Karim Rashid is one of the most prolific product designers of the day, best known for mass-market barnstormers like the Garbino dustbin, which sells for under a tenner. To the chagrin of more elitist rivals, he’s brought aesthetic merit and a turn-of-the-21st-Century sensibility to the kind of consumer goods immortalised by Nanci Griffith as ‘unnecessary plastic objects’. Here, though, is a collection of his two-dimensional abstract graphics, many created for their own sake rather than as commercial projects.
It may come as a surprise to see Rashid engaged in decorative design. His computer-drawn forms often shun articulation, let alone decoration, in favour of what the New Yorker’s John Seabrook has called ‘the hard sheen of crunched data’. If any detail is to be found breaking the swooping lines of his injection moulds, it’s most likely his own name, as on his manhole covers for US power company Con Edison – a neat piece of self-promotion from someone described by Fortune as ‘a man not known for modesty’.
But Digipop’s foreword begins by disowning the functionalist maxim, ‘Ornamentation is crime’. On the contrary, says Rashid, it’s ‘a modus operandi for communication, for providing dimension, texture, pattern, depth, and spirit.’ The superficial as essential. Like much of the book’s brief text, this isn’t as glibly New Agey as it first sounds. On logo design: ‘I think the entire notion of mark – image and logo – as static and perfect sacred form is irrelevant now. The mark should change continually.’ On his own trade: ‘Often companies looked on designers as merely engineers. Sadly, we designers are bad engineers. This is still an ongoing issue.’
The graphics are perhaps not quite as interesting as the commentary makes them seem. Rashid refers at one point to ‘the glorified Mac rave-flyer movement’, and that’s very much the territory: thick-outlined colour fields, step-and-repeat polygons, elegantly distorted meshes. Some pieces are the kind of thing you might play with but wouldn’t bother to save, and the attempts at typography and figure modelling are poor. This being a Taschen book, though, you get an awful lot of pages for your money, so it doesn’t really matter if you have to pass over a few. Many of the designs are well crafted and nicely judged, with a textile designer’s eye for colour, and every now and then there’s a real Pop Art zing.
Rashid’s work is at its least engaging when it falls into blinkered fascination with itself. The introduction to a section devoted to ‘ikons’ describes how the author has spent two decades developing a set of personal ‘symbols’ which first crept into his work ‘subconsciously’. ‘The symbols were non-lingual, therefore not biased, and anyone and everyone could interpret them as they saw fit.’ Um, well. A non-representational symbol can only have meaning within a shared semantic system, just like a word. Otherwise, everyone really can just interpret it as they see fit, which is another way of saying it can’t be interpreted at all. It’s contentless, uncommunicative, non-functional. Mere decoration, in fact.
Rashid complains that pattern is still too reliant on historical genres (semantic subsystems, if you like) such as plaid, which are ‘completely irrelevant today’. ‘Plaid was derived from a certain loom 400 years ago and was “designed” [for] that time. I believe that we have great opportunities to create contemporary decoration that is part of our digital and information age.’ But this betrays the perennial limitation of digital art: its lack of limitation. The information age doesn’t give us looms, only blank canvases. And even those are virtual, with no texture or tension.
Digipop is ultimately superficial, not essential; all pop, no art.