When I was offered an interview with Patricia Urquiola while she was in Sydney for the Space Furniture 20th Anniversary celebrations, I had no idea that interviewing her would be as easy as pressing an imaginary 'GO' button. Urquiola is a vibrant talkative woman even when suffering from killer jet-lag. Her amazing experiences as assistant to Achille Castiglioni and Vico Magistretti in the 90's would make any design journalist put their questions aside and listen - so that's what I did.
I began by asking about her childhood in Orviedo, in the north west of Spain and whether she could put her finger on any early influences that might have inspired her to first study architecture and subsequently design. While she confessed that her family seems to have an over supply of architects with numerous uncles and cousins following that profession, she believes that other aspects played a more important role.
"Both my mother and my mother’s sister Lily, were influential in my life - not so much in leading me to be a designer but more by allowing me to think freely - which is something that a designer really needs to do. They gave me the tools. Particularly Lily, who was a painter and generally a very creative person. We would spend holidays together in our house by the seaside and I remember following her around and watching her paint seascapes in oil. One day she asked whether I wanted to paint a tile in the old bathroom at the back of the house and she gave me paints and a brush and instructed me on how to transfer what I saw into a painting. ‘Close your eyes.....now open them just a little bit. What you see is the light - you don’t have to see the object, just paint the light’. My cousins and I did a lot of batik and were always making things out of clay - moulding things into shapes. I guess we had a very creative childhood".
"My mother wasn’t artistic in the same way as Lily but she was very supportive of me - particularly when I wanted to move to Madrid to study architecture. One of the things that had a profound effect on me, when I look back on it, was when my mother brought home a gift for me from Barcelona. I was 8 or 9 years old. It was a contemporary dolls house in Pea Green with lots of terraces. I think it was my mother that made me become and architect with that gift! My brother and I played for hours in this imaginary world. I had my dolls house and he had his Fort Apache and a toy garage with a lift. We would put the Indians in the lift and wind them up and down. The garage was the meeting point between his Fort Apache and my modern dolls house! By the time I was 12 or 13 I was already saying that I wanted to do be an architect".
When asked about her time first as a student in Milan in the late 80's and then as an assistant to Achille Castiglioni from 1990 to 1992, Urquiola was effusive in her praise for the old master.
"What happened to me when I went to the Politecnico di Milano in the 80’s was strange. Had I stayed in Spain I would have just become an architect but in Milan there were exams for Industrial Design as part of the architecture degree because they had a lot of masters like Zanusso and Castiglioni lecturing there. They were architects but they preferred to teach design. Once I came into contact with Castiglioni I obviously had to focus on design - he got you to look at things in a very different way. He was a tiny man who was sophisticated and easygoing at the same time - funny and charming. He was amazing - it’s difficult to emphasize this enough".
Urquiola went on to work for De Padova after her two year stint with Castiglioni. She stayed there for four years working her way up in the company's design department and eventually co-designing a number of pieces with Vico Magistretti. Eventually she left to join Piero Lissoni's firm Lissoni Associati, but feels that her involvement with the two old masters was an amazing gift.
"Milan was all about Memphis at the time and it was the era of Fiorucci but when I arrived in Milan I went the opposite way. I remember seeing Vico Magistretti bicycling around the city and this simplicity appealed to me. I loved the De Padova showroom in San Babila and think it was the original and best furniture showroom in the world at that time. All the other brands copied it to some degree. It was the first showroom to create a life around the furniture - with accessories and lights and things like that. Achille and Vico were two old modernists but they were evergreen. Their ideas and work were always fresh and challenging and I learnt an enormous amount from them".
After four years of working with some of the biggest brands in Italy, Lissoni convinced Urquiola she was ready to set up her own studio. Virtually immediately she began working on several projects for Moroso and the relationship with the brand and Patrizia Moroso in particular has been one of the most enduring of her career. The design that launched her as a international star was a swivelling asymmetrical armchair for Moroso called 'Fjord', designed in 2002. It won Urquiola a number of awards and she was named International Designer of the year by Elle Decoration magazine the following year. Urquiola gives full credit to Patrizia Moroso for being one of the strongest editors in the Italian furniture industry but also believes that Moroso has an uncanny ability to understand designers.
"I think it’s nice for us to work together as women - it’s certainly easy and fun with Patrizia but I don’t think being a woman has a large bearing on what type of work I produce for Moroso. It’s more about Patrizia's energy and her sensibility. She also doesn’t attempt to compete with me as the designer of a project. She is the artistic director of the company but I am the designer and she trusts my vision".
When asked about her more fashion orientated designs for Moroso from the mid 2000's like the 'Smock' chair, the 'Volant' sofa and the 'Antibodi' chaise, Urquiola informed me that several of the projects came about directly through the experience of becoming a mother and had little to do with consciously looking at fashion for inspiration.
"When I designed the ‘Antibodi’ chaise in 2006, it was just after I had given birth to my daughter. Of course I had plenty of antibodies in me and I remember everybody was talking to me about the antibodies in breast milk until I got fed up with this discussion and said to Patrizia Moroso that we had to do a project based on the concept - and then never talk about it again! I called the design ‘Antibodi’ with an 'i' because it was my own special 'antibody' and I wanted it to be different".
Asked about her love of craft and the amount of her recent work that incorporates some aspect of it, Urquiola was quick to point out that this had been going on since 2004 when she designed the 'Flo' chair for Driade - a series of wicker-style chairs woven from different natural fibres.
"Texture and craft is only one of many things that I do. I don’t want people to think that’s all I do but from the period when I created my Ideal House installation in 2006 I have been extremely interested in the artisan approach. I decided I needed to mix my research so it included not only technical things about industrial production methods but also artisanal methods like weaving and other crafts. That first design that used craft was a little scary for me because it was quite a different approach and style to what I had done before".
Urquiola has branched out in recent years to design everything from tapware and bathroom products for Axor and Agape to tiles for Mutina and rugs for GAN (a division of Gandia Blasco). She has also produced several outdoor furniture ranges for B&B Italia - all of which add a lovely sense of texture to what is traditionally a fairly stayed category. The 'Ravel' range for instance, has patterned cushions specifically designed to offer a highly decorative contrast to the woven polyethylene material.
"When I’m doing a carpet in India I’m using the energy of India and when I work with Flos it’s all about light. I work with people who are clever editors, who have a deep knowledge of their industry and who love quality. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Axor and Rosenthal in Germany, Kvadrat in Denmark or GAN from Gandia Blasco in Spain - I try to understand the DNA of the company and try to find the space where we work together comfortably".
Patricia Urquiola was flown to Australia by Space Furniture as guest of honour for their 20th Anniversary celebrations.