Business

The Rise of Design

Industrial creators like Karim Rashid are proving that consumers will pay for stuff that looks good

Patricia Chisholm January 15 2001
Business

The Rise of Design

Industrial creators like Karim Rashid are proving that consumers will pay for stuff that looks good

Patricia Chisholm January 15 2001

A translucent garbage can that displays the trash inside sells more than two million units in little more than four years. A moulded plastic chair with holes in it that retails for $70 wins multiple design awards. A manhole cover that looks like it could be the top of an aliens spaceship graces sewer outlets in Manhattan. These are among the beautiful, functional— and mostly inexpensive—products that have vaulted Canadian Karim Rashid into the forefront of industrial designers.

Now based in Manhattan, Rashid is clearly gratified by his snowballing reputation—his employees and revenues have doubled over the past year—but says he always knew that product design, not just functionality or marketing, is the best way to boost the bottom line. He’ll go even further. Design can turn a company from ho-hum mediocrity into a globally dominant force, he declares. Unfortunately, too many Canadian companies just don’t get the message. “If a Canadian company approached me tomorrow,” he says, “I could turn them into a $50-million corporation in three years.”

Well, he’s not exactly modest, but Rashid is clearly onto something. Recent redesigns have propelled familiar products to superstar status almost overnight: the runaway success of Apple Computer’s jelly bean coloured iMacs, for instance, and the curvaceous but forward-looking new Volkswagen Beetle have surprised even their manufacturers. Commerce and design are now intersecting in ways that are adding up to a revolution, especially for companies that know how to attract younger consumers—the group that is leading the shift towards better-looking well-priced furnishings and accessories for home and office.

The burgeoning mania for design hasn’t fully hit in Canada yet, but there are signs of change. Rashid’s now ubiquitous “Garbo” trash can is made and distributed by Toronto-based Umbra Ltd., which also makes his holey Oh chair. Pure Design, an Edmonton furniture company that has grown rapidly since it was founded by three industrial designers six years ago, ships about 80 per cent of its products to the United States. And Montreal-based transportation giant Bombardier Inc. is winning international design awards for its fleet of sleek but playful-looking watercraft. “Most Canadian companies are simply not using design to its fullest,” notes Luigi Ferrara, an architect and vice-president of The Design Exchange, the nonprofit Toronto-based organization that promotes Canadian industrial design, fashion and art. “But when they do, they capture the world stage.”

So, in a country with loads of design talent but not a lot of corporate support for the expense and uncertainty of the design process, how do creative phenomena like Rashid develop? A man who can look kinetic even while reclining on a couch, Cairo-born Rashid gives most of the credit to his Egyptian father and English mother, who put a high premium on creativity. His set-designer father got a job at the CBC and the family moved to Canada from England when Rashid was 7 (although he has lived in the United States since 1992, he is still a Canadian citizen).

He still recalls living for a year across from that 1960s artifact of imaginative design, Montreal's Expo 67. He spent the rest of his youth in the Toronto area before going to Ottawa to attend Carleton’s School of Industrial Design, a program he remembers with mixed feelings. It was the artistic atmosphere at home—and subsequent time in Italy studying under the likes of architect and designer Ettore Sottsass —that shaped Rashid’s remarkable ability to reinvent conventional objects in radical ways that still appeal to consumers, not just museum curators.

At 40, his list of achievements is singularly impressive: he has designed for Estée Lauder, Giorgio Armani, Sony, Yahoo! and Citibank. He has dozens of honours, including the DaimlerChrysler Award (1999) and the George Nelson Award (1999). This month, he will be recognized by the Interior Design Show, an annual exhibition of Canada’s premier interior design talent held in Toronto, with the inaugural Designer of the Year Award. His works are held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, among many others. A ferocious worker, he goes at it 12 to 13 hours a day, seven days a week. Currently, he and his staff of 20 are working on fashion boutiques for Armani, restaurants in New York and Philadelphia, hotels in Miami and Athens, and cosmetic containers for Estée Lauder.

What’s crucial to good commercial design, Rashid says, is the willingness to push a concept forward—the possibilities of moulded plastic as furniture or rubber casings for high-tech components, for instance—without spinning off into the esoteric, overly personal or just plain weird. “In the past, design could be too expressionistic or too much about the language of the times,” Rashid says, citing the excesses of 1980s furniture design. “Companies got turned off because they thought it would be too expensive to produce, or that contemporary designs would shrink their markets. But its changed now. If you don’t do the design work, you’re dead.”

Even so, convincing companies that good looks count can be tough, Rashid says. When he first set up his business in 1993—after he was fired as a teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design for being “too theoretical”—Rashid crisscrossed the United States, trying to get companies to listen to his ideas. But time after time, doors were slammed in his face. “I almost had a nervous breakdown,” he recalls.

