“You have to be less serious when things are very important,” says Milan-based industrial designer and architect Patricia Urquiola.
As axioms to live by go, it’s a risky one, but being daring has always paid off for Urquiola. It’s an attitude that has endeared so many legends to the designer during her 26-year-long career, including Vico Magistretti, Maddalena De Padova, Piero Lissoni, and most recently the Italian manufacturer Cassina. Last September, Urquiola was named the brand’s art director, overseeing a portfolio that includes works by some of the most sacred cows in the history of design, like Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Charlotte Perriand. Working with such an archive would perhaps intimidate some designers, but it’s one that the Urquiola is embracing: “It’s a brand that has loyal long-term fans,” she says. “It’s a dream to be able to study and work with this kind of historical archive. 600 pieces! It’s a big responsibility.”
Urquiola is hardly flippant about the role. She’s known for her dedication and focus within the industry. “It’s like it’s the most important thing that she’s doing in her life, and she’s doing it with you,” says Cassina managing director Gianluca Armento, describing what it’s like to watch Urquiola work. “It’s a very professional engagement.”
The relationship with Cassina, a company that was established in 1927 and until now had never worked with Urquiola, came about as a happy accident. In 2014, Cassina was partly acquired (along with the rest of the Poltrona Frau Group) by the U.S. office furniture brand Haworth, which Urquiola had worked with in the past. The seed for collaboration blossomed and she was recruited by the manufacturer. “Cassina’s rise to fame in the 1950s was based on being a talent scout that spoke directly to the best intellectual and creative minds at the time,” Armento says. “That’s the role Patricia has to carry on for us.”
The enthusiastic Urquiola talks a mile a minute in a warm accent that blends an Italian trill with the faint, gravelly sound of Spanish. She was born in northwest Spain but moved to Italy in the 1980s to study architecture at the Milan Polytechnic, graduating in 1989. It wasn’t long before she started working with industry giants, first as an assistant lecturer to Achille Castiglioni, before becoming close to Vico Magistretti at De Padova’s new product development office. Urquiola explains that her position as an outsider is perhaps responsible for her numerous relationships with the Italian greats. Put simply, she was unafraid and perhaps knew no better. “My generation was very energetic,” Urquiola says, an unsurprising designation considering hers was the first to push things forward after the death of oppressive Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. “That’s perhaps why I wasn’t scared of the maestros of Italian design,” she continues. “They weren’t my fathers.”
Urquiola established her eponymous studio in 2001 and and set out building a portfolio of hits: the fabric cocoons of her Husk armchairs for B&B Italia, the Scandinavian-inspired Fjord seating collection for Moroso, the Maia outdoor furniture collection for Spanish brand Kettal, and the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona. The affinity she has with Italian design in her adopted homeland is clear to see. She counts Agape, Alessi, Kartell, and Molteni & C as clients.
It’s as tricky to define the aesthetic of Urquiola’s oeuvre as it is to pinpoint her accent. She can slip and slide between Italianate decorative design and sleek minimalism. She is known for her interest in color and pattern, but has turned her hand to serious simplicity, too. Softness, shapeliness, and whimsy often mark her work. Yet Urquiola hardly has the “house style” that many of her contemporaries proudly demonstrate. It’s perhaps this asset that most attracts Urquiola to so many clients, and explains why she’s so prolific.
Patrizia Moroso, the creative director of Italian manufacturer Moroso, was one of the first to recognize the skills of the young Urquiola. “Today the talent of Patricia is evident to everybody,” Moroso says. “But it was very clear to me back in 1998.” Urquiola has designed many pieces for Moroso, including the petal-decorated Antibodi chairs in 2006, the retro Tropicalia series in 2008, and the minimal and curvy Love (Me) Tender sofa system in 2014. “Unforgettables” is how Moroso recounts the works. “Like all great minds, like artists in front of beauty, Patricia has a strong vision,” Moroso says. “She can imagine many different projects, from a building to a spoon, with the same sensibility that comes from her peculiar personality.”
It’s a testament to Urquiola’s professionalism just how many repeat clients she has. She has a likeability and an almost-silent ego. How has Moroso seen Urquiola’s growth as a designer? “Actually, I saw the development of our friendship over the course of her profession as a designer,” Moroso fondly points out.
She, like Urquiola, is one of a small handful of female powerhouses in the Italian design community, which remains largely a man’s world. It’s fitting the pair remain close. Although Urquiola is dismissive of the gender question (affectionately tutting when she’s asked about it), it’s interesting how she cites both Moroso and Maddalena De Padova—the grande dames of Italian design—as crucial mentors. “Those two women have been incredible,” she says. “As women in industrial design, both related with art, culture, and their own sense of personal process.” However, Urquiola chooses not to be defined by gender. “You can be as much ‘woman’ as you want, or the woman you think you should be,” she says. “Put the label you want on yourself—a banal one, or not.”
Her approach may be lighthearted, but her fundamental ambitions are always serious. That’s why Urquiola is embracing the challenge of her new role at Cassina. She hopes to develop a transversal, con- temporary attitude for the brand, which celebrates its 90th anniversary next year, toward products, communications, architecture, showrooms, and values. It’ll be an interesting ride ahead, but one thing is certain: She’ll do things her way. “I’m not the kind of person you ask to do something and then I walk the line,” Urquiola says. “I go out the front door and I come back through the window. This is me.”