On the last day of Design September we dashed between presentations from the dons of the European design award scene and talks from product packaging pack before sitting down for a speedy cappuccino with a very candy striped Karim Rashid

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It was the closing event of Design September – the professionals’ day – with conferences featuring an impressive line-up of key speakers.  The packaging speakers had a kind of wary defensive aura to them; Fabrice Peltier of Paris’ DesignPack Gallery admitted that when people asked him what he did he’d sometimes joke that he “designed waste” – which pretty neatly indicated the elephant in the room. Sustainability – still an afterthought, still a buzzword, not yet centre stage. Packaging people – there’s no excuse.

Over on the award side, Peter Zec of Red Dot did point out that it’s not just the packaging people that were failing to grasp the sustainability nettle. During the most recent Concept Awards; Red Dot’s Singapore based awards for younger designers; 300 works were entered for the Green Design section but the jury was so disappointed that they ended up not actually giving the award out.

Lisbeth Juul of Index Awards made Copenhagen seem like design-loving right-on community spirited heaven. The awards go to works that improve human life – this year’s laureates included a system of microcredit loans, and an integrated infrastructure to support electric cars – and the events connected to the awards are all held in the homes of local design enthusiasts. Which sounded like perfection until Jean-Pierre Blanc, director of the Villa Noailles’ Design Parade, started showing slides of the design conferences at Hyeres – long lunches in the Provencal sunshine during the early summer – and we considered asking whether he’d adopt us. Design, wine, sunshine, glorious architecture and fabulous conversation – it almost makes us weep thinking about it.

Karim Rashid unfolded his long pink-clad legs from one of the Festival’s Mini Coopers at 5 o’clock, just in time for a chat before he gave the closing address of the day. We decided not to bother with small talk (although for those of you lap up the incidental froth – he is very bright, charming, and super articulate, likes good quality coffee with milk (preferably a cappuccino), rates the architecture of the Flagey building and admits that his sideline in DJ-ing has fallen by the wayside since he discovered that even he needs to sleep occasionally).

Hettie: Since today is really about branding I’d like to ask you about you as a brand. If I say that there is a very recognisable Karim Rashid style, to you take that as a very positive statement; the result of really good branding on your part, or do you find it oppressive? Do you ever feel the need to break away from it?

Karim: Because I do such a broad range of work there will always be some brands that hire me because they expect me to be very Karim Rashid, but I never believed that I had a very specific style. Before I started my own studio 18 years ago I spent 10 years working for other design offices. During that time I designed power tools for Black & Decker, I designed humidifiers, medical and even military equipment. When you do that, there’s no personality that you can impose on the work – you are driven by the performance of the product.

I think there are two worlds of design; there is the more artistic commodity that occupies the popular domain of design and there are products that fill our everyday life where we don’t see the designer at all. Packaging design occupies the second area. Most of the brands prefer to keep the designer out of the equation – Issey Miyake is the brand, not Karim Rashid. If you walk through an airport Duty Free shop, I’ve probably designed 10% of what you see, but you’d never know it. Is that shouting my style or not?

It depends if companies have their own strong identity, or they ask me to be quite expressive. But I’m more interested in doing important things that in being a celebrity.

These days consumer culture is interested in who’s behind these things; they realise someone has had an original thought and that it’s become that particular product. Objects aren’t just generic. It’s a new phenomenon and I think it’s very positive; people know which bottle of water Ross Lovegrove designed and which was designed by Ora Ito, for example.

I’m working on a water bottle at the moment and I have convinced the company to make it out of sugar cane – I talked to six different companies before them and no one was interested – designers don’t just bring form, material and ergonomics, they can be responsible for major shifts?

Hettie: That leads pretty neatly on to the second thing that I wanted to talk about actually: the role of designers in industry. One of the speakers earlier pointed out a big difference between packaging in the Southern European and Northern European markets; apparently in the South the notion of quality comes from the earth up; they take their notion of quality from its provenance, whereas in the north we judge it on the packaging. Perhaps as a result, from a lot of quarters at the moment I’m getting the sense that we’re suddenly encountering a generation of designers that design identity rather than products; they understand packaging, branding, image and so on, but not about actually creating a genuinely new product. Does this chime at all with your experience?

Karim: I think it’s one of the things that modernism did – it was the age of specialisation – it bifurcated our profession.

I was recently working for a client on an ice tea – and I was trying to convince them that they couldn’t just change the packaging, they had to change the product; I was talking to them about the big shift towards natural and organic products, but I didn’t get anywhere, because I’m just hired to make the package. There’s a huge disconnect. For something like that you need to get all the people in the room together right at the start of the project, but that’s not how things happen.

Companies come to me, and other like me, because their sales are going down. These days the global competition is extraordinary; there are lots of little brands that are right on there, understanding the particular demands of the time, and larger companies miss the signals. Say you want to do a new sports drink – the competition is fierce precisely because there are all these smart moves coming out of these tiny companies. The companies expect that changing the label or bottle will get them back in the game, but they need to take a more holistic approach.

I had the same thing when I was designing a toothpaste brand – why do the big brands have nothing to compete with Tom’s? Method was one of the few product ranges I’ve done where I was part of a holistic approach. It was started by three guys with pretty small loans; now it’s worth $700 million. They’re young guys who reacted to the times. I’m so interested in the political and social life of the world – I want to be more proactive.

Hettie: I’m interested in this idea of the designer out engaging with the world and responding to changes. I was talking to someone about Rei Kawakubo and they were explaining how she kept Comme really responsive and ahead of the game as a brand because she was really engaged with political and social movements in that way. She really works with a team on the design, which her allows her to give her attention to these other elements. I imagine that your studio functions in a similar way?

Karim: Actually we are really small: only 12 people. I’m doing 90 projects now. I’m a bit controlling; it does hold me back but I don’t want to be a big company; I reject lots of work and stay small. I don’t know if I’m capable of doing it any other way; I’ve never really had the personal desire for it to get bigger. Unlike a united brand, we work for a plethora of different brands, and if you delegate the quality can become uneven.  When you have big overheads you end up having to do what the British critic Peter Dormer used to call ‘below the line’ work to pay the bills. I never wanted to be in that position. I take only one in ten jobs because they’re the ones I want to do.

We do have to produce quite technical prototypes for companies – they expect it, so two of the team are design engineers. I’ve gone in a bit of a full circle – my education was very rigorous, but then I went to Milan and saw the Italian design artistic the work was. My background (I’m half British) and my education have been a good balance for me; the practical, pragmatic and technical side balances the artistic. It allows me to work with big multinationals that create real mass products and to make real changes.

I think what I’d refer to as the ‘Droog School’ of design changed the world because it made people think that design was all about whimsical, craft like, artistic proposals, but that’s not design. Real design is a Nespresso machine. Design is about moving things forward. Of course it is very valuable to have someone doing something critical and radical too.