Patricia Urquiola has been described as the hottest property in Italian design right now. Having trained and worked in Italy for over 20 years, she has designed everything from furniture, lighting and household products to the interior of a new nightclub in Shanghai. Prior to her talk at the Powerhouse Museum, Powerline interviewed Patricia about her work, influences and passions.
Tell me how you generate ideas for your work and the kinds of things that inspire you’
Travel has always been important to my work. When you are travelling, everything is so new that a natural curiosity comes out of your skin. You become like a newborn, absorbing a lot of energy from around you. For example, one of my collections which has had an incredible life and is still selling well is the Fiord collection. This was created after I travelled to Scandinavia.
Also often the things that inspire me are domestic everyday objects, things that you might find on the street or in a little market. You might translate these things – using another sensibility – into a design. It doesn’t always have to be a big profound idea. Often I think it’s simply an open mind and a curious eye.
What was the inspiration behind the Fat Fat series of products’
Fat Fat was really the beginning of my incredible relationship with the design company B&B Italia, a relationship that continues to grow because of a gentle dialogue that allows my ideas to take form. I work with two people in particular, who have been with the company from its earliest days. Some of the first things they worked on were these amazing projects like a table for the architect Vico Magistretti or the Le Bambole sofa with Mario Bellini. I remember saying to them, that for me the B&B style was perhaps too elegant, too refined and that I wanted to create something that was not necessarily about proportion and elegance. Something fatty, something with a few extra kilos – a problem I think many of us can relate to. So I proposed this idea of a ‘fatty elegance’ and they were really supportive of these provocative ideas of mine. I am hoping we can do a ‘fat’ sofa next year.
What do you think is special about what a designer does’
I have friends who are artists, designers and architects and more or less, they all have that sensibility and that need to communicate with others. But the difference with a designer is that they are always moving within limitations. They need to solve very practical problems such as how to use something and even more importantly, how to use it in a contemporary way. While there are many chairs, each one gives us a sense of how to sit at different moments in history or in our own lives. Whether it is about decoration or a lack of decoration, the designer puts this into the work. Unless you take care of these elements you are not a designer. You may be an artist creating strong pieces that look like they could be sat on. Or you could be an engineer who creates chairs for sitting on, but there is no design. Good design is somewhere between these things. Achille Castiglioni taught me about this. He always said that to find the contemporary, the language in the product, you must look into your own roots or your own personal digestion of your culture.
Your products don’t have an instantly recognisable style. What is the common thread in your design work’
I think that in some ways my products are all quite ‘essential’. The Fat Fat series for example, and a lot of the products I did for Moroso are fundamentally reproducible in an industrial way. You must be able to keep in mind the industrial process and not be overly complex. Unless you are doing a one-off, you have to be essential. This is the way that I think with many of my products. Occasionally, I might do something more complex because I feel I need it. Like all women, I like to move around. Sometimes I want to put on my Adidas tennis outfit and then at night I might want to put on my high heels.
Working out how to do something and how to reproduce it is very important to me. If you see my work with the Foscarini lighting company, the Bague lamp is very simple. A perforated metal net, cut and made in an industrial way, covered with silicon resin and with a standard table lamp inside. Then there is the Caboche suspension lamp where the mood is that of a very chic, historical hanging lamp, like a Murano. You might have this very clean and simple table and you need something which is an object of desire whilst still being very contemporary. We began with this idea and the lamp ended up looking like an important hand-made crystal and glass lamp but it’s made out of plastic and realised in an industrial way. I like the irony of that, that this very complex, luxury product is really a few pieces of plastic.
Did you grow up in a creative environment’
To tell the truth, I grew up in a kind of bourgeois family which helped me from the beginning. There were lots of women with a strong sense of decoration in my home. They were into antiques and would go to London and Paris to buy things. For example the room where I played with my brothers was decorated with these incredible wallpapers and fabrics by the British interior designer David Hicks. My mother loved his work. She also encouraged us to leave Spain, to go to England, to France, to move around and to see the world.
Patricia Urquiola spoke at the Powerhouse Museum in May 2006.
This article was first published in the Winter 2006 issue of Powerline, the magazine of the Powerhouse Museum.