Innovative materials coupled with traditional craftsmanship are found throughout the work of the Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola, whose intelligent attitude to design makes her one of her generation's greatest talents.
“I strongly believe that design is based on a rigorous process,” says the designer Patricia Urquiola. “What is open is how to feed that process.” For Urquiola, that nourishment comes in the form of the basic laws of industrial design and a respect for artisan craftsmanship, which can be seen in her vast body of work that ranges from furniture that could fill a house to the recently opened Mandarin Oriental hotel in Barcelona.
An architecture graduate of the Faculdad de Arquitectura in Madrid, it was in her adopted home of Milan that Spanish-born Urquiola discovered her love of design on a smaller scale. She credits her mentors Achille Castiglioni and Vico Magistretti for instilling in her an appreciation for understatement and for “looking at things… with an unusual eye.”
After stints working for the furniture manufacturer De Padova and the design house Lissoni Associati, Urquiola opened her own studio in 2001. She has created pieces for some of the world’s most important manufacturers, including Alessi, Kartell, Flos and Moroso. Her work for the outdoor collections of B&B Italia is particularly well known.
Urquiola’s recent creations for Molteni & Co, the Sequence modular bookcase and the Night & Day versatile seating system, are typical of her ability to combine imaginative improvements in functionality with bold forms and cutting edge materials. “I like to mix new technological materials of high performance with traditional methods and vice versa,” she says of her signature look. Qualifying the thought process, as opposed to an aesthetic, that is behind her work, she qualifies: “But only when the result adds something, not just for the fun of it.”
What is your definition of luxury?
Freedom to choose.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
A safe, non-polluting, silent, and comfortable means of transport.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
The beach house of my childhood.
You trained as an architect but are perhaps best known for your work as a designer. How did your work evolve?
I think I always wanted to be an architect, I studied architecture in Madrid and then in Milan, where I discovered design. Studying with a master like Achille Castiglioni made me understand how much I like design and the understatement of working on a smaller scale in comparison with architecture with the capital letter.
How would you describe your method of working?
I work a lot with analogies. I absorb a lot from the stimulus I get from my everyday life, what I see around me, my travels, in arts, on the street. Looking at things, as Vico Magistretti used to say, with an unusual eye. I digest all that information and then transform it into something else.
How much of your work is a collaborative process with clients?
The process changes a lot depending on the client I’m working with. Their history, technology, language, culture. My effort goes in working together but at the same time trying to move their limits. That’s a fundamental function of an external figure like a designer.
You have talked before of your interest in artisan techniques. Which are you particularly fond of and where have you used them?
Part of my research is to look into all directions. There is a great treasure in our past, in the art crafts techniques that are unexplored. One example is my work with Rosenthal where I worked with the traditional matter of porcelain with some very innovative and sophisticated molds. Or working on seating using weaving techniques with technical fibers.
Tell us about your latest collections for Molteni & Co.
The inspiration of the seating system Night and Day came from looking at our ways of relaxing and sharing a common space, the living room, where more and more we are doing different activities at the same time. In a more easy, more laid back way. The bookcase, Sequence, was based on the concept of creating an architectural piece, a self-standing structure.
Since founding your design studio in 2001 you have rapidly produced a large body of work for all areas of the house. How is your own home decorated?
My house is an experimental dynamic space, full of prototypes that I like to have to test them personally. It’s mostly a container for my family, my books and objects that I found.
Which of your projects are you most proud of?
All, because behind all of them there is a path that has been important for me, independently of the level of fortune or success they had. They are all my kids.
If a have to mention one, the latest would be the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Barcelona. It was a very intensive project with a lot of tailor made pieces and a lot of detailing.
Functionality and efficiency is of obvious importance to your work, while you also manage to break new ground in terms of design ideas. Do you consider your work to be art?
No. The basic law of industrial design is reproducibility at given conditions.
It is interesting when the result of some research produces a form that is not design, not fully art, but is a grey area in between. When I work with ephemeral architecture there is more freedom with the concept but at the same time there is constraint with time and budget.
Are you conscious of your work being bought by collectors of design as an investment rather than as a functional piece of furniture?
I hope that my work lives in different ways. I work in different price categories. Many of my products are used in public spaces like libraries, museums, restaurants, bars and shops. At the same time I believe in virtual consumption: some people will buy and possess my products, others will consume them as an image or as an inspiration that will lead to something else. I would like to think that thanks to their quality, some of my products will have more than one life.
You have designed many pieces of furniture for use outdoors. Is it the case that outdoor furniture is an overlooked area of design?
I think that there is an ongoing evolution that touches different typologies. Some products were developed in very closed sectors, which are difficult to change. It happened to kitchens, bathrooms and now to outdoor furniture. So there is a different sensibility and a desire to bring indoors the outdoor feeling.
Which architects and designers have influenced you most?
For sure my mentors, Achille Castiglioni and Vico Magistretti.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a project with BMW, a scenography for a classical Opera, a hotel, a private residence, a fashion retail concept, an exhibition concept for Pitti Uomo and other dfferent design projects.
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