So the word “designer” [still and today?], they associate with the fashion industry, designing fashion industry. But it’s just interesting, you know, because in Italy, for example, right? The fashion design is called “stilisti”, and the designers are called “architecti”. They make a differentiation. And the reason they make differentiation is because styling as an education, the way it was taught, was to always look in the past for inspiration. Design is really about looking in the future for inspiration.
KARIM: So they’re very different that way. And that you can acknowledge the idea that you style things. In industrial design and design, that was a bad word, “style”. You know, and when I was at university, my undergraduate faculty, they were Germans and Dutch, and they would not let us use that word at all, you know? It was hardcore, Teutonic education. And I didn’t really understand it, because I thought they were a little bit symbiotic. And they are in a sense. But the danger of style, obviously, is that when you imitate the past, you’re styling something, it means you’ve looked back into history. That’s why we use words like, oh, if I design a restaurant and some client says to me, oh, make it Belle Epoch-like, or make it Baroque-like. The minute you add that “like” and you talk about period, or a period that’s closed, right? The movement closed, you’re styling, really, right? So you know, if I make something ’70’s-like, I’ve got to look at the ’70’s for inspiration, then I’m styling. If I’m designing and I just take the criteria of today, what is the criteria of today, you know? If it’s a food product, where does it sit on the shelf?
KARIM: What’s the sight line? How does it feel when I pick it up? What kind of sound does it make when I rip it or open it? You know, how does it feel? Does it feel cold, warm? This is design. Touching all the senses. It’s a very sensorial act, right? But we’re not ever, ever talking about or discussing the past, right? We’re just talking about humancentric, momentary, at this moment, now. That’s design. I just finished a mobile phone in China with Oppo. Everything, the materials, technology, everything, the interface is the latest, latest, latest possible. No references to the past. The past doesn’t exist with a mobile phone, right? So that’s design, really. And what happens is, I think it’s overwhelming for mass culture and people to realize everything around them is designed. And even more so, that everything around them had some creative person behind it. It’s too much to handle. You look at the amount of physicality we have. But in certain industries, there’s been enough discourse since Metropolis did that survey to now have heard of some names because of media, and the media got very design-driven.
KARIM: And all of a sudden, everybody was talking design. And everybody is talking design. And there’s so much now and so much exposure now, that people are very aware of the most banal things that they’re starting to realize that they are designed. So I think it has changed a lot, Mauro. A lot. A phenomenal amount, actually. In that survey they asked architects, right? In America, a 1,000. And of the 1,000, I can’t remember the exact number, but something like 300 could name one. And it was 700 could name two, and there were a few, some could name three. And guess who number one was, by the way? It’s an architect?
MAURO: Who was it? Tell me.
KARIM: Frank Lloyd Wright.
MAURO: Ah, of course.
KARIM: And then some people said Frank Geary, because he was really there at that time. You know, there were a few. So architecture had that kind of respect, because it’s arm lengths away. People are awed by architecture. Like look at that building, wow. That architect must be a genius, you know? Or a bridge by Santiago Calatrava, wow.
KARIM: We’re awed. But the physical stuff every day, when you’re touching a CD case, and the salt-pepper shaker, and the mug, and the phone, and the ring, and the watch, and the glasses, and the towel, you know, I think it’s too much information. It’s overwhelming. And people now have an expectation. I think this is very important for probably every company and brand in the world that if they’re making anything physical or virtual, that this stuff has to be great. You can’t just now sell based on a brand name, you know, or myth anymore. There’s a new honesty happening, where these things around us better just feel great, better work well. And even if you only give them a minute a day, that’s all they want to give. They don’t want to go, oh, what’s the history of this mug? Who is this? Who designed? Well, I know who designed this. I think I’d understand that people are not that interested. It’d be like you and I trying to understand the medical industry.
KARIM: You know? Do we want to, you know? I don’t know. Maybe you have interest, but I don’t really want to. [LAUGH]
MAURO: But listening to you, you are talking about style with the interpretation that you shared with us. You talk about emotions. You talk about functionality and imperative functionality. And then you talk about adding value to the life of people, creating something that is meaningful, and you talk about any category of product that surrounds us. So if you put all of this together, you know, in my experience in PepsiCo, in my previous life in 3M, this is what this corporations call “innovation”. I think we should really start to position what we do in terms of innovation, because that’s exactly what you are talking about, projecting yourself to the future instead of looking at the past.
