Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola needs little introduction. With a career spanning two decades, she is one of the most successful lighting, furniture, product and exhibition designers in the world today. A passionate, larger than life character, Urquiola believes that research into technologies and materials is essential to discovering design solutions but also feels that cultural references and everyday life experiences provide her work with warmth and personality.
“For me design is a surprising process. You have an idea and mix it up with other ingredients, but you never know what’s going to come out in the end” Patricia Urquiola
Patricia Urquiola has gone through a metamorphosis of sorts – ever since she designed a chair for Driade called ‘Flo’ in 2004. The chair was a major departure for Urquiola, who up until this time had been known for her contemporary upholstered furniture for Moroso and her moulded pieces with De Padova. ‘Flo’ was woven from natural fibre and had the loose appeal of rattan but with added African overtones. The shapes were flowing and contemporary but there was a definite tribal element.
“The first (craft based design) was a little scary for me because it was a very different approach and style to what I was known for. Perhaps my heritage drew me down this path, I don’t know but it was just something I needed to explore. Now 8 years later you see that this same approach appeals to a lot of younger designers. It’s good I got in early, no?” laughs Urquiola.
But it wasn’t until she was invited to present her version of the ‘Ideal House’ at the Cologne fair in 2005 that the ideas involving craft really started to flow. The installation used Moroso products but dressed them differently – in hand knitted fabrics or with bindings of natural fibres, while the house itself was draped in a covering of red and white knitted cords. The look was casual, colourful and totally engaging. Shortly after the Ideal House Urquiola released the ‘Sardinian’ range of rugs for Moroso that used the traditional Pibiones technique of flat weaving from Sardinia. This process dates back hundreds of years and involves unique geometric motifs of animals and flowers. Urquiola thoroughly modernized the look while adhering to the technique, with themes of a horse, peacock, bird and flowers – all with complex colour combinations.
Not all of Urquiola’s use of craft relies on the revival of obscure techniques – in some instances it is much more direct. In her outdoor ‘Canasta’ tables for B&B Italia from 2008, she combines conventional fine metal frames with decorative ceramic tiles that immediately connect with the Spanish terracotta tradition. These tables pushed the envelope in terms of using subtle decoration on outdoor furniture – a theme that Urquiola has explored in many different ways. In her ‘Tropicalia’ range for Moroso, also from 2008, she uses woven polymer cord in a throwback to 1950’s plastic wickerwork but in outrageously bright colours and layered patterns. Her ‘Re-Trouvé’ range for Italian outdoor manufacturer, EMU, involves delicate wire frames of interlocking loops – much like a 3-D spirograph. Even in her less overtly colourful collections for B&B Italia, ‘Canasta’, ‘Crinoline’ and ‘Ravel’, Urquiola manages to incorporate surprises, bringing weaving, appliqué and embroidery to the generally conservative outdoor furniture sector.
In 2009 Moroso presented a collection directed by Urquiola called M’Afrique, with pieces designed mainly by Ayse Birsel and Bibi Seck but with additional designs by Urquiola. All of the furniture uses the same type of woven plastic cord developed the year before for Tord Boontje’s ‘Shadowy’ and Urquiola’s own ‘Tropicalia’ collections. In M’Afrique the designs took influence from Urquiola’s earlier ‘Flo’ chair for Driade with the weaving revolving around a repeating diamond pattern. The extravagant shapes reference traditional African wooden stools while the patterns and colours have all the vitality of African textiles. What is particularly interesting about this collection is that it was launched at the same time as Urquiola’s ‘Rift’ sofa (also for Moroso) – a very contemporary geometric piece that studied the unique geographic features of the Rift Valley. Two collections couldn’t be more at odds stylistically while being created by the same designer. The freedom to express herself uniquely in every project is something that Urquiola searches for but which she readily admits comes naturally out of the design process.
“When I work with Moroso I work with another woman (Patrizia Moroso) in another way – it’s different but really each and every brand has something unique to bring to the table when you collaborate. As a designer you work on how to get the best out what that brand has to offer in terms of expertise and style. It’s not a limitation because it forces you to think about the position of the brand and how you can create something that fits them perfectly. It’s not just me, me, me. That type of egotistical design rarely works – it should be a combination of the designer and the company working together to achieve something special and original”, says Urquiola.
