TORONTO — At this year’s IIDEX National Design + Architecture Exposition & Conference, world-renowned industrial designer Karim Rashid delivered the keynote lecture on the future of design.

A large part of Rashid’s vision rests on digital technology and what it can do for designers. As he touched on the different facets of design — including architectural, interior and industrial design — the acclaimed artist expressed tremendous optimism towards the future of technology in design. “In the future, we are going to have one singular design language and that language is digital,” he says. “The digital age, as of this year, is 40 years old but for most designers it’s only 10, 15 or 20 years old, at the most.”

Throughout human existence, design has been an analog endeavor, Rashid explains, meaning that it’s been shaped by the physical tools used for conceptualizing and manufacturing new objects. The digital age, however, gives designers infinite freedom to create objects free of manufacturing constraints. The digital age is “immaterial” — in place of physical instruments, such as rulers, triangles and T-squares, designers today use virtual tools such as Photoshop and Illustrator, which are limited only by the designer’s level of creativity. And in place of manufacturing processes established during the industrial revolution, are digital modes of manufacturing, such as 3-D printing. Therefore, manufacturing no longer dictates the design language, designers do.

“One of the first tools of the industrial revolution was a blade saw that would cut straight lines,” says Rashid. “So if you were designing floorboards, you’d cut them in straight lines because that was the technology of the time. In turn, everything started to become 2-D — tiles, wallpapers, carpet runners, all started to become very Cartesian.” Despite our asymmetric world, the design of the past 175 years has been symmetrical. “A straight line does not exist in nature, so it’s quite perverse that we spend all of our energy fighting nature. When I design, my mind doesn’t think about back, front and side. It thinks in 3-D and 4-D.”

Rashid mentions 4-D in reference to the element of time and its impact on creating more than just objects but experiences — which is the primary focus of all his works. In designing experiences, Rashid looks for and works with every possible new technology he can. At the Poli House Hotel in Tel Aviv, Rashid’s most recent project, the flooring in the bathroom is rubber-based. “It’s a beautiful technology,” he says. “It’s seamless, soft and warm, so think about the better human experience one would have when stepping into the bathroom at night, for example.” As far back as 10 years ago, Rashid was using a polymer-based material produced in Spain to design hotel sinks and bathtubs. “It’s high-gloss — it looks like it’s ceramic — but as soon as you bounce into it, it’s soft.”

Few designers are embracing such polymers, however, opting instead for traditional materials when building conceptually contemporary spaces and objects. Traditional materials such as wood and metal were once on the cutting edge of manufacturing technologies and therefore represented the design language of that particular era but have fallen into obsolescence in our time due to their constraints and limitations. For example, the iconic bentwood bistro chair — more formally known as No. 14 chair — was made possible in 1859 through German-Austrian cabinet maker Michael Thonet’s discovery of how to bend wood using steam technology, which took years to perfect. That process is now irrelevant in comparison to more sophisticated modes of manufacturing. But the bistro chair remains ubiquitous in restaurants and cafes around the world.

Similarly, Rashid points to the very chairs IIDEX attendees were sitting in to watch his keynote — stackable metal chairs, which reference early 20th century manufacturing technology. When designers learned from bike manufactures how to bend metal without sacrificing structural integrity, stackable chairs with curved metal tubing became the latest trend, but again, such manufacturing processes came with intrinsic limitations which we no longer face with 21st-century technology.

When it comes to designing patterns in textiles and in fabrics, designers again fall prey to clichés of a certain era in manufacturing technology. For example, the plaid pattern comes from an ancient technology that couldn’t produce much else. But, “what is a pattern of today?” Rashid asks. “We should design patterns of today.”

When designing the flooring of a Berlin hotel, Rashid designed blocks made of biodegradable materials with custom-printed patterns drawn in Adobe Illustrator. “[It’s] seamless — no nails, no screws, so inexpensive. You just slide the boards together,” Rashid says. “So why do we still make wood floors? A client tells an interior designer, ‘we want the place to be warm.’ The designer immediately thinks ‘wood’. They look at the space and think ‘I’ll put the bed here, next to the window; I need an armchair in the corner because it’s a four-star hotel; I need two lamps on either side of the bed; and some nice-looking things,’ and before you know it, you’re not designing at all.”

“Why do most designers use traditional materials to create contemporary experiences?” Rashid asks the audience. “Because a lot of designers, artists, developers and contractors are looking in the past and not in the present. We are constantly working with clichés of history. Creative people don’t see the future — I don’t see the future. I see the present. Everybody else sees the past. If we see the present, our world would be completely different tomorrow. We can do things that were never done in history. Since the industrial revolution and up until 30 years ago, the machine controlled us — meaning that the machine could create something in a certain way, so that’s the way it had to be — but today, we control the machine. We can do absolutely anything that we can imagine.”

But we have a reluctance to change, born from the idea that the past was better. The past was never better, Rashid points out. “The world has just gotten better and better. With all the world problems that we think we have, we had far more problems in the past. In the past, few could create, but the digital age comes along and it empowers each one of us creatively and individually. It’s no longer kings, pharos, politicians or even capitalists designing the world, it’s you. This is a new phenomenon that’s never existed before. That’s how we are going to survive. That’s human existence — survival.”

Written by Eric Alister


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