Patricia Urquiola, simple materials used innovatively.
Among the eclectic collection of things on Patricia Urquiola’s desk in her Milanese studio is a vintage toy dinosaur sitting atop a copy of The Age of Earthquakes. Though unintentional, the pairing is fitting.
“We are indeed in an age of earthquakes,” says Urquiola as she notices the irony of the scene. “We have to shape the end of our existence in the most elegant way. We designers can help work on that.”
As apocalyptic as the message may sound, there is no pessimism in Urquiola’s voice. Rather, her call seems to be for more playfulness in response to our current social and environmental challenges – an approach that manifests itself in her creations and their mix of bright colour palettes, unusual shapes and sustainable materials.
A graduate in architecture and design from Madrid Polytechnic and Milan Polytechnic (where she was a protégé of Achille Castiglioni in the late 1980s), Urquiola describes herself as a student of the postmodern school.
“We entered postmodernism when we started being concerned [about the future of the planet],” she explains. “I’ve been in the arena for some years, but now more than ever we have to look at what’s happening around us and modify our behaviours. I’m lucky that I get to do what I do alongside people who are open to embracing change.”
Although Urquiola started her career working under the influential Piero Lissoni and Maddalena de Padova, she has managed to chart a path separate from other designers, developing a distinctively minimalistic, yet playful style of her own.
Since founding her product-design and architecture studio in north-east Milan in 2001, Urquiola has created furniture lines, accessories and showrooms for some of the biggest names in contemporary design including Molteni & C, Moroso, Flos, and Kartell, as well as office interiors, restaurants and hotels in locations from Singapore to St Moritz. She was appointed art director for the Italian furniture brand Cassina in 2015 and has guest lectured at the world’s most renowned universities. In addition, her work has been displayed at the likes of New York’s MoMA, Basel’s Vitra Design Museum and the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. More recently, she has collaborated with Bolon to introduce a new flooring collection inspired by the Japanese tradition of Sashiko.
Born in the Asturias region of northern Spain, Urquiola grew up in a creative family – her father was an engineer, her mother studied philosophy.
“Even though I’ve spent more than half of my personal and professional life in Milan, my roots are in Spain,” says Urquiola. “I come from the Atlantic, where the scenery is constantly changing with the tides. This idea of constant rebirth is something that stays with you all your life. Our national poet, Antonio Machado, wrote ‘Wanderer, there is no path, the path is made by walking.’ This is what I’m trying to do: to create my path with humility and openness, to take new directions.”
Urquiola speaks in the lively, passionate manner of someone who enjoys discussion, mixing languages and repeatedly coming back to Machado’s metaphorical path. Of her responsibilities as a designer she says that the best she can do is “to follow her path with good intentions, every day”. “But we all have a lot of homework to do,” she adds. “Whether [we are] designers or not.”
Urquiola has certainly done her fair share of homework. Through her commissions for brands, as well as in her role as art director at Cassina, she has been able to influence the industry in terms of how it approaches sustainability. By incorporating discarded materials and craft techniques into industrial production processes, Urquiola brings a humanistic stance to her work, always designing with her surroundings in mind. When two major earthquakes hit northern Italy in May 2012 and caused widespread damage, the designer collaborated with Italian marble manufacturer Budri on furniture pieces, vases and other accessories made from fragments of marble and onyx rescued from the disaster.
“Marble is a wonderful material but not an endless resource, so it’s important to think about ways in which we can turn a problem into an opportunity,” says Urquiola of her Earthquake 5.9 collection for Budri. “For me, all waste is valuable; it’s just a matter of presenting it in a fresh light.”
In other collections, such as her Nuances line of carpets for Spanish rug manufacturer Gan, she recycles scrap fibres from wool processing, celebrating the irregularity of the leftovers. Urquiola’s designs are testimony to the beauty of simple materials used innovatively.
Protecting craftsmanship in an age of mass manufacturing is also central to Urquiola’s work. She sees the human element as fundamental to each of her projects: her lines for Gan, for example, are all hand sewn by skilled artisans from women’s craft collectives in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
“If you want to help someone, empower them to use the tools that they own,” explains Urquiola. “Our entire work happens around these communities of women, their lifestyles and culture.”
In 2014, she created the Bandas line for Gan, for which she adapted her designs to the artisans’ family lives. Urquiola wanted to make sure that the pieces were narrow enough to roll up easily, allowing the women to continue working at home with the rugs on their laps. The outcome is a system of modular rugs and seats of various sizes, embellished with colourful, chunky stitching.
In the same year, she was involved in a charity project aimed at encouraging Bilbao restaurateurs to serve guests tap water from the city’s civic aqueduct in ceramic jugs specifically designed by Urquiola for the campaign. These were offered for sale at all participating establishments, with profits donated to Oxfam Intermón to support the construction of wells in Ethiopia.
In her architecture, as in her furniture and accessories, Urquiola seems to excel at projects that allow her to foster meaningful connections through design.
“Some mornings when I wake up, I feel trapped; other mornings I’m filled with good energy, feeling like I’m moving along my path purposefully and in connection with those around me,” she says.
Whether it’s designing a hotel on the shores of Lake Como or creating a line of flexible cubicle walls and sofas for the American office furniture brand Haworth, Urquiola’s work fulfils a constant desire for interaction, both between people and their surroundings, and between form and material.
“The switch between architecture and product design helps me to constantly enhance my thinking,” says Urquiola. “We don’t always know how to approach things in complicated times like these, but this is my way of redefining my compass every day.”
If poet Antonio Machado’s wanderer finds his path by walking, Urquiola is finding hers by designing
Words: Annick Weber
Photography: Piotr Niepsuj
First Published in Bolon’s We Love Magazine