Why Famed Architect Patricia Urquiola Designs With A Social Focus
Looking at Patricia Urquiola’s prolific body of work, the architect and industrial designer seems almost indefatigable.
In the span of three decades, her diverse projects range across the fields of architecture, interiors to product design and hotels around the world; in Singapore, Urquiola’s practice designed the interiors of Oasia Hotel Downtown in collaboration with local firm Woha.
Each of these projects share one commonality: an irreverent yet humanistic approach that keeps the design maven at the top of her game.
“I’m a person who’s quite open-minded, and I believe there’s a lot to explore in the world of furniture and design,” says the Milan-based architect, as we meet her at the Space Furniture showroom in Singapore. “I don’t think in terms of consumers or a society of consumers. I think the world is a place with inhabitants with the same needs as me.”
For the multi-hyphenate, design is about constant reinvention: “You have to be very curious, very active and try to break your own prejudices.”
“I don’t think in terms of consumers or a society of consumers. I think the world is a place with inhabitants with the same needs as me”
Born in 1961 in Oviedo, Spain, it was clear to Urquiola, even in adolescence, that she had found her calling.
“I’ve wanted to become an architect since I was 12 years old; I was good at math and I liked to draw, and I thought this mix of creativity and math could only be found in architecture,” she says.
According to Urquiola, she fell into design more by happenstance, under the tutelage of Italian architect Achille Castiglioni at the Polytechnic University of Milan.
It was Castiglioni who encouraged Urquiola’s multidisciplinary attitude towards design. “Castiglioni was so fascinated with the strength of working on tools for living and not only working on spaces,” shares Urquiola.
She cites her architect training as being essential to her design ethos, with her studio working concurrently on architecture and design projects across the globe. “I think one profession feeds the other one, and that’s a good thing,” quips Urquiola.
Starting her own practice however, was not among her top priorities. It took over a decade after teaching stints at the universities and her tenures at Italian furniture manufacturer DePadova and Lissoni Associati (the practice founded by Italian architect Piero Lissoni) before Urquiola made the leap of faith to open her namesake studio in 2001.
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“I’m quite a sociable person, I’m very happy working with others. I didn’t think it was necessary to open my own studio,” recalls Urquiola. “When you’re young, you think it will be impossible. Then things become possible; if you work with your talents and interests, you can make things happen.”
It’s a winning approach that has led to diverse projects beyond the world of home interiors, including a retrospective exhibition for Ferrari, the Marienturm and Marienforum residential towers in Frankfurt, the interiors of Gianvito Rossi’s first men’s shoes boutique in Milan as well as other showrooms across the globe.
“People who come to our studio like our experimental approach. They come with a new problem that may even be unrelated to architecture, to be open to our ideas and new solutions,” she says.
One of her most cherished, longest-standing collaborations is with Italian furniture maker Moroso, helmed by creative director Patrizia Moroso. “I’m a person who needs to work with people I like, who share the same passions and interests, and believe in the project,” says Urquiola. “Patrizia was the first person who really believed in me; she became a very good friend and a person I respect—it has been 20 years since we worked together.”
It’s of little surprise that the forward-thinking studio is as inventive with its use of technology, conducting what Urquiola dubs as “little experiments” in virtual reality on top of their ongoing projects. “In anything you do, look into the future. I think technology has always been changing the ways we do things, and we’re at the beginning of an era which is going to experience big changes,” shares the architect.
Take the recent Cassina 9.0: 2017-1927 exhibition, which Urquiola had conceptualised as the brand’s art director. Held in commemoration of the Italian furniture maker’s 90th anniversary, the event featured interactive elements that looked back in the brand’s storied history, while imagining the ways we could live, work and play in the near future. “We know the technology is ready and it’s obvious that we’re going to live in a house where all surfaces will become an occasion to augment reality,” explains Urquiola.
The tech-centric leaning is paired with a keen appreciation of Cassina’s sense of history to produce furniture to covet and collect.
“Cassina is a company with two different speeds—it has to work with the future, past and present,” explains Urquiola. “Each year, we have to rework our own products from the archives and give them contemporary values that people need, want and desire for their spaces.”
The resulting collections embody the history of modern and contemporary design: archival pieces by the likes of Gio Ponti and Le Corbusier are dressed in new upholstery or finishes, while complementing novel designs by Konstantin Grcic, Michael Anastassiades, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec.
This appreciation of the connections between the past and present also aligns with the architect’s design philosophy.
“Part of our civilisation now is losing the idea of past, it doesn’t make us think in a humanistic way,” says Urquiola. “It’s very important to understand that I’ve got my roots and point of view that are connected to my education, memories, and all of my cultural baggage. The idea of having elements of life that are just functional, I think that’s really limited.”
This mindset shapes Urquiola’s desire to design pieces made to last, imbuing each with meaningful references to its origins.
For a recent project in Bilbao in northern Spain, Urquiola designed a jar to be used and sold in restaurants in the region.
Inspired by the quality of water and the plentiful amounts of rain in the city, the H20 Bilbao jar retains the slanted shape of the Basque-style vessel, while clad in ceramic instead of traditional use of wood; proceeds from the sale of these jars will fund the building of water wells in Ethiopia.
“Design can create a path for social projects,” says Urquiola. “As the centre of Asia, I think a city like Singapore has the potential to begin such projects with social values that also connects to other parts of Asia and the world.”
The architect plays down her fame and counts herself as being fortunate to be at the forefront of a male-dominated industry. “My circumstance was that I’ve been lucky, possibly. It’s obvious that there’s still a lot to do,” shares Urquiola. “But if I am a good example, if I help share the message that ‘if she did that, I can do it too’; I’m happy with that.”
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This story was adapted from Singapore Tatler Homes June-July 2018.