MAURO: And innovation is so, so important for any company, big or small, in this moment.
MAURO: And I really believe that designers with that kind of mindset you just described, can add an amazing, amazing value. But a lot of people don’t know that designers do that kind of thing. They don’t know that designers are trained at school, already at school, in doing innovation. What do you think about that?
KARIM: First, I love what you said. And I think that I always say that design is inseparable from innovation and technology. And I even say, and I taught for many years, but I even say to my staff and I always think about this, that if I want to design something original or something relative to now, something that’s gonna make some sort of impact or change, I should imbue the latest technology, period. Right? And innovation will come out of obviously looking at the real social behavior of use, and material, and technology, et cetera. So I agree with you completely, you know? And I think the problem may be that the larger public, if they don’t understand, they think that design is bringing them some sort of style.
KARIM: It’s that visual exercise, you know. And even more so now with imagery, ’cause we’re inundated with imagery, it’s all visual. There’s not a lot going deeper than that. Our responsibility, I think, is with all these companies, clients, brands, is to, as you said earlier, is we have to educate perpetually, you know. And you hear this all the time. I watch every documentary possible on every architect that exists, and they all had the same sort of sense of frustration, but believed in the fact that they had to explain to the developer or explain to the couple who were designing a house for, explain, really talk them into understanding what you do. What we do. And maybe that will continue ongoing, you know? And I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with that. Earlier at the beginning you said something about being articulate or verbose or something, I think that’s where I learned something in Canada.
KARIM: I learned that I had to really sell my designs. My early days after I graduated from Canada, I went to Italy, was there two years, I went back to Canada. When I got back to Canada, I got into an industrial design firm. The most important, let’s say one, or biggest one in Canada, which was still small. It was like 10 employees or something. Our big clients were people like Black & Decker, and I designed an electric drill and a sander, and these very technical objects. And I had to sit with them, and I remember meeting after meeting, trying to get them to understand why an electric drill could still be a beautiful object. Or why a belt sander, why I did this shape and this move for the hand. And I had so much pressure in seven years of designing those kind of very utilitarian products. I designed medical equipment, x-ray table. I designed a mammographer. I designed something for the Canadian military. I learned that I had to know how to talk about what I’m doing.
KARIM: It was pressure. It was survival. If I cannot articulate why I designed this chair this way, right, they may not produce the chair. You know? So, and design by the way, and we go back to the education of design, I think what’s happening globally with design from an academic point of view, that rigor is missing. The rigor of really talking in a very direct, simple, but smart way about why you did what you did. Even more so, when we talked about style earlier, a lot of design schools and designers are still very much steeped in style or styling something, or making something what they think looks cool. And you got to watch out for that word “cool”, because that’s momentary, right? That’s trend, which I always have a huge problem with that word, you know? Movement is good. Trend, not good. You know?
KARIM: So, yeah?
MAURO: Or it depends also on the category of product, what are you doing. But in general, I totally agree with you.
KARIM: Yeah. That’s not what I’m saying. Like I’m saying if you’re doing something that’s intentionally for one season or for one year, sure, you play with trend, et cetera.
MAURO: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
KARIM: If somebody opens up a hair salon 10 years ago, you know what they did? They stuck a chandelier in it because, you know, the history of it, Phillip Stark and the Baroque movement that happened 20 years ago was prevailing, you know? But that’s just trend, right? Instead of saying, oh, I’m doing a hair salon. Maybe when people lie down to get their shampoo wash, I should tilt the ceiling and make it all mirror so that I can see the action going on in the salon. For example, that’s design.
KARIM: You know, I’m doing a restaurant in Rome right now, and it’s situated very close to Coliseum. And it’s on the roof of a building, but the problem with the building is if you sit in that restaurant and your back is this way, you’re not gonna see the Coliseum. And it’s a small restaurant.
