Patricia Urquiola had stepped off the plane from Vietnam just a few hours earlier, before having to make an appearance at the newly opened Poltrona Frau Group ME’s showroom in Dubai, which showcases Italian brands Cassina, Cappellini, and Poltrona Frau. “I haven’t slept much, but I am a strong girl – I’m resilient,” she laughs.
It is precisely this attitude of open-mindedness and vigorous strength that drives her approach to design, which combines a sense of curiosity, an experimental approach to materials and craft, and an unprejudiced outlook towards embracing change.
Spain-born Urquiola opened her studio in 2001 in Milan, where she now lives with her husband, Alberto, and 12-year-old daughter, Sophia. Over the years, she has designed for global brands, and collaborated with some of the most well-known names of Italian design including Maddalena de Padova, Piero Lissoni, and Patrizia Moroso. Three years ago, Urquiola was named art director of storied Italian design brand Cassina, who last year celebrated its 90th anniversary.
Seated on the 552 Floe Insel sofa, which she designed for Cassina, Urquiola, 57, shares her relationship with the renowned furniture brand.
“It is an honour for me to be associated with a company that has been connected so strongly with design for nine decades, and has been related to some of the most important architects and designers. It has a lot of strong research and heritage, and an incredible archive of 600 pieces,” she says.
“All this can be a kind of heaviness, an important heaviness but a fantastic thing. But I think when you have in front of you a responsibility that can be heavy and strong, you have to live it in a kind of light way. When you turn 90-years-old, you either decide you’re an old person, or you decide you are finally young,” Urquiola jokes.
Being both a designer and an architect, Urquiola says that she directs her multi-disciplinary curiosity to all areas of the brand, while staying experimental, open-minded and pushing for alternative ways to see a project. She adds that with the type of work she is involved in – from her own studio to working with Cassina – it is important to have a sense of rigour, but that should not compensate in the name of experimentation.
“My process is very rigorous,” she says. “It stars with research to understand the identity and the heritage of the client; to understand the technologies used in that sector, and then you try to move the limits of that technology, market and culture. I learnt something very important: if you repeat a formula, you are no longer creating.”
Cassina is a brand with a strong past, an attribute that Urquiola believes the brands need to stay strongly connected to. However, it is also important to be connected to the future in an open way, she explains.
Digitalisation and contemporary living is playing a lead role in the new brand identity of Cassina, driven by Urquiola as a step towards connecting with present day technological realities and new behaviours and attitudes to living spaces. The brand’s two-storey retail space in the new Dubai showroom is characterised by its recently developed presentation approach, In-store Philosophy 3, which combines classic and contemporary qualities, perfectly characterising the contrasts within Urquiola’s own body of work.
“The idea of places and objects is changing – from houses to cars and bicycles – as people share more. Just as our phones have become smarter with more functions, a lamp may soon do more, not only serving as a light but also a projector or to screen a film on the wall,” she explains.
“People can spout a lot of nonsense when they talk about the future. Technology is cheaper than ever, and there will also be a lot of getting back to our roots and local values. Good taste and quality will go together with transparency in the materials used.”
The question of ‘future’ arises in every industry, and design is no different. With topics like technology, sustainability, and energy efficiency leading the discourse, Urquiola says that to answer this question “one would need a crystal ball”, yet the topic can also be handled in a more “humble and natural way” than it is done in many instances.
“Technology is a part of our life,” Urquiola says. “I don’t have any kind of prejudice in relation to words like sustainability and technology. Many times, I speak to people about these subjects and they are using these terms, but they are using them in a very limited way. They are part of our process.”
One of the ways to think about the future that is “intelligent”, she says, is to not think of it in singular terms.
“If you only think about one future, you will just have some dystopian thoughts. Society is complex, and there are many things happening in the world and not all are good. If you think only about one future, perhaps you will have a perception that is more complex, and less humble, less energetic. So we [at Cassina] thought: if you think about the future like a set of different futures, you have more ways to move around it,” she explains.
Cassina commissioned a book entitled ‘This Will be the Place’, which involved five different dialogues about the future of design by various architects, designers and intellectuals.
“Those conversations gave us a way to think in five different ways of how we can see products inside a new future,” Urquiola says. Urquiola also shares some new collections that will be launched at this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan, from a new table collection by Michael Anastassiades, to projects by the Brothers Bouroullec to a contemporary rendition of Vico Magistretti’s Maralunga sofa.
“Design is not only about what you launch during Salone, it’s a kind of a lot of research, a conversation, trying new things with designers – things you don’t even know if they will be produced this year, or the next, or in two years. And that’s an important thing: to be open to those paths,” Urquiola says.
She also adds that the pressure of launching products annually causes designers to “suffer”.
“Every time I go to Venice Biennale, I think to myself that this is the way to do it: present a collection every two years instead of annually at Salone del Mobile. The market puts this idea in our minds and we all suffer a bit. It would be better to introduce a new product once a year, and then have a year to work with the sales team and others to help integrate that piece into a brand’s collection,” she opines.
In terms of her work, Urquiola explains that it is essential to have an “element of fundamentality” – a term coined by one of her mentors, Italian designer Achille Castiglioni (she counts Magistretti as the other mentor). She says that design has to be open to compromises, but never when it comes to the essence of the product or project’s fundamental idea because it is something “that drives the whole process”.
“You have to have a clean idea, an essential way to approach a project,” Urquiola says. “You can have a very open attitude in a project, but if you have an essential attitude, you drive the thinking in one direction. You cannot have many elements. If you have too many elements driving a project, you get lost. That, I think, is a good lesson he [Castiglioni] gave us.”