“I lost 30 lb.” Finally, Nambé, a Santa Fe, N.M., maker of dinnerware, bit—and products designed by Rashid now account for 35 per cent of the company’s business. Taking a chance like that is a lesson that a lot more companies, particularly Canadian ones, should take to heart, Rashid argues.

“What they don’t realize,” he says, “is that the rest of the world is moving so fast. And the smaller you are, the bigger the balls you need. Because it’s the only way to make an impact. Looking at things regionally, in a conservative context, won’t work.”

That’s partly because mass media and the Internet are creating vast new markets for, and appreciation of, high-quality, high-impact design. Geoffrey Lüge co-founded Pure Design with Daniel Hlus and Randy McCoy when all three were fresh out of the University of Alberta’s industrial design program. The company, which specializes in metal and wood furniture with spare, clean lines, posted revenues of more than $4 million in 1999. He puts much of the current interest in well-designed but moderately priced products down to shifting demographics. “You only have to watch MuchMusic to see why design is so popular with young people,” Lilge says. “The clothing, the interiors—these are the things young people are interested in. We get lots of teenagers who buy our stuff online.” One of Pure’s most popular products, a side table called “Hockey Night in Canada,” typifies the way cultural icons are being mined for fresh new ideas in consumer products. The designer? Vancouver-based writer Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X and one of the country’s leading commentators on pop culture. 

Of course, almost anything will sell during boom times, but design mavens say the shift towards the beautiful is here to stay, good times or bad. Paul Rowan, co-founder with Les Mandelbaum of Toronto’s Umbra, points out that recessions are often the best test of a product’s value. There are more opportunities for innovative companies in a recession,” says Rowan, who oversees design for the company. “It culls bad concepts. During the last recession, the early 1990s, all we had was growth.” The reason, Rowan says, is that consumers become much more discriminating when money is tight: “People still buy, but they go for value, not junk.” 

Of course, coming up with good design isn’t cheap, and that is where many Canadian companies balk. When they do make significant investments in the design and engineering of a product, however, the results are often well worth it. Rowan notes that Umbra recently completed an award-winning new building with state-of-the-art design studios as a way of attracting the best design talent to their less than exciting suburban location. And the greater a company’s commitment to design, the more likely its investment will pay off, big-time. Bombardier has about 50 employees dedicated to the design of its all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles and personal watercraft. That attention to the marriage of function and form has not gone unnoticed. The Sea-Doo, launched in 1988, won a bronze medal last year in the Designs of the Decade competition sponsored by the Industrial Designers Society of America.

Style has always played a big role in motorized consumer products, says Denys Lapointe, Bombardier’s vice-president of recreational design. But the rapidly evolving international marketplace is making it even more important. Globalization, he says, has levelled the playing field when it comes to producing durable, functional products. “So what’s left at the end of the line to create a difference at the consumer level?” he asks. For Lapointe, the answer is design. “It plays a preponderant role in the differentiation of products.”

Cobi Ladner, editor of Canadian House and Home magazine for the past nine years, has watched the love affair with design grow, and she says it is here to stay: “We can’t go back now— you go to a certain sophistication level and it doesn’t go down.” She does believe, however, that the flood of well-designed but mass-produced products will rejuvenate the market for unique, handmade items. “The downside is that everything becomes homogeneous. Yes, everything is very tasteful but it’s all the same,” she says. “I think there is going to be a new interest in the work of skilled artisans— things like fine pottery and custom-made cabinets.”

Small businesses, then, are as likely to benefit from the new appreciation for the beautiful as large corporations stamping out thousands of plastic stackable chairs. Gina Morsoff, a West Coast glass artist with an international reputation, says she has already begun to see an increasing market for her work. The sanded glass objects she produces entirely by hand are reminiscent of sea animals and the windswept beaches that surround her Vancouver home. “People like having beautiful things around, especially if it reflects their sense of style and design,” Morsoff observes. “It isn’t just a luxury—they are finding that they actually get something back from looking at something that is beautiful.” Beauty, once considered a frill for many Canadians, finally seems to have achieved the status of a necessity.

With Ruth Atherley in Vancouver and Brenda Branswell in Montreal


THE MAILBOX THAT WASN’T

When it comes to Canada, Karim Rashid is fond, but frustrated. He spent seven years at KAN Industrial Designers, a Toronto firm, before heading south of the border in 1992, and during that time he would often see his ideas dismissed by clients as impractical or too unusual. The memory of one project in particular still irritates: he spent the better part of two years working on futuristic new designs for Canada Post mailboxes, only to have the federal agency reject all of his proposals. “They were so myopic and stupid,” he says now.

Canada Post responds that its failure to use any of Rashid’s eye-catching concepts was no reflection on the designs. Instead, with 30,000 of the squat red boxes already on the street, it decided to go with a much less expensive proposal to simply overhaul what was already paid for. But Rashid may have the last laugh. He notes, with some irony, that he has more Canadian clients now than he did while he was working in Toronto. He’s philosophical about it, though—he knows Canadians often have to make it abroad before they are accepted at home. P.C.

P.C