KARIM: So my immediate reaction was I tilt the ceiling both ways, right? Underneath I’ll put the buffet bar or whatever, and all the tables and chairs, everybody will have a view of the Coliseum. So I walked in that space and spent two hours trying to figure out how everybody in the restaurant, which is only about 60 people maximum, could have a view of the Coliseum while they eat. To me, that’s building a better experience, right? A more interesting experience. An element of surprise. There’s nothing more beautiful when we’re surprised. Like a phenomenological moment. Touch something, taste something you never tasted before. Feel something, see something. Boom. Right? And that’s design, right?
MAURO: Absolutely. Absolutely.
KARIM: I could have made that space look, I don’t know, Revival right now is kind of this new post-modernism is revived again, or Memphis-like, you know? Or this-like, or that-like, using the world “like” again, going back to what I was saying. But the first thing I do is sit down and think about how do I get you, Mauro, right now, to just have a better or original or new experience.
KARIM: Because we’re having less and less and less. A lot of experiences are tertiary experiences. We watch a movie and we think that’s an experience. That’s not an experience. It was the experience of the directors and actors. Not ours. Right?
MAURO: Now we produce stuff. Products that go in the world. And somehow you just say that we need to build value in the life of people. We need to create something that is meaningful. But in a [world or other?] any time we produce anything, we are impacting also the environment, right? There is an impact connected to what we do as designers. Obviously in PepsiCo we know it very well because of the industry we play in, and we have so much investment now in the world of sustainability, trying to make our products as sustainable as possible. You gave a beautiful speech years ago in a roundtable that we organized with PepsiCo in Milan during design week, talking about sustainability and ecofriendly products.
MAURO: So what’s your point of view as a designer that produced, and will produce, millions of pieces that go in the environment? What’s your point of view on our responsibility as companies and as designers for the environment to be more [eco?] sustainable as possible?
KARIM: Well, there’s a graph there, I think. You know, obviously the larger the company, the more responsible, because they’re just putting a lot more into the physical world. But that goes all the way down to the singular. And the singular may be, oh, there’s a guy in Brooklyn and he’s making chairs one by one, right? Well, the guy in Brooklyn making chairs one by one I think needs to take on the same responsibility as the large manufacturer, meaning that we all, all, all have to be incredibly sensitive to our ecological system that exists in this world right now. And so I’ll give you an example. For many years I worried about it, because I was brought up in Canada and we created Earth Day, and in Toronto we had four waste cans in our living room, you know, for the garbage for in the kitchen.
KARIM: So it’s always been part of me, and I even get criticized. It was like, oh, but you know, it seems like your work, you don’t worry about the environment, right? And that’s why I don’t worry about bright colors. You can make natural things bright color, right? So but with all that said, I worry about in every interior what the carpet is made out of, what the furniture is made out of, everything. And I know it well. I’ve done my research in that. But I think collectively, Mauro, this is our world, you know? And it’s gonna be our children’s world, and onward. So we want everybody to live in a better world. And I think we have progressively done that over the last few thousands years. We keep making the world better and better and better. But then there was a little mistake there, you know? A little mistake with post-industrial revolution was that we started to create toxicity.
KARIM: And toxicity came out of really the polymer world more than anything. So we now know better. We’re learning. We’re pulling stuff out. We’re doing the right things. And there’s so many entrepreneurs and so many people, which is by the way, a fantastic time we live in now, because it is the epoch of the entrepreneur, that are coming in and doing something that is really relevant and perfect for the time, and smart, and sensitive. We know that youth cultures more and more, each one generation after generation, are getting more sensitive to the environment, et cetera. So I think we’re on the right path, by the way. As much as everybody is so critical and negative, really pessimistic about the future, I think it’s the opposite. All the companies that I work for around the world seem to care so much and are so interested in making these changes ongoing, and they can be from the smallest, from food packaging, all the way up to building a building, you know? So there is a new sensitivity with that.
