Karim Rashid is standing at the window looking out over Hell's Kitchen. For seven days, he's not stepped out of his apartment. He's taken delivery of a treadmill to replace his gym trips and walks.
“It's just this certain peacefulness," he says. "I'm looking out my window right now. I'm looking at W49th St. And a couple of people, because the weather's nice, are sitting on their balconies. One woman's walking her dog and one person's riding a bicycle. And it reminds me of back in the day when I lived in Toronto. When Toronto was much smaller than it is now. And there was this almost small-town feeling, a kind of quietness with serenity. And with that, you get also this nice camaraderie with your neighborhood.
"Your neighborhood's more precious, I think. That had all disappeared, at least in the last 30 years I've watched New York grow. People walking by in the streets were not necessarily from that neighborhood anymore. The people even renting the places, or Airbnb, were from out of town. So right now, when I look out, I feel that I almost have nostalgia for a smaller, more slowed-down existence of a city. And then you really appreciate it.”
We're chatting on the phone. Last time W42ST interviewed the designer (Ruth Walker, Issue 9, Aug 2015) his closing quote was: "Everything inspires me. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Inspiration comes from this ever vast yet shrinking world in which we live. There's always a storm of ideas and influences that come into play." Relevant words five years on.
I ask Karim about the quote and the shrinking world. "Well, I think right now, it's the opposite, right? The world is not shrinking at all. It's all of a sudden distant. It seems like a real issue."
A consistent theme in our conversation is consumption versus creativity. Even before our call, we text and I ask how's his day is going. He replies: "Good. Trying to accomplish things every day, or I get depressed."
When I ask about how he's being creative, he says: "I'm perpetually creative. I have to draw every day. So every day, I sit at my dining table, I pull out a bunch of paper – even though I'm down to about four projects in my office, where usually at this point I'd have 50 or 60. Of those four projects, I've sketched them all out. And all of a sudden I've got nothing else to do. And for me it's very, very unusual. I'm so used to being absurdly busy. So the hard part is trying to get into a groove of getting disciplined; to create and start creating by thinking about the situation in the world around us and what's going on and see if it inspires ideas."
So what about the world? How's the big thinking coming along? He starts by saying: "It's a strange, perverse moment for humanity. I noticed that I'm finding myself writing more than I am drawing, to express some of the ideas that I have about the world. Because a lot of the ideas are more, I would say, sociopolitical rather than physical.
"I'm a more outward thinker than inward. Meaning I'm not really – and this from the heart – I'm not a selfish person. I think about how the world is shifting and changing. And now I ask: what is my contribution? What can I add to it? Can I add something that's worthwhile?"
He moves away from creativity and talks about consumption. "The richest man in the world is Amazon, right? So it's just about consumption, consumption, consumption, consumption. Look at the fashion industry. The amount of waste is phenomenal. And then, because I'm an industrial designer originally, I understand production very well. I know materials really well. And what I've realized is that we have taken everything from the Earth. We're destroying the world. And on top of all that, we've created an extremely toxic world."
Their entire environment – the mobile phone in their hand, the textiles on their body, what's in their cosmetics, their entire kitchen, their car ... something like 70% of everything used in the hospital is a polymer, which is saving lives.
Talking toxic, it's a good time to ask about how he has been dubbed "The Poet of Plastic". "Yeah, Time magazine did it, but it's about 19 years ago now. I have to say, there's so much controversy about plastic, but the problem is that most people are totally uninformed about it. Their entire environment – the mobile phone in their hand, the textiles on their body, what's in their cosmetics, their entire kitchen, their car ... something like 70% of everything used in the hospital is a polymer, which is saving lives.
"So this is the problem: we're so steeped in it. It's not like, tomorrow, we can just rid the world of plastics. That's virtually impossible to do. Food packaging is a very big one – we have to find alternatives.
"So now, in the last, say, 15 years, there's been a lot of companies around the world that have done great strides at making biodegradable polymers. But basically, whether they're biodegradable, or they're 100% recyclable, or they're smart, meaning that when you incinerate them, they just turn into vapor, with no toxic waste, what we're going to do is replace all those polymers with smart polymers. But it's not like tomorrow plastic can disappear."
Karim is a familiar neighbor in Hell's Kitchen. His 6 foot 4 inch frame dressed colorfully with distinctive sneakers catches the eye even when the streets are full of tourists. He talks about his last outing: "When I did go for my last walk, I went around Times Square and I had to go over to a bank on 3rd Ave. And the city was so nice and quiet that I started seeing things, architecture space, stuff that I didn't ever recognize before. I saw the city in a very different light.
"There are only a few homeless guys screaming or yelling on corners. I walked by one woman and she started screaming: 'Stay away from me. You got the virus.' It was like science fiction from the 70s."
To finish, Karim talked about innovation. "I think that need creates innovation. Being isolated makes us realize that the objects around us, or what we call home, could be more comfortable, more inspiring, and more positive. And this situation shows how design and technology influences and changes the world. I believe being at home will make consumers see the need for less and realize that technology is creating better experiences than the physical, and hence the physical needs to catch up to the beauty and seamlessness of the digital age. We need fewer but better physical things. More high performance yet more sustainable, and although I saw my beautiful neighbors in Hell’s Kitchen close one after another, we can rethink our businesses, and come out of this stronger, smarter, and more reductive in a more beautiful world."