Positive vibes

She has learned from the great masters and has herself become a model and icon of design over the last decade. Patricia Urquiola is leading the way in design and architecture with an approach that encompasses the two inseparable elements of logic and emotion

Patricia Urquiola - photo © Patricia Parinejad
Patricia Urquiola - photo © Patricia Parinejad

Urquiola’s curriculum vitae speaks for itself. Born in 1961, she studied with the masters – Achille Castiglioni, Eugenio Bettinelli, Vico Magistretti and Piero Lissoni –, and her name appears alongside the leading furniture companies – Moroso, Agape, Mutina, Kettal, Molteni&C, B&B Italia, Kartell, Andreu World and Haworth, just to name a few. She divides her work between design and architecture, while also overseeing exhibitions and installations. Last but not least, she is Art Director of Cassina.

Her projects are also biographical stories, revealing the strong identity of their author, who is capable of combining, with supreme delicacy, a logical and rational approach and profound emotional sensitivity. She has a ‘changeable, evolving’ personality much like her conception of objects and space, to which she adapts with extraordinary malleability, constantly overcoming challenges and broadening the horizons of the possible. She has palpable, contagious energy that is polychrome like the palette from which she draws to paint the furniture world.

Cassina @ IMM Cologne 2018
Photo © Stefano De Monte

As Art Director of Cassina, how do you view the company?
I often hear people say that “Cassina is a classic company”, but ‘classic’ is a relative and rather inaccurate term. The company has been active in the design world for 90 years, which means talking to people who have an idea about design and share the same enthusiasm for it, not just from a commercial point of view, but also in the broadest sense: designing understood as ‘getting out of your comfort zone’ and devoting yourself to something whose result is unpredictable and arises from a dialogue with wonderful people. Cassina is a company that has experienced important social changes, reflecting them in its own history and thus generating many stories and paths. It is a classic brand because it preserves timeless products, such as the Maricunga by Vico Magistretti or La Rotonda by Mario Bellini. With its archive of over 600 pieces, it has reinterpreted objects with a contemporary aesthetic, which means not only their appearance, but also working on technologies to make the object more sustainable and logical. At the same time, we must continue to create other interesting products and present them in the most appropriate way, and this is another matter altogether. So there is a double speed and concern that makes the work doubly complex. It is therefore a great honor and responsibility for me.

Showroom Cassina, Milano

How are you developing this ‘contemporary aesthetic’?
I believe that serious things should be approached with levity. So we continue to celebrate Cassina’s 90th anniversary, or “9.0”, a metaphor for digital implementation. 9.0 refers to something that is open to the future. We are therefore thinking about color, materials and spaces, as well as about how to bring projects to life in a different way, dialoguing with new designers such as Konstantin Grcic, the Bouroullec brothers and Patrick Jouin. We are also working on the company, starting with a restyling of the headquarters, and now on the showrooms: I like the fact that there are important pieces in these exhibition spaces, each of which has its own energy, creating sets that communicate and tell a story. People must not only find objects here, but must perceive a new concept of living, as we think of it, namely ‘evolution’.

Designing is telling a story: what story do you tell?
The narration of every project changes from time to time. In reference to design, Achille Castiglioni said that “you can do what you want, reach every compromise, follow the processes with difficulty, but there is always a fundamental element of the project”, and he really believed that. When he questioned us at university, he always asked: “What is the fundamental element of this project?” And we panicked, even though it was a simple sentence. There are no compromises in this regard. However, we relate to many ways of living, so even my way of working can adapt to different contexts.

Room Mate Giulia, Milan

Room Mate Giulia, Milan

In the design of Room Mate Giulia in Milan, for example, I was guided by my joyful memories of the city, in a slightly ironic way: it is a vintage space where you are immersed in many fantasies and personal memories. The Il Sereno hotel, on Lake Como, was a different story: people asked me “what color palette to use” and I replied “none”: the only one that was admissible was stone, wood and green, thus the colors had to enter alone. Nothing else was added. There are projects that have a very strong concept of matter, color and play, while structure is fundamental to others. It is always necessary to understand the intent of the design and to always return to that precise point. This ultimately gives you a lot of freedom to act. I am open to everything and all influences and this is reflected in my projects.

Il Sereno, Como
Photo © Patricia Parinejad

How much freedom is permissible or, to put it another way, where do the limits lie?
I am not familiar with the concept of limitation. Or rather, I do not think in these terms. I try to work with people either because we share some sort of common purpose, or because they completely trust me or because they have a vision that is very similar to mine. It is hard enough as it is! I accept compromises if they are logical within the process. It is therefore important to understand who you are working with and to have a steady hand in order to take the project forward. It takes determination just to get up in the morning, to live and do things and to have a positive vision, in the face of all the information that surrounds us. I believe that we are now living in a frantic dystopia: we therefore need to maintain a utopian process in our head so that we wish to continuously follow beautiful new directions. Utopia is a land that does not exist, but it can be considered a horizon that is always in sight, something to strive for that encourages you to move forward, although everything around is dense and problematic. We need to have this vision and we need to share it.

Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona

There is logic in your designs, but a lot of emotion shines through…
We have always believed that we are thinking beings that have emotions: several recent neurological studies instead maintain that we are emotional beings that are also capable of thinking. This is important to understand: memory is emotional, as is intelligence, which is always connected to memory. What does this signify? That we must be less afraid to incorporate these emotional values into what we do. Many architects think that advancing with new, increasingly technological and complex structures advances architecture. But in fact an architectural work is the way it is because it has a certain chromatic component, because light works exactly in that place, because it has something extra, something magical. It generates such a deep feeling that it unites us with the most archaic architecture. As a woman, I often tended to distance myself from terms like ‘emotion’ and ‘emotionalism’ because I feared I would be saddled with certain stereotypes about femininity; now, years on, I laugh about it because I deal with many intellectual processes and I have a complicated professional role, from which my great mental freedom has always saved me – my ability to be emotionally invested in what I do and to really feel the places that I am working on.

Cassina @ Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli
Photo © Omar Sartori

What is the purpose of hospitality design?
To generate experiences that people take home. We travel in a variety of ways: a city hotel will have a more touristy audience, while a resort generates a completely different experience. Therefore, designing