KARIM: What I think the problem is, and maybe I’m not really answering the question, the problem is, is that we have to move a little faster, right? And we have to somehow de-materialize a little bit. We can’t keep going on with the amount of quantity that’s being produced. Which it’s interesting that Covid came along, because Covid, in a sense, you could argue, is a bit of a catalyst, or let’s say the silver lining of Covid, is the fact that all of a sudden we’re all slowing down a little bit, thinking what our contribution is a little bit, you know. It’s kind of a new wave of sensitivity. That sensitivity is geared towards the earth and the in-climate, you know? And I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s a necessity, in a way, to really realize what we’ve done, you know?
KARIM: On one hand, we live better today than the majority of people in the world. There’s three billion in middle class, you know? This never existed before in history, you know? It’s amazing in history if you go back 400 years, three percent of the world was filthy rich and 97 percent were in poverty. Shocking. When you really think about that, it’s crazy, you know? So at that time, it was just fortunate that you happened to be born in a rich family. Today, it doesn’t matter. Rich, poor, whoever. Everybody, the majority have a democratic opportunity and chance to make something of their lives, to contribute to others, to try to help or make a better world, to care about other human beings, et cetera, you know? I think it’s a very arguably, no one would ever want to hear this for Corona, but it’s almost a necessity in a beautiful time.
MAURO: One of your brands is this idea of global law, right? And this is so connected to what you just said. Through your product, through your words, you inspire all the time so many people around the world. What inspires you?
KARIM: You know, I’ll be very honest with you, Mauro. I’m doing this podcast with you because you’re a very close friend. But I’ve been asked maybe 50 lectures and things. I only did one in four months. This is the second. One lecture in Israel, for Israel. And I’ll tell you why. Everybody is running to me for inspiration globally. Like, I don’t know. I’m not a guru. I’m not a god. I’m a human being who also has the same problems like the majority of us do, you know? So we have anxiety. We’re nervous. We’re afraid.
KARIM: We’re confused, you know. So I ask myself that question. In this last four months I said, how can I inspire thousands and I can’t inspire myself? Right? So I thought about it. And especially in this last month, and I yesterday opened my office for the first time after almost four months. And what does opening mean? I had four people come. I used to have 30, you know? And a very strange feeling. And decided today to even close it again and let it wait, ride this thing out a little bit. And I thought, how am I gonna inspire myself? So you know what I do? Three things, and I don’t even know they’re working or not. One is to stay positive. I really take care of my health, because with my health, if I’m in good shape and I’m really working on it, mentally automatically I feel less depressed or I feel better.
KARIM: You know, number one, which is diet related to that food. Second is, I’ve been reading and watching a lot. And the reading tends to be more autobiographies about people who I think were very interesting, how they thought, what their minds were like, you know? I find that very inspiring. And documentaries. And I find documentaries really interesting, because you really get to the core of human emotions and human issues, you know? Really deep. And I find those things inspiring. So the other day, for example, I watched this documentary on this like terrible architect from Palm Springs. His work is so bad, and I think he made the documentary, almost got it made for him. He probably paid somebody to do it. I won’t say who it is, because just [as he work?], that he doesn’t deserve a documentary.
KARIM: And believe me, after the hour I was very inspired. I realize every human being can inspire you. Bad work, good work, you know? Because you know what inspired me about him? His passion. Now he’s 80 years old and somehow he still so much believes in what he does, you know? To a point of blindness, right? That he thinks he’s doing something brilliant. That was inspiring, you know? I realize yes, Karim, you’re capable of some smart, good things. Keep going. Draw every day. So what do I do? Every day for the last three months, I make up a project. I wake up in the morning and say, I’m gonna design today a house that’s only 700 square feet. A whole house in the country. I start sketching. This isn’t for anybody. Maybe I’m not drawing a product because I designed so many products. I’m thinking about other things, but I draw for two hours. It’s a drug for me. It’s like [OVERLAP]
MAURO: You said something that I believe in so much and is so precious. Inspiration, at the end of the day, comes from within. What you’re saying is that you pick something to activate, you know, the inspiration. But at the end of the day, even in that documentary, you are the one that saw something that inspired you. It started from you, and what was out there was a catalyst. But many other people wouldn’t catch, you know, that glimpse of inspiration, that idea that you were able to see. I really believe that inspiration comes from within. And that you can be surrounded by amazing, inspiring places, or the most boring, you know, simple places. But if you have the kind of soul that is receptive, that is looking for, you know, that idea, that something, you will be able to find inspiration in essentially anything that surrounds you. The idea that a documentary that you eventually didn’t like inspired you anyway for that passion is a beautiful example of how inspiration starts from us, from each of us.
