words Marcus Fairs
“She’s like a volcano,” someone said during the Milan furniture fair in April. “A hurricane,” according to another. Virtually unknown a couple of years ago, Patricia Urquiola stormed Milan this year.
Her work was everywhere: elite brands including Driade, B&B Italia, MDF and Moroso showcased her furniture and there was a sense that a tempestuous new star had arrived.“I don’t know what they mean by ‘volcano’,” Urquiola says when icon catches up with her in London.
“I think they’re making a bit of fun of my direct character. I’m a bit of a fighter; I try to make people do what I want! And if they don’t agree I try to convince them, ecco.”
Urquiola, 43, is one of the few women to have ascended to the male-dominated furniture design firmament and she is rapidly catching up with Dutch star Hella Jongerius, hirtherto considered the world’s leading female designer.
Tellingly, Urquiola and Jongerius have both been selected for the prestigious ideal house of the future installation at next year’s Cologne Furniture Fair – a dual commission that usually goes to the year’s hottest prospects (this year it went to the Bouroullec and the Campana brothers).
Born in Oviedo in the northwestern corner of Spain, Urquiola is half Basque and half Asturian – an inheritance that defines her personality and, she hints, partially explains her success. “I’m not Mediterranean; I’m Atlantic,” she says, her accent distinctly Castilian despite her 20-odd years in Italy. “That’s really important. We are – in a sweet way – rude. Basque women are terrible! They have very strong opinions.”
She’s in London for the launch of her latest collection for B&B Italia, and the interview takes place in a quiet corner of the company’s vast west London showroom. Warm, polite and funny, she is spirited and emphatic rather than cyclonic, repeatedly chiding her recalcitrant laptop in Italian and punctuating her husky sentences with “ecco” and “capito”. She lights up a cigarette as soon as the interview is over and later confides to B&B’s PR: “I don’t think Marcus liked me very much”.
Urquiola’s furniture is hard to categorise and is perhaps easier to describe in terms of what it isn’t: neither slick, scruffy nor sexy, it does not conform to any prevailing fashion, nor does it scream “designer”. She doesn’t do blobs, garlands, modular sofas or storage systems.
Instead, her mix-and-match, contract-friendly pieces have a slightly formal, ceremonial quality, but one which is overlaid with a cosy domesticity. Hence her “Lazy” dining chair is a classic high-back, but with comfy curves and snug fabric.
“The only typology of chair that is terrifying is the high-back chair,” she says. “It has always been so important, so bourgeois, so deluxe, that it’s not considered appropriate for today. But how to do it domestic, how to do it up to date, how to do it easy to live with?”
In many ways, her design language is quintessentially Spanish, reflecting the paradoxical combinations of austerity and anarchy, conformity and individualism of her homeland. Spaniards are less self-consciously sensual and stylish than Italians – but also a lot more fun, and this essential difference goes a long way to explaining Urquiola’s appeal to the Milanese.
Her furniture is also unashamedly grounded in the home. She says she conceives every object as part of a domestic landscape, rather than as an individual piece, although she seems uninterested in creating a recognisable Urquiola “look”. “We are not part any more of big movements, capito,” she says. “Instead there are a lot of melting pots: social melting pots, dressing melting pots, eating melting pots. I’m surfing on that.”
The daughter of a successful industrialist, Urquiola originally wanted to be an architect. “My father was an engineer but he always said he would have loved to have been an architect. He always spoke about it. Everybody in my home loved architecture and interiors. My mother’s friends say, ‘Oh, Patricia is designing a lot now, but when is she finally going to become an architect?’ Because in Spain the “a” of architecture is more important than the “d” of design.”
She studied architecture in Madrid during the heady years following the death of Franco, when the nation was busy turning itself from an ultra-conservative backwater into a modern democracy. The architecture and design students of those years would go on to forge one of Europe’s most vibrant creative scenes virtually from scratch. “My generation changed everything in Spain,” Urquiola says. Yet before completing her course she left for Italy “for a love reason”. She enrolled at the Milan Polytechnic, graduating in architecture in 1989.
