Throughout her illustrious 29-year career, designer and architect Patricia Urquiola is accustomed to being the minority. The 57-year-old is a woman in a male-dominated industry and a Spaniard living and working in Milan, Italy, where she chose to settle after graduating from university in 1989. And being the odd one out is the way she wants it. “I’m this kind of person,” Urquiola explains. “Experimental.”
Not that her minority status has prevented her rise to designer superstardom. Her penchant for experimentation, preference for casual over formal styles, and her creation of functional pieces that resonate with customers, have made her a darling with headlining labels. Now Cassina’s art director, she has produced iconic products for high-end furniture maker B&B Italia, as well as for Louis Vuitton’s home collection, Objets Nomades.
In between speaking at the recent Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore and launching her latest sofa, the Floe Insel, at Space Asia, she talks to The Peak about adapting design to modern needs, her inspirations and working in a male-dominated industry.
How have you adapted your furniture designs in response to changing social behaviour?
In Cassina’s book, This will be the Place, architecture historian Beatriz Colomina argues that we will become more informal in the way we live our lives. People want to live around their beds or sofa, to lie down and rest, or work on the computer. Take my Floe Insel sofa – it is not a modular sofa, yet it’s meant to be a piece that can be approached in many ways. You can put the sofa and ottoman anywhere in a room. It offers more freedom for sitting; you can lie down or rest on the back of the sofa.
The way we stay comfortable in places is also evolving. The office, for example, is no longer just a space with a desk. People want to use that space to take calls or just lounge on the sofa for informal meetings. This kind of behaviour is catered for in my 2013 collaboration with office furniture manufacturer Haworth. Our Openest collection of tables and sofas is partially covered by curved dividers for privacy and comfort.
Are earlier designs still relevant to how we live today?
At Cassina, we’ve been adapting from past designs. Take the Maralunga chair that we’ve been selling for years. We are planning to do a longer version with bigger dimensions to fit this informal way of living. Or with the Le Corbusier armchair of cushions enclosed in steel “basket” frames, which designer Konstantin Grcic has reinterpreted in the form of the Soft Props sofa which has interchangeable frames and cushions.
Many pieces made by masters in our archives are still evergreen, like the 637 Utrecht armchair created in 1935. Someone actually thought it was designed by me! Those pieces are still very relevant and fresh looking. I would like for people to see products from then and now, and understand the history and design language that connect them.
You’ve mentioned that the Floe Insel was inspired by a trip to Greenland and a painting, The Island Of Life, by Arnold Bocklin. Tell us more about it.
I came up with the sofa after that trip and thought about the piece as an island. But that is only one part of it. It’s really not that literal. I get inspired by things out of the ordinary. I’m curious about things thrown out onto the street. You need to be always curious about society. Similarly, I am curious about art. Artists are the first sensible people to give answers to society’s changes and their works help me to understand it. Art makes you grow, makes you think and feel. Certain exhibitions will stick with you and you learn from it.
You’re often proclaimed as one of the best minds in the male-dominated architecture and design industry. Has being a woman given perspective to your work?
Well, I can’t avoid my womanhood. I took some time to open my studio, Studio Urquiola, in 2001, and being a woman made it complicated because I’m a minority in this sector. In some way, being a woman makes me more open to changes. We are more agile and open-minded, and this kind of mental flexibility is a good thing in the world of design. In the end, the product needs to be responsive to modern requirements and both men and women can understand this. I can do a studio of only women, but, no, my studio is one where both men and women work together.