Since 2009, Urquiola has been working with Italian marble specialist Budri on experiments that stretch the boundaries of what is possible with the material. Her first installation, Macrosteria, involved intricately inlaid marble depicting winged insects and flowers that flowed along the floor and up the wall in a seamless 12 x 4m ‘carpet’. A large range of exotic coloured marbles in greens blues and reds were combined with the softness of wood to produce a bizarre imaginery world. “Experiences of this kind fuel my creativity”…..said Urquiola about the project. “Working with marble is the exact opposite of Industrial Design, because marble is a very powerful hybrid, a historic material that is still being reinterpreted today. The project with Budri was extremely stimulating, because they achieved things that I believed were impossible”
She has eagerly worked with Budri ever since with collections in 2011 and 2012. The most recent collection had a particular poignancy as it was created in response to the devastating May 2012 earthquake that hit the northern Italian region of Emilia, leaving thousands of tonnes of marble broken into small shards. Urquiola worked to create something meaningful from this catastrophe and called her collection ‘Earthquake 5.9’ (the size of the seismic shock). Fragments of marble and semi-precious stones were designed into energetic geometric patterns that merged into old kilms on the floor. Beyond the installation itself Urquiola designed breathtaking bookcases, tables and vases using fragments of exotic marbles along with onyx, lapis lazuli and amethyst.
“I have a natural approach to colour, so it’s easy for me to use colour in my work. I don’t have any chromophobia! I love to play with colour when I get the opportunity”. Patricia Urquiola
Spanish blanket manufacturer brand GAN, today are a design focused producer of rugs and outdoor furniture. Urquiola designed her well known MANGAS (meaning ‘Sleeves’) collection for them in 2010 and it has been so successful that each year she has added new variations and additions to the range. Based on a patchwork of different knitted patterns, the names of various products reference the shape of the Manga farol sleeve, meaning bellowed sleeve and Manga de campana, meaning bell-shaped sleeve. The rugs are all handmade in India by artisans. Urquiola was inspired by the way the rugs were hung from rooftops to dry after washing and created a long version that can be used as wall art that continues onto the floor.
When viewing Urquiola’s immense body of work you begin to become aware of elements that have cross-pollinated from one project to another. Although morphed and twisted into new products, these ideas and references show how Urquiola is happy to reuse influences – but only when they feel appropriate to the project. In this way the luxury of the smashed Budri marble is reinterpreted in one of the ‘Azulej’ floor tiles for Mutina – taking concepts discovered in luxury marble to the more affordable tile market. “Memory is everything. In everything I do, I begin with memory, but I rethink it in a new way. When we did the ‘Smock’ chair for Moroso in 2006, I took a smock worn by my first baby and incorporated it into an office chair…..we took something made by a craft technique and found a way to do it industrially”, says Urquiola. In a similar way Urquiola has happened upon some of her most original and exciting ideas purely through allowing everyday experiences to find an outlet.
“When I designed the ‘Antibodi’ chaise it was just after I had given birth to my first child. I had plenty of antibodies in my blood and everybody was talking about antibodies everyday….. so much so that I said to Patrizia Moroso that we had to do a project based on the concept – then never talk about it again! I called my design ‘Antibodi’ and spelt it this way as a little joke – it was my own special ‘antibody’ recalls Urquiola. The resulting design uses folded and sewn origami-style ‘flowers’ of wool felt as the seating surface. The texture of the upholstery and general sculptural appearance of the chair is quite extraordinary. This design along with her ‘Smock’ chair and ‘Volante’ sofa that were made during a similar period using various tailoring techniques, earned Urquiola accolades across the fashion world.
While she feels in no way defined by her gender, Urquiola is happy to embrace every experience that flows through her life – and potentially use it in her work. Ultimately what is so impressive about this bowerbird mentality is the way she integrates cultural references, fashion, nature and craft into what are usually highly industrialized products. She has often put the ease with which this happens down to the influence of the two greatest mentors in her life – Achille Castiglioni and Vico Magistretti – both of whom she worked with in the late 90’s. It is their playfulness and perception that she took from this experience as much as any design skills, along with an ability to work outside of convention.