KARIM: I like, Mauro, that you say this, because first of all, I’ve never heard it before, this idea. But I think in psychoanalysis, for example, and in psychiatry, we know and document it very well that the issues that we create are the ones we create for ourselves. That we blame it on others or we blame it on our environment, but it’s actually just us. It’s up to us, right? So it’s how you take it on, how you manifest it, right? So everybody always says, oh, you know, I live in this house. I have an ugly view, or I have this. You know, but you’re internalizing the external versus the opposite, right?
KARIM: So yea, it’s beautiful. It lines up exactly with that. And you know, when you think about you go through this life, and of course as you get older, you’ve experienced even more and more and more. You think about the amount of experiences that we have.
KARIM: The amount of information we’re taking in. The amount of people we’ve interacted with. The amount of people we loved or we hated or we [INAUDIBLE]. All that stuff is building up, building up, building up. And so a lot of times when people say to me, well, how are you inspired? I always say that it’s an accumulation of my life that inspires that’s coming from my subconscious to my conscious. The other day someone asked me, why do you think that the space age esthetic is in a revival? Which I don’t agree, because I’m not seeing a lot of it, but I would say that people like Zaha Hadid, and my brother’s work, Assam Tote, and others, NVDRV, are pushing architecture. Or even industrial design, people like Ross Lovegrove and others. This space age feeling and all that, they’re inspired from two-fold.
KARIM: One is today, obviously, we’re in a new digital space age. You could argue that 40 years later or 50 years later, it’s a new way of looking at the idea of utopia. A better world, you know? You know, ’cause back in the ’60’s when we landed on the moon and we said, oh, there’s nowhere to go. And we were all disappointed. The Russians, the Americans, the Chinese. It was, what? You know, we got to concentrate on this Earth, because it’s a dead rock. We went, [MAKES SOUND] came back, right? Today now we’re going back. So with Elon Musk and et cetera, right? And now we’re thinking about living on Mars, or living in biospheres, or all this. We have the technology now to do a lot about what we dreamed about in the ’60’s. And as a child from the ’60’s, because you know, when I went over to my friend’s parents’ living room and it was clear [Saarinan?] chairs around a, you know, clear glass table with a white shag carpet, and you know, like everything was kind of space-driven and all that.
KARIM: That’s deep down in me, obviously. So when someone says, oh, sometimes your work looks a bit, you know, ’60’s or ’70’s, I don’t want it to. I’m forcing myself to be original. But there’s things that come out. They’re in there. Deep in there. And so those things, if you can internalize and allow those things to inspire you as you said, they’re gonna come out.
MAURO: Yeah. One last question for you, and I need to ask you this. By the way, we know each other for many, many years. I never asked you this question. I knew about you already before I met you and then we became friends many years ago in Milan. And I remember during the same week you will pass by and you had this pink outfit, or this white outfit. And then you have all these tattoos on your body. And you know, somehow it became over the years your personal brand, is your image, you’re an icon. It reminds me a little bit of, you know, what Madonna or Lady Gaga or Elton John, you know, in other industries did over the years with their image.
MAURO: What’s behind your image? The colors you use, your tattoos, your personal branding? How important is it for you and what is the meaning of it?
KARIM: Well, it’s very important because it’s me. It’s not in dormant or superficial or superfluous. I live and breathe what I do. And you know, the expression “walk the walk, talk the talk”. So that’s one. The second part of that, is that the colors, I love color. I really love color. To me, it changes my mood. You know, if I’m driving through a city, I’m in Rotterdam, and then I see this all orange building, something about it just moves me. I’m in Mexico and I look at the architecture by Barragan and some of these people, I feel alive.
