Pitchfork   The Dissolve   Festivals: Chicago | Paris

Karim Rashid / Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture

The biomorphic designer, avid runner, and shoe exhibit consultant tells us why sneakers represent design's leading edge.

Interview By Patrick Sisson, August 20, 2013

Exhibition photos courtesy of Bata Museum

When Bata Shoe Museum Senior Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack first began assembling the exhibit that would become Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture (on display in Toronto through March 30, 2014), she hit up the right contacts. Erik Blam, manager of Run-D.M.C., and Bobbito Garcia, author of the sneaker bible Where’d You Get Those? both lent their expertise. But it may have been the choice of industrial designer Karim Rashid as exhibit designer that helped articulate just how forward-thinking footwear can be.     

Rashid’s exhibit layout, heavy on digital themes and shades of neon, is another in a long series of curvy, colorful argument for the primacy of technology in design. For decades, the award-winning designer has been making a similar statement in his work for clients as wide-ranging as Umbra and Method to Veuve Clicquot and Artemide. 

The history on display at the Bata Museum would thrill any sneaker freak—plastic domes encase rare and colorful kicks, like shoes from the 1860s, a replica of Jesse Owens Adidas from the 1936 Olympics, and the 1986 Puma Computer shoe, a Nike+ precursor that plugs into a Apple IIe and tells you how many calories you’ve burned. Nike designer Tinker Hatfield’s sketches of the iconic Air Jordan XI grace a back wall. 

But it’s the focus on technology’s role in pushing sneaker design forward that makes Rashid, himself an avid runner, a fitting choice. When we spoke to Rashid from his office in New York, he explained why progressive advances make shoes so fascinating, why trends shouldn’t trump technology, and how custom pink shoes tend to get weird looks on the street.

Working on the exhibit seems like a natural fit for you, since you talk a lot about design humanizing the physical world. What attracted you to the exhibit, and how did you get involved?
I don’t remember how I got involved. They actually just contacted me about designing the show. I said "Brilliant, that would be great." As you said, it’s a perfect fit. I’ve been an avid runner for over thirty years, and from a fashion point of view, I like the kind of experimentation that takes place with the sneaker, so I got very, very excited. I took the time to learn about more of the history and figure out how I could map out the show in a more professional way. Not just educational, but more entertaining as well. 

How do you connect shoes from the 1800s to the custom Nikes of today?
When the running shoe was introduced, it was for performance, to play sport. I don’t think anyone ever predicted it would become the shoe of choice. We live in the age of casualism for sure. Running shoes have such progressive technology. A lot of industrial designers got involved in the shoe in the late 20th century. What industrial designers bring to the table is new materials, new performance. It’s very structurally driven, where fashion tends to not be as considerate of form and function. We look at the running shoe as part of the fashion industry now, but I think it’s far more progressive and contemporary. It’s meeting the needs and desires of the 21st century.

I think it’s interesting to see when the shoe broke out and when it became a part of everyday life, versus specifically for sports. You see the turning point in the ‘30s, when people apparently started wearing Converse outside of the basketball court. It probably really took off post-sexual revolution. It became something people would wear everyday.

I made the exhibit space something that spoke to now, the 21st century, with colors and design. About how the running shoe is not only the shoe of choice, but it's designed in direct relation to robotics and new technology. You can argue that the today, it’s more a part of the digital age. In the digital age we’re having more heightened experiences than we ever have in history. When I design space in general, I try and connect and talk about physical space being inspired by the digital.

The trends in design now are going back to nostalgia and realism, such as restaurants made of reclaimed wood, bars meant to harken back to the prohibition era. Are we going through a period of nostalgia?
No question about it. If design and people are looking back, they’re not really designing, they’re being derivative. At some point there’s no thought or original idea. I think it’s important to critically use the word "trend." A trend is momentary; it’s not like a movement. It’s two-fold. We’re having fewer and fewer ideas, but many variations; and second of all, we mistake what design means. Design is really about working with contemporary criteria. Shape the future. If I design a water bottle or a hotel, it’s going to make an impact on culture in the next five or 10 years, whereas if my client wants me to make a French bistro, what I’m doing is not really designing, or shaping, or affecting, it's more like trompe l’oeil, it’s fake. An 18th century bistro in Manhattan isn’t brand new, it has nothing to do with the 21st century and how we live. It could be like that in a very simple, pragmatic, and physical way. Why would I sit on a super uncomfortable wooden chair when I could sit on something phenomenal? We’ve managed to create the most comfortable chairs in history, why would I sit at this chair that’s uncomfortable? At the end of the day, it’s all just decorating, bad revivalism, and bad ornamentation. I always refer to that as not design, but styling.

