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Putting good design on U.S. agenda

New York designer Karim Rashid, creator of more than 3,000 products, would love to get a chance to talk to President Obama, not only about design in this country but about what suits Obama should be buying.

The always outspoken (and well-dressed) Rashid is disappointed that good design is not on America's national agenda. He'd love to recommend a "cultural adviser who would understand that design is not just aesthetic or visual" but is pivotal in making social change.

Rashid, who is coming to Washington on Thursday to deliver George Washington University's interior design program's second annual lecture, knows his way around the design of a lot of things -- restaurants, sunglasses and credit cards. You'll find his stacking chairs, trash cans, pens and vacuum cleaners in countless homes.

His modern, playful designs have made him a hired gun for such companies as Umbra, Alessi, Samsung, Dirt Devil and Audi. His pieces, which employ cutting-edge technology and modern materials, are found in museum design collections.

The 50-year-old, who was born in Cairo and raised in Canada, is part of a small group of American industrial designers whose work is known globally. You can't miss him at international design shows: He is 6-foot-4 and pretty much wears only white or pink. He's the one with the pink suitcase shuttling from Belgrade to Dubai.

Stephanie Travis, director of George Washington University's interior design program, says the school chose Rashid to speak because his interiors and products are dynamic, global and original, and "because he seems like a really cool guy." Travis adds, "He embodies what design is all about. He can design a trash can or a restaurant. There is a cohesiveness to his work, but it is never boring."

We spoke with Rashid, who lives in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, recently by phone. Here is an edited excerpt.

>Do you think the Obamas have any of your products at the White House?

If they have anything, it might be a Method dish-washing soap bottle.

>What are you working on right now?

I'm "designing" a plastic surgery clinic in Seoul, South Korea, a children's shop in Moscow and a 600-room hotel in Bangkok, as well as a small boutique in Tribeca: Agatha Ruiz de la Prada.

>Have you done any Washington, D.C. projects?

I have never done anything in D.C. Often in America people see me as too radical and too forward, even though I have designed products that sold in the millions and are found at Bed Bath & Beyond and the Container Store.

>What is your opinion of the design of the White House?

The White House is the most arcane, backward place, and it should be plowed down and rebuilt. The interior design of it is from a century and a half ago. If I am the president and I deal with the latest technology and communications ... the interior of my house should reflect and speak about the time in which we live. The interiors should be contemporary.

>How did turning 50 last year affect your work?

I'm on the tail end of the baby boomers. Yes, I've been thinking a lot about aging. I find the world very uncomfortable. The front door of a drugstore is hard to push open; at the hotel the doorknob hurts my hand. We accept this. But my radar is out to do some universal design projects.

>The Bobble, a curvaceous, refillable water bottle with a colored filter, has been a big success. How did you get the gig to design that?

These people originally came to me to design luggage. Then we got into talking about creating a water bottle that fit into your luggage perfectly. You walk up to the airport X-ray machine, empty your water if you have to, keep your bottle and fill it up at the other end. I said, "Let's put a filter on it." They loved that idea. They've shipped 15 million Bobbles all over the world.

>What color Bobble do you use?


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