Uta Abendroth: At B&B Italia I glimpsed your “Tabano” armchair and “Husk” sofa, and at Moroso I saw your “(Love me) Tender” sofa. All of these are very voluminous upholstered furniture items. So what happened to the feminine, floral, romantic Urquiola design?
Patricia Urquiola: Well, my focus was never exclusively on those items you mentioned, indeed I always aspired to make a wide variety of upholstered furniture pieces. If you think about it, I simply have a very extensive spectrum, and that’s all you need to know about me. Plus I’m not afraid of colors and I love to experiment in my projects – which is why the objects I create are so very different from each other.
That sounds like designing new pieces of furniture is really easy.
Urquiola: It varies a lot. Sometimes the a design process takes off simply by itself, a case in point are those small side tables I did for Glas Italia, named “Shimmer”. Once you’ve got the hang of how to process and set glass, the rest is easy. What fascinates me is the iridescent surface, whether it is matt or not. A beautiful product, interesting and full of poetry. By contrast, putting together a sofa system is a real challenge and takes up so much time! I spent three years making “Husk” with B&B Italia, in fact we had already finished it last year, but then decided not to show it after all as we wanted to make the padding better. So we worked on enhancing the comfort even more. However, it’s not like we lost a year over it; we simply gave the whole thing one more year.
That’s not a given in light of today’s tough competition.
Urquiola: No, I don’t think so either. The way the market works today, there’s far too much pressure, just like in the fashion business. And yet, be it at Kartell or Moroso, we tend to take a long time tweaking and honing our products before we decide to launch them. And when we finally do present them, they have this fresh look about them, a sense of lightness. Which is how it should be. What you don’t see, however, is the amount of time and hard work it takes to achieve this… At the end of the day, when you have made a good product, it will – hopefully – be around for a long time in our homes. The task is two-fold: On the one hand you need to produce top quality, on the other you need to succeed in giving the object a genuinely contemporary feel. That’s an emotional function, which provides more freedom than the technical one.
Do you tailor your products to a specific target group or consumer?
Urquiola: I always strive to establish a connection with the market. For each project, we research and analyze the requirements of the company for which we are working as a studio. But it’s like that: I am a consumer myself. Or let me put it this way: There are no such things as consumers, there are simply people who engage in a relationship with the instruments of home living. And I am a person, the only consumer I can ever really fully know and trust, because only I can tell if something feels good for me or not. And then there are my employees, my friends and architects, my family and my husband, my partner in life and in work.
So you actually live with your own furniture?
Urquiola: Oh yes, I have several pieces, most of them prototypes. Which many of my friends experience first-hand: They are surprised to notice they are sitting on a broken chair. So I say, “I’m sorry but it’s a prototype.” That’s happened several times now. My role model in this regard is Maddalena de Padova, who kept a wide array of the objects she designed in her home. When I got my first job at her studio, I asked her why she surrounded herself with so many items of her own. She said: “Patti, I need to be able to trust the things I make for other people, I need to try them out.” Occasionally she would go home for lunch, and on her return she would say, “There is a problem with the chair.” On which she had just sat. You learn so much as a designer if you understand how items are used. Overall, you should try and maintain a sense of modesty, remain calm and relaxed. I always remind myself that I work for people like you and me. And try to provide answers.
And that you do 24/7: You even have your studio and your apartment in the same house.
Urquiola: That’s right. My home is a “casa bottega”: I live upstairs and work downstairs. But life is simple that way, it’s not broken up into different parts.
How do you manage, considering you have two daughters as well?
Urquiola: I’m a woman just like many others and I’m privileged to be able to engage with the things I love. There are plenty of women out there who are working and like what they do much less. But they get on with it and in that sense they are far more heroical than I am. I work together with my husband and that’s probably a very good solution for a woman like me, because he shares and understands all the problems I might have. That said: I’m really just like everybody else. I’ve simply been lucky in the sense that my work is where my passions are. I draw the energy I need for my work from my private life and share a lot of things with people I like.
Is this the reason you are able to handle so many different projects simultaneously and work for various companies at the same time?
Urquiola: It’s been a long haul setting up all those different collaborations; but then again, I’ve been in the business for quite some time now. I always made a point of investing a lot of time into my work because you need to if you want to be successful. However, I feel very happy in this line of work – I kind of see it as a country where I go and spend time. Once you’ve found your own personal space and time, the right conditions that enable you to work well, you can achieve plenty. Looking back over their lives, many people tend to remember just a few highlights. I by contrast prefer to have many … how shall I say … substantial days. That way I can keep fond memories of so many more days.
You are both an architect and a designer – how do you structure your day?
Urquiola: Architecture and design are two very different things, but they complement each other well and I benefit from both of them. There are times when I find that I’m stressed with the one and turn to the other, which helps.
Two different professions, two different mindsets – do you have a preference for one over the other?
Urquiola: I can’t really tell. If you ask me today I will say one thing, if you ask me tomorrow, I will say something else. My studio is divided fifty-fifty between both disciplines. We are between 25 and 30 people overall, the majority of them work on architectural projects. The reason is that in design we tend to collaborate closely with the companies, which have their own specialists and provide assistance. In architecture things are structured very differently, and we do a major chunk ourselves.
What are your goals for the future?
Urquiola: I don’t think in goals – that’s a very male mindset. I’m a person who just keeps going. Of course I have ambitions, but I cannot formulate them with such precision, it doesn’t reflect my mindset. I like my life the way it is: I feel happy and comfortable in my home, Alberto and I read a lot and we tend to swap over our books. We travel extensively and it can happen that we are on the road and make an impromptu decision to go and see a particular exhibition, so we simply change flights. I try to live my life such that I can be spontaneous, without constraints, without boundaries. That is an art in itself and I constantly work on perfecting it. I try to get to the bottom of things and manage my time accordingly. If I have stopped believing in something I have a rethink and try my hands at something else. I want to stay true and authentic to myself and for myself, and not turn my life into one big ego trip. I am a very curious person and I feel a close link with the community in which I live.
In shaping your mindset, do you draw inspiration from particular people?
Urquiola: Yes, I do. Take, for example, Gillo Dorfles, who must be the most inquisitive person in all of Milan. Being able to meet him – he’s 105 years old! – was a great honor for me. His essay “The lost interval” taught me a lot about taking breaks, working and finding a rhythm. And of course Achille Castiglioni, who showed me how to approach projects completely personally and intuitively. Vico Magistretti and Bruno Munari, who have sadly passed away. And yet their inquisitive minds, their attitude towards the world and design provides inspiration to me each and every day.
Thank you for talking to us!
MORE on Stylepark:
Patricia’s Bohemian Rhapsody: Shortly before imm cologne opens its doors, the magazine A&W has elected its "Designer of the Year": Patricia Urquiola.
(15 January 2012)