Sep 30, 2009
Continuing my series on 21st century interiors, this post analyses two New York restaurants designed by Karim Rashid. A prolific designer in the Philippe Starck mold, Rashid established his reputation in furniture and product design during the 1990s, but has since branched out into packaging, fashion and interiors. Like Starck, Rashid has assumed the public persona of a design celebrity (see the Samsung advertisement below), although he has taken his celebrity status to another level, with a media image seamlessly integrated into his design aesthetic (he wears only white suits and or/pink shirts for publicity photos), and the production of several self-promotional manifesto/coffee-table books. For my purposes, Rashid’s interiors embody a trio of early 21st century preoccupations: digital technology, design and celebrity.
Rashid was born in Cairo, raised and schooled in Canada, and, after studying industrial design at Carleton University, taught at both RISD and Pratt. He opened his own New York-based design practice in 1993 and soon gained a reputation as a “signature designer” via a distinctive vocabulary of forms and day-glo colors. Rashid’s organic forms were intially associated with similar forms by “blobject” designers such as Marc Newson or architect/designer Greg Lynn. These stylists of digital fluidity were experimenting with the sculptural possibilities opened up by new technologies such as CAD and CAM. Like a contemporary version of streamlined design, the application of a smooth and curvaceous “digital skin” onto existing products was supposed to evoke the new digital era: the 1930s metaphor of speed was replaced by the 1990s metaphor of cyberspace. Much like Raymond Loewy or Norman bel Geddes, Rashid applied the same fluid forms and seamless surfaces to existing products – from chairs to vacuum cleaners – in order to stimulate consumer desire via the resulting digital aura.
Like Rem Koolhaas, Rashid peppers his manifestos with bite-sized, trademark phrases such as “sensual minimalism” or “techno-organic” in order to define his design ideals. In I Want To Change the World, Rashid portrays himself in the tradition of the designer as visionary, a seer who can interpret the (digital) future for the rest of us mere mortals. Rashid’s blind faith in new technology and rejection of history (despite the 1960s pop references) places his design philosophy squarely in the modernist tradition. But, unlike the early 20th century modernists, for Rashid, democracy is conflated with consumerism, and the individual consumer is the ultimate endpoint of his design logic. Homogenization, he argues, is a threat to individuality. To rise above the poverty of mass produced goods, Rashid proposes variance and niche marketing, but the idea of confirming one’s individuality by buying Rashid-signature designs seems contradictory (see also his Design Your Self: Rethinking the Way You Live, Love, Work and Play). However, Rashid’s digital artifice reflects the values of a certain class of early 21st century design-saavy consumers: cosmopolitan, casual, and moneyed.
Nooch Noodle Bar
Rashid’s first foray into interior design was Morimoto restaurant in Philadelphia (2001), but his first New York interior was Nooch Noodle Bar (2004), a moderately-priced branch of a Singapore-based chain of contemporary Asian noodle shops. Situated in the heart of retrofitted Chelsea, on the corner of 8th Avenue and 17th Street, the entire street frontage of Nooch is a glass façade. The glass is foggy at the top and bottom, then gradually clearer towards the middle, resulting in a long horizontal frame that wraps around the corner of the city block. At night, a neon green glow from below creates an otherworldly atmosphere. From outside, the entrance is marked by an oversized image of a model’s face, which resonates with both the pan-Asian cuisine and the voyeuristic environment within. From inside, the space is sealed from street noise by the constant dance music, so patrons watch a stream of traffic and pedestrians striding along 8th Ave, clutching cellphones or shopping bags, walking dogs or hailing taxis, for the most part oblivious they are on display.
Inside, the small dining space has a capacity of around fifty diners, and comprises Rashid-designed lime-colored chairs and translucent plastic benches, as well as smoothly contoured metallic tables. However, the spongy material of the benches and the table surfaces have not worn well, the bench edges are crumbling and white chips on the tables somewhat spoil the high-tech effect. Another major design element, a spectacular blue, pink and green “noodle” mural on one wall, highlights Rashid’s exploration of virtual space with its complex layers and reflective surface.
