Portrait by Nicola Carignani

Dons of Design

Patricia Urquiola

A look at the life and work of Patricia Urquiola, the Spanish born, Milan-based designer and architect, who founded her own studio in 2001. Her flexible and human-centric approach to industrial design has enabled her to work with a wealth of different manufacturers, creating some of the most celebrated designs of the last two decades.

There is a pleasing continuum between the last instalment of this series about the Castiglioni brothers and this one; as Patricia Urquiola was both a student of, and collaborator with Achille Castiglioni late in his career. Originally from Oviedo, in North West Spain (she has specifically noted in the past how she is Atlantic in spirit and not Mediterranean), she first studied architecture and design at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and then went on to complete her studies at the Politecnico di Milano, graduating under the mentorship of Achille Castiglioni. The influence of Castiglioni, Piero Lissoni, and Vico Magistretti, both of whom she worked for early in her career, was fundamental to the development of both her approach to design, and for her career. Castiglioni’s lasting influence on her (beyond the boundless energy he showed), was the idea he advocated, that “there is one fundamental element in each project and this cannot be changed, but the other elements of a project and the method of production can be flexible.” This goes in some way to explain the diversity of projects she has worked on, both in terms of the typologies and the materials used.

It’s true that trying to surmise her work from a purely aesthetic point of view is quite difficult, she has a less definable style than Jasper Morrison, or Konstantin Grcic, but has been equally successful. When trying to surmise her work, many commentators seem to plump for the rather lazy “feminine” label, which she roundly rejects. In a recent Q&A with Elle Deco, she explained further: “People often say that sensuality and sensitivity are feminine qualities, but they are not gender specific. They are individual qualities. Tord Boontje is more sensual than I am. Where women are different from men is that women are more flexible, adaptable, and able to multitask. We have to be, to survive, and those two qualities — flexibility and adaptability— I like a lot in design.”

"Where women are different from men is that women are more flexible, adaptable, and able to multitask. We have to be, to survive, and those two qualities — flexibility and adaptability— I like a lot in design."

Patricia Urquiola
Urquiola's beautiful Shimmer table for Glas Italia.

When Urquiola founded her own studio in 2001 (it now has around 70 staff), she had been in the Milanese industrial design scene for a decade, gaining invaluable experience of both how the industry worked and creating the relationships that would allow her to strike out on her own. It could be argued that her connections with the grand Italian designers of the previous generation may have afforded her a kind of protection against the worst excesses of a very male dominated industry. Early in her career she certainly had a reputation as a loud, powerful and uncompromising character, but how much of this was just an invention of a male dominated industry that has a track record of labelling all talented women in a similar way (Zaha Hadid being a prime example), it’s difficult to judge. In an interview with Icon Magazine in 2004, she said that “Being a woman is part of my way of thinking. I don’t have to demonstrate anything to anyone.” She also stated that the most important thing in work is to “be credible”, which she has consistently been. Her willingness to experiment with materials, to be open to new ideas and changes in society, has allowed her to create work that is consistently relevant – rooted in the moment, but also looking to the future.

Since 2001, Urquiola has created products for a wide range of companies including Andreu World, B&B Italia, Driade, Flos, Georg Jensen, Haworth, Kartell, Kvadrat, Louis Vuitton, Molteni, Moroso and Rosenthal, to name just a few. Her practice has taken on many more architecture and interior design projects in the last decade, while she has also done more teaching and lecturing. Her appointment as Creative Director of Italian design powerhouse Cassina in 2015 can be read like a stamp of approval from the industry, confirming her ascent to the very top. In the role, she has been able to re-connect this historic brand with both its past, with her love of using memory in design, and with a totally new idea of the future that incorporates all we now know about sustainability and the built environment.

"My museums are houses. Designers - we are related to normal life."

Patricia Urquiola

In recent interviews and features, Urquiola comes across as a kind and thoughtful humanist, both humble and funny. She often first talks about people, about work being a social pursuit, about connectivity and about how designers need to understand the users first. When recently asked about one of the many awards she has received and about her work appearing in internationally important museums, she was quick to reply: “My museums are houses. Designers – we are related to normal life.”

Patricia Urquiola at SCP