KARIM: You know, even when I make a concept. When I make a concept, if I don’t start to be more painterly and add something in this space, I’m doing a hotel room, it brings me some sense of being alive. Really alive. So, and I think that was with me going way back. And I tell you, I opened with a story about myself at the age of five. I’ll tell you the second one. When we got to London, we went to Harrod’s. My mom went to buy us coats. And don’t get me wrong, by the way. Harrod’s was an expensive department store and we were very poor. But somehow, my mother took us to Harrod’s. We went in there for winter coats. We came in on the floor, and on the left side was the women’s coats. Girl’s, I mean, and the boy’s. My mom and my brother walked towards the boy’s section, and I vaguely remember that all the boy’s coats were just dark. I don’t remember if they were blues or browns. The left side there was these pink jackets.
KARIM: I went straight over there and tried to put one on. My mother came over. I tried it on and she bought it for me. So what occurred to me was, and this is why I never really believe in gender differentiation and marketing and all these things we’ve done, is that children are so open-minded and so receptive to beauty, color, iridescence, pearlescence, vibrance, chrome, reflective. Because our eyes are being fired, our brain synapses is being fired, and we feel like alive, you know? And when I show my daughter I just bought some new set of markers for 180 markers, you should see when she looks at the colors. You know, you feel children this way. And we all want to paint. And the minute we put paint on our fingers, we want to draw, we want to make, we want to rip, we want to build. So we are all born creative, first of all. All of us.
KARIM: And maybe point-zero-zero-zero-one percent are not for some brain injury, something that’s going on. But I’m saying in general, for a normal human being, we are born to create for sure, right? And then what happens over the years? The suppression starts. Suppression starts with your parents saying, oh, son. You know, you’re a boy. Here, you know, here, grab this football. You know, don’t do that. Ballet? What? You know? And we start to split. And then you get into school and then you have to be exactly like all the other students. And when you’re not, there’s something wrong with you. And I went through a lot of that, by the way. I was like the odd child, you know. So in turn, instead of being that I’m odd in a good way, to them I’m just odd, period. Right? And with how many years of education, we still don’t have this where we treat children as maths, with the common lowest denominator, which is sad, because we’re not evolving this notion of being empowered that we’re individuals.
KARIM: That I have a different fingerprint than you and we’re all completely, completely different. Almost a billion people, completely different, right? And then you get into high school and there’s an acceptance level, and you have to be like your peers. And it’s pressure, pressure, pressure to get the first job. You have to have a dress code, show up for the interview. [MAKES SOUNDS] And you just keep suppressing any sense of yourself. You’ve lost yourself. And in a way, I think in my life, somehow I had some inner strength that I don’t want to lose myself. You know? So I went to my high school graduation with a pink suit on, with pink hair and pink nail polish. You know? But looking back at it, you know, there’s a time when I almost felt embarrassed about it. But looking back at it now, I’m proud that I had some sort of inner strength to appreciate and realize that these are the things I like and that we’re all different, you know? Period.
MAURO: Fantastic. Go ahead.
KARIM: Anyway, no, I’ll just say that I’m attracted to, as I am attracted to you Mauro, as a friend, I am attracted to people who are like that. They’ve not allowed outside forces to suppress them, or to tell them what their desires should be, or what their needs are. That they can choose for themselves if they’re critical enough, that they can be called real individuals.
KARIM: And we should all be called that.
MAURO: In what you just said, there is a beautiful closure here. There are so many lessons in what you just shared with us. First of all, for each of us, this idea of having a unique point of view on life or anything and owning it, and be confident enough to share it with others.
MAURO: And you embrace that, and that is what’s been making you who you are today and as successful as you are today. There is also another lesson for anybody that in a way or the other, manage people, teams. You know, you with your team, me with my team, a CO of a company, anybody really giving the possibility to their people to express them self. Empower them, enable them to be who they are. That diversity and inclusion of all these different diversities is what really creates value for any kind of organization and community. So it’s so, so important. Karim, thank you so much. I had no doubt that you were going to inspire me and inspire all of us today.
KARIM: I’m sorry I have to rush but it’s funny, because I’ve barely been rushing for the last four months. This is an important [month?].
MAURO: We’ll let you go. Thank you, Karim, really.
KARIM: Okay. I love you, Mauro. Take care. We’ll talk soon, okay? Ciao.
MAURO: Yes. Ciao. Bye.