The floor pattern, which looks similar to 1960s Op Art, continues up the back wall and into the bathroom. Along with the patterns, the highlight of the bathroom is the ameboid mirror across which run scrolling LED messages that appear as textual fragments such as “sexy underwear” or “naughty girl”. A central bar with Rashid-designed stools makes the restaurant seem casual while a prominent DJ desk, “DJ Kreemy”, a curvaceous blue stand with two turntables and a mixing board set into it, connects the dining experience to nightclub culture. And music is a crucial element in the creation of atmosphere here: the seamless surfaces of the furniture and the continuous patterns are complemented by a seamless musical experience. Like cyberspace, Nooch is insulated from the outside world, but the simultaneous experience of being on display and voyeuristically watching passers-by reflects a contemporary celebrity culture in which the boundaries between private and public are blurred.
Rashid’s more recent restaurant/bar, Kurve (2008), occupies a corner site in the gentrified East Village. A floor-to-ceiling glass façade along 2nd Avenue “kurves” around the corner onto 5th Street where it ends halfway around, with three oval-shaped windows completing the 5th Street façade. Like Nooch, Kurve’s glass facade wraps around the corner, but here the fish bowl effect is more pronounced, particularly at night, when patrons are on display to passers-by due to not only the glass façade, but the interior’s light palette. Like Nooch, Kurve is similarly insulated from the noise and smells of the street outside, and patrons are immersed in a soft and comfortable Rashid-world of organic forms and calm colors.
Inside, ovaloid shapes abound and the color scheme is distinctively pale pink and white. Light is cleverly diffused, making the interior space light-filled but not overly bright. Pale pink couches line one side, an oval bar sits in the middle of the space, and more formal dining seating comprising white tables and chairs lies on the other side of the bar. Above the couches, three video monitors, also oval shaped, stream random patterns, morphing forms and numbers in a constant abstract datastream. There is an obligatory DJ booth at the rear, and, like Nooch, a seamless soft club mix adds to the hypnotic atmosphere created by the lighting and soft curves throughout. The plastic flooring material, which appears to be similar to that used for childrens' playgrounds, adds to the sense of a cocooned world, safely removed from the dim, dilapidated grittiness of 2nd Avenue outside.
Rashid’s interiors are consistent with his design aesthetic, but move it beyond a single object into a kind of digital gesamtkunstwerk. Rashid (and his studio) also designed the graphics and logos for both restaurants (see images below), including details such as designs for the napkins and chopstick holders. Both Nooch and Kurve are complete, immersive environments that reflect the contemporary experience of cyberspace – safe, non-threatening and detached from the “outside world”. While Rashid’s digital spaces are supposedly universal (without reference to any particular culture, history or specific location), they reflect a certain cosmopolitan class that is mobile, design-conscious and technologically-saavy. And it is not coincidental that both spaces are located in gentrified downtown areas associated with New York’s cultural industries. With the idea of designer “lifestyle” as a discourse of differentiation now firmly entrenched amongst urban middle classes (see my post on Ian Schreger/Philippe Starck), Rashid’s consistent aesthetic and high-tech references clearly appeal to the early 21st century fetishization of digital spaces and the display culture of contemporary celebrity.
Rashid, Karim, Evolution, London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
Rashid, Karim, Design Your Self: Rethink the Way You Live, Love, Work and Play, New York: Regan Books, 2006.
Rashid, Karim, I Want to Change the World, London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.
“Kurve Designer Karim Rashid Thinks New York Has Some Catching Up to Do”, interview by Sasha Petraske, Grub Street New York (from New York magazine) published online, 8/06/08. There are good images of Kurve included with the interview.
Images of Nooch above by D. J. Huppatz.
More images of Nooch here.