Karim Rashid: Design defined

The designer's amorphous shapes demand a clearer context

People who stumble into Karim Rashid: From 15 Minutes into the Future cold, say on their way to the Alliance or the symphony, might mistake it for a high-end showroom. There are sets of sculptural black-and-white dishes and bar stools displayed on mauve pedestals without labels (or, of course, prices) to offer a sense of what exactly is being appraised.

Art fans unfamiliar with designer Karim Rashid's pedigree might imagine that 15 Minutes, with its titular shout-out to Andy Warhol, is an installation and tongue-in-cheek commentary on domesticity or consumer culture. The exhibition space is, after all, peppered with domestic objects such as vacuum cleaners, trash cans, vases, lamps and a chess set rendered in shades of lilac and citrus Lucite. Like a catwalk stalked by a glamorous succession of products, one long Plexiglas box at nose height is filled with a cornucopia of artfully designed stuff including perfume bottles, teapots, CD holders and other mysterious objects one can only guess at and then race home to Google.

The half-Egyptian, half-English, New York-based Rashid has worked in product design, fashion, art and furniture for clients from Prada to Target's Method line of cleansers, and is clearly of the onward-and-upward school of design. (Why indulge in nostalgia or backsliding when we can create a lively, engaging future world centered on smart, beguiling design?) His mod-futurism is founded on bright colors and curvaceous, flirty forms. But Rashid's eye-catching website (www.karimrashid.com) may be a better pitch for his talents and significance than this blandly conceptualized show from former Atlanta-based curator and Art Papers editor Charles Reeve.

The show is heavy on the chairs and light on historical context or, actually, much context at all. I'm the last person to advocate for more wall text, but this exhibition could have used something to indicate year of origin, material, or perhaps a little anecdote or quote from the designer about quirky objects such as his Dirt Devil Kone (2006) vacuum cleaners, the two of them paired up side by side with their pointy tops looking like little minimalist Klansmen. The lack of labels means that silly and ultimately annoying conversations arise between confused viewers about certain objects: "Is it a dough press? A pepper mill? A wine bottle opener?"

Upon first entering the exhibition, a slide show of Rashid's products and site-specific architectural design unfolds in a dark room. But again, without intertitles to indicate where these superfunky graphic subway stations are located or any details about the products shown, the visual information feels random and unfocused.

Design is supposed to be fun. It's accessible, it's often affordable and it's functional. The art world's intimidation factors – price, pedigree, snob value – take a back seat when design steps in. Design is the life of the party: He likes to drink and tell off-color jokes, while art stands in the corner, looking judgmental, nursing a wine spritzer.

And Rashid is clearly a fun guy, too, working his "Jetsons"-meets-global-groovester thing. He loves sugared pastels (lemon, mauve, hot pink, lime), colors that, like the plastics and vinyls they're made from, embrace their factory origins. His biomorphic shapes resemble skinny men pumped up to the size of marshmallows, and his inanimate objects suggest the kineticism and personality of living forms. There are tea pots whose canted shapes make them appear to be leaning into a gale wind. A plastic lady's high heel on display sits melted and mutated like a Popsicle left out in the sun.

Overall, 15 Minutes isn't a very fun show. For one thing, it feels remarkably sparse considering the enormity of Rashid's oeuvre; a mere 50 of the 2,500 objects Rashid has in production are displayed.

The exhibition's other details – beyond the lack of wall labels or rationale for works selected – rankle. For instance, who's the killjoy who left all the lamps unplugged and the clock radio dead? We're in the midst of a drought, not an energy freeze. It's like giving a kid a remote-control car for Christmas and then taking away the remote. For a designer so focused on vibrant, functional design, it seems odd that this most basic demonstration of functionality has been overlooked. It's a small detail, but emblematic of an overall feeling that this entire show has been left unplugged.

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