Patricia Urquiola is easily one of the biggest names in furniture design today, known both for her uncanny design sensibility and her disarmingly effusive personality. Urquiola's signature aesthetic is that she does not impose one on her work; instead, her consistent output—for the likes of Moroso, B&B Italia, Flos, Foscarini, Kartell, Axor, etc.—is characterized by a strong sense of pattern, form and material.
Luminaire and B&B Italia were kind enough to host the esteemed designer for a lecture at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art on the occasion of NeoCon 2011. We had the opportunity to chat with Urquiola in anticipation of the talk and concurrent exhibition at Luminaire.
Core77: I'm sure most of our readers are somewhat familiar with your work, but how did you get your start?
I completed university at the end of the 80's, and then I worked for Magistretti and another part of the company that was called De Padova; that was my early work.
And you started your own studio around 2001?
Yes, about 2001... Ten years ago, more or less.
Why did you want to do that?
[It took] a long time, from the moment I ended my studies in architecture and design [to] when I opened my studio was quite a long way of work, because I was working inside a company, and then working with Piero Lissoni in the studio with a community of designers... I was feeling very comfortable.
I thought, because I was raising a family, I could work in a group, with others; I thought that having my own studio could be possibly less comfortable. But then a moment arrived [around] 2000, when I understood that it was really a possibility and a logical reality. In that period, I began to work with Patrizia Moroso and we did two projects that were quite interesting while I was working with Piero Lissoni. But I was working part-time in the studio. And I understood there was a credibility.
But I don't think it was such a big deal to have my own studio or not to have it. I'm quite sociable, working with others, and I would work well with others in other companies. [At some point], you understand that you need to have your own studio and you decide to open it, but there are many ways to work in this discipline—inside a company, with a group of architects and designers...
When you are young, you don't know very well if that's the only way is to be you, [to have] your name and your studio.
Installation at Luminaire Chicago
Right, I remember you mentioned it when you had the conversation with Patrizia Moroso about a month ago, in New York [at 92Y Tribeca; part of the IIDA NY "Pioneering Design" series]...
I think she was the person who gave me the first push to work on my own.
And so you've been working with B&B Italia pretty closely as well, how would you compare that working relationship with your relationship to Moroso?
It's totally different. But you know my relation with Flos. Or my relation with Axor, the German company I'm working with. Or the relation I have with Kartell. Each relationship is different... it's like your friendships. There are persons with whom you can do certain things with in a very natural way, and others [with whom] you find other affinities.
I'm a curious person; I like to have different relationships with the understanding that each company has different limits and attitudes to technology or techniques, or approach, or the way they work on quality. You know, I'm trying to create tools for living with a certain quality... That's the idea.
But I'm also trying to start a dialogue with the companies, and push the limits; sometimes they are cultural or sometimes they are technical. Trying to make them... to grow myself and them, together, in some way.
Each company proposes that you have a different dialogue; the moment they change the dialogue, things come out differently. It's the DNA of the company, of the dealers... if I can work very well with someone, but I also know if I can very work with someone else. It would be a mistake to do the wrong project with the wrong partner.
"Bend" for B&B Italia, 2010
For B&B, I know they're trying to stay ahead of the curve, as far as the manufacturing, the materials, the processes that they use.
For example, B&B does the foam molds within the company. You don't find this normally in a company. So for the last sofa, the "Bend" sofa, we wanted to get a better price [with] the same quality they always try to have, in a piece that was interesting but having... reduced, reducing a lot of energy, not the processes—the way we were producing the foam, the way we were producing the dress for the sofa, as a patchwork. Then we were using the leather or the fabrics in a better way, using the maximum capacities of the material. And the foam, we're producing the foam "multi-perforated"—it's going to be lighter, less material but with the same comfort.
So we were able to get a piece for a better price on the market... but which still has very interesting qualities and still working very well. That was possible with a company such as B&B; in the case of Moroso, they outsource the production of the inside of the sofa, they use the other industries all around them.
But they are very strong in the way that they manufacture the dressing, the skin of the couches sofas and armchairs, they have incredible knowledge and attitude towards this. Many projects came quite naturally, and the attitude of Patrizia Moroso helped a lot with this kind of research... other companies, perhaps they are not so interested in this kind of approach about the skin.
"Husk" for B&B Italia, 2011
Or for example, for the latest armchair with B&B, we tried to do a process where we controlled the plastic mold, the shell, the "Husk"... And the idea is that you can take out the cushions, which are inside the dress—you can open them and take out all the pieces [of the wool or feathers] and you can wash the fabric.
The outside of the plastic mold is [dictated by] the formal elements of the cushions. The cushions are the idea behind the project, they are the fundamental element and everything is going around them. Then the leg, the wooden leg... everything is done separately, they are not glued, they are not fixed... everything is interchangeable. You can substitute any piece, so if something breaks, you can just change the part.