Maybe Yohji Yamamoto, when he was cutting clothing, or Issey Miyake, when he was experimenting with new technology, that’s designing, pushing boundaries. You’re really determined to create something better, easier, more comfortable, simpler, higher performance, all that stuff. That’s designing. This year, women need to wear five-to-six-inch high heels, that’s what everyone is wearing, but that makes no sense in this day and age. Or women with huge handbags—that’s just decoration, it’s not functioning in the world we live in now. Some things in fashion are coming up with solutions to real needs, and other things are just going into the past and copying over and over.

You can see that with the shoes in the exhibit. There are a lot that are performance-driven, and then there are a lot that are completely frivolous. What’s important is, it’s an overview of all there are. What is high performance versus what is not? Some are both, trying to make something luxurious from the running shoe. 

To take your point and talk about sneakers, are there trends in design that you find are progressive and impress you?
Oh, many. Let’s look at what’s happened to the running shoe. These lightweight, flexible soles, the way they’re designed, it’s kind of amazing. Little things like, sneakers don’t have a loose tongue anymore, it’s built in, or laces that you pull once and they tighten. If you look at all the experiments that go on with the shoes, giving you arch support and extra cushion, the Nike Air or the shell that was put into Reebok in the 1980s, it’s amazing how high-performance this stuff is. You can get a nice pair of running shoes and walk around Paris all day and not feel it in your knees. Compare that to running back and forth years ago on a basketball course wearing flat Converse.

I always felt those shoes caused more injuries than they prevented.
It’s even the way they’re made. The labor, the facilities with underage workers… most of the shoes are now made with robots, there’s almost no human labor involved. When Oakley came out with their first running shoe, there was almost no human labor involved. It’s progress compared to other parts of the fashion industry. The jean we wear today, it was made in what, 1830, and there are a few performance improvements, elasticized waists, etc. But most of the fashion industry isn’t thinking about better performance. The thing with better performance is that you create a better aesthetic. When you concentrate on something that works well you create a new form. 

You’re an avid runner yourself. What shoes are you rocking right now?
It’s funny, I’m actually wearing a lot of Canadian shoes. I’m wearing a prototype—I just designed a line of desert boot runners for Sully Wong in Toronto, that’s not coming out until April. And then Native, I love them, I think they’re from Vancouver. Let’s see what else, I have a lot of interesting and odd running shoes. I look for colors like pink and fluorescents. Pink Adidas with silver stripes. I run with Nikes, I go online and customize them all, I do it three times a year, I run so much I wear them out. I make a pair made up of four kinds of pinks. I don’t know if you know about that Nike customization program. I’ve been doing it for about 12 years now. So many people don’t know about it. When I wear them, people always ask where I got them. I read an article about that program and that website has been losing them money for years,  it’s just finally making money and breaking even. That’s the future, right? We’re all going to customize and individualize everything we have. Right now, I can go around the corner to 57th street and Madison and get the same Nike running shoes, without the customized colors, for the same price. 

Some of the sneakers were special designs from Nike staffers. Are these experimental and not released?
Some of them, yes. It’s the first time they’ve been displayed. It’s very cool. I didn’t curate the show, so it’s probably better to talk to them about that. What I did is make the show become physical.

How did you conceive of the exhibit design?
I saw we’d feature 30 of the shoes with these cones that sort of swooped and came up from the floor. With the budget, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. I wanted a ring of light to light up when you approached, as well as the shoe. I wanted to make it a little bit more physically interactive that way. One wall features designs from Nike, lots of performance information, and the other side contains a lot of history. I don’t know if you saw the shoe that you could hook up to your computer with a floppy disc drive. It’s hilarious and way ahead of its time, like what we have with Nike Run.

Do you have a closet full of shoeboxes somewhere? 
No. I know some guy who buys a second pair of shoes when he gets new ones and collects them. I’m a designer and at the end of the day, I like using these things, I don’t like putting them on a pedestal. 

I was reading about a piece you did last year called the Float Sofa. A lot of people said it seemed like you were taking a new direction. As someone who has a very distinct style, do you feel like you’re always trying to challenge yourself?
Constantly. When you look at the body of my work, it’s very diverse. I’m not satisfied with that comfort zone. It’s like Rothko versus Picasso. Rothko kept painting the same canvas over and over again, while Picasso constantly needed to inspire himself. I need to see what else I can do. I keep pushing my boundaries, that’s what keeps me going. I also don’t like repeating form. When I design a perfume bottle versus a laptop, they have their own integral issues or criteria, I work within that framework, you know? It’s important for me to have concept in everything I do. With the Flow Couch, it was about a wall to divide your space. I’ve lived in lofts most of my life with one room that doesn’t always work very well. Can I do a piece that was big enough for a division? So this was all about division, creating a wall. So that’s where the concept came from. I believe in this idea of physical and mental casualism. I think we’re at a point where we have such high performance and material, we can make things that are about making a better world. I don’t try to drive it from style, I try and drive it from the content.

Visit batashoemuseum.ca for more information on Out of the Box.

Visit KarimRashid.com for all things Karim Rashid.