Her thesis was supervised by the great architect-turned-designer Achille Castiglioni, who became her mentor and encouraged her to switch to design. “Castiglioni was for me really important. He was the man that gave me the concept of being creative in a much more domestic setting; the things that you live with; a lamp; a knife. He focused me a lot. From that moment my interest was design.”
She later worked for Castiglioni as well as for Vico Magistretti and Piero Lissoni, before setting up on her own just three years ago. She now employs a staff of six and, through a mixture of Latin charm and Basque pushiness, has won over Milan’s furniture aristocracy.
“Being a woman I faced a lot of prejudice when I put myself forward to industry,” she recalls. “To be a designer means to use your creativity to create a dialogue with industry, and this is what I love really. And I have to feel free. Our role as a designer is to move the limits. The company knows what it can do and what the technology is; when you start a dialogue with them you have to move the limits.”
Structurally, her work often relies on a simple steel chassis but she has an eye for the unexpected when it comes to choosing “skin” materials. She likes synthetic and industrial finishes: her Bague lamp for Foscarini is made of industrial steel mesh dipped in silicon. “[Mesh] is not a surface you can touch so we put it in a silicon bath, so when the light touches it, it’s super-sweet.”
“I love veils,” she adds, “Surfaces you can see through – but not glass. B&B asked me to do a table in glass and I said, ‘Oh my god, I don’t like glass tables’ – you are always looking at what’s happening through the glass. So we have used this multi-lens material from 3M which is like old window glass, bottle glass, it’s a little bit dark, a little bit pop, many things.”
When Driade asked her to do a series of chairs recently, she told them she didn’t want to repeat the techniques she had been exploring with her other clients. “I said, what do you have that nobody else has? They said they had a production facility for making straw products in Indonesia. So I said okay, we’ll use straw.”
To make the effect doubly inimitable, the chairbacks and seats are woven in patterns inspired by cane-seated chairs in faux-French cafés. “It is a typology that is terrible,” she laughs. “That is interesting, funny funny! It was a nice amusement. But they are selling a lot and we can’t believe it.”
Urquiola enjoys subverting Milanese preconceptions of how a glamorous female designer should behave. “The first project with B&B was called Fat Fat, which was for me a little provocation. It was the first time I had worked with this kind of company with a lot of man managers. Obviously what they wanted from me was part of my sensuality, my work for Moroso, the things before. I said I wanted to give them a new collection of products that were fat” – she pinches the flesh above her hip – “like my kilos, you know?! With fatty elegance! It’s a little family of fatty animals that grows with me!”
There is also a Fat Fat bed, which features a mattress set on an overstuffed base. “For me a bed is the worst project you can do, because a bed is a mattress. What can a designer do? Nothing. You put in the mattress, which is the main part, and then you just add marmalade! So I tried to do something that was involved with the mattress. It’s like an extra bed.”
Besides fat, Urquiola also does lazy. The chair series of that name started out with a garden armchair that quickly converts into a snoozer the moment the sun appears. “When the sun comes out, you need to sunbathe. So in just a second the chair needs to become lazy – just like you!”
As her star rises, so she is being approached to do larger and larger works, to the point that she is almost producing architecture again. But it is architecture with its roots in domesticity, rather than form. “For Cologne, I’m going to do a kind of dressed house,” she says. “It will be scaffolding, with macramé and knitting hanging from it.”
A similar installation at the Interieur furniture show in Belgium this autumn featured a geometric framework clad in woven wicker akin to that used on her Flo range of chairs.
“Although my language is more defined in design, I’m still trying to find a way to be myself in architecture,” she says. “Perhaps in five years time I won’t be doing either architecture or design. Perhaps I will be doing macramé in Tuscany. Being a woman is part of my way of thinking. I don’t have to demonstrate anything to anyone.
“My ambition is to be credible,” she adds. “I always thought it was not possible, but it’s happened, and it’s enough.”