And the idea of the process, of doing an armchair, that everything is made separated and you can substitute parts when they are not ok, or at the end the person can divide them and recycle them separately.
We try to think in this way, and the way we are speaking with Flos, with the lighting we are doing, or we [were] working before with Foscarini, or the conversation we are having with Axor, for doing a new collection...
Always trying to understand new ways to do the process with the company.
For example, we are now working with glass, Murano glass, for the Biennale... we worked with the maestros in Murano, just trying to understand how to use the techniques for using Murano... and then we did this collection of glasswares.
Managing different techniques, Murano techniques has been an incredible approach for me—with the furnace and the maestro. With this material, you have to decide in one second, because it gets solid and definite very quick... it's not something that can be reproduced in a series; in this case, we wanted to show the artisan way to approach Murano glass. That's been fantastic.
So speaking of branching out, I know you've done some interiors more recently, and your background is in architecture. Do you see a difference between designing furniture, interiors, or architecture?
It depends a little bit, the professions you have in front of you. I'm an architect and a designer: I started as an architect, then I found Achille Castiglioni at university and I did my degree with him and we were interested a lot in design too... and then I began to work mostly in design at the beginning of my professional career. But I'm an architect too, so I'm always interested in tools for living, the habitat around you, where you introduce yourself as the person who uses the pieces.
It's the equation between the habitat—the tools for living—and the person who is using them; how they're related, which is the thing that interests me.
So on many occasions over the years, Patrizia Moroso asked me to do the booth for Salone, and then to do the showroom for her in London or New York; for Flos I did too. Or B&B asked me to do the shop in Barcelona... or they ask me to do exhibitions, I am now working on an exhibition about time in triennale, in Milano.
Then I'm always open to situations when I have to work with the habitat in relation to the space, as an architect: Patrizia Moroso asked me to do the house, her own house. We constructed a villa, and then it so happened that a group of investors from Spain [saw it and] asked me to work on the hotel—a Mandarin Oriental hotel—as the interior designer for the building, so we worked on handles and taps especially for the work, and the carpets and lighting and things. My work for Axor came out of this experience.
"Canasta" for B&B Italia, 2008
Many times, it's a difference of scale, because you're working in another scale. But at the end, I think they are together: part of my outdoor collection with B&B came out of my experience with these hotels. Or the handles, they became a product for production, or the taps, the became a product for Axor. My work is always very related, very linked. My work in architecture is related to my work of design.
Things that come very naturally, the things that they ask me to do; for example, there is a museum in my country, LABoral. They asked me to help them do the entrance, the library and the shop at the entrance and a video consulting the place... and a few things, a few situations for the museum, and then it was natural to work with them.
The difference is obviously in the dimensions of the scale, the change in the scale they're working, but many times they are related. We did a hotel in Vieques, for W, and we worked as architects because we had to remodel some of the 17 buildings on the property... we changed the roofs, we eliminated some elements and added other things. But we were working as designers too, because, for example, the Agape bathtub became a product for a collection.
For me, [each discipline is] different, but they are related, you know? Because I'm an architect and a designer, for me it's natural.
I understand you were just at the Art Institute [of Chicago], did you get a chance to see the design exhibition there?
Yes, yes, we didn't have so much time but we saw the interesting "Hyperlinks" exhibition. It was very nice.
Did you see the one with the glass, the triangles that change ["Shade" by Simon Heijdens]... ?
Yes, belissimo, that interacted with the city, with the wind of Chicago... what a perfect place to do this work. We are very lucky because we are in a moment that the city can't be better than this... it's a clear sky, windy but not too much. We've been here with a lot of very cold and very hot... this time is perfect.
Thank you for your time
Patricia Urquiola grew up in Oviedo, Spain and studied architecture in Madrid before transferring to the Politecnico di Milano. There she studied under mentor Achille Castiglioni, who would have an immense impact on the course of her career. Working in the product development office of De Padova with Vico Magistretti from 1990-1996, Urquiola also maintained an associate practice between 1993-1996 with architects Marzia De Renzio and Emanuela Ramerino, with whom she was engaged in the architectural design of showrooms, restaurants and franchising. Joining Piero Lissoni in 1996, she remained as head of his design group until 2001, when she left to open her own studio specializing in design, exhibitions, art direction and architecture. Urquiola's most recent high-profile commercial endeavors include striking interiors for Barcelona's Mandarin Oriental Hotel and the W Retreat & Spa on Vieques Island as well as a new H&M store in London. Extending her reach ever further, in 2010, she collaborated with designer Giulio Ridolfo on an installation called 'the dwelling lab,' in which she explored the interior and exterior of the new BMW 5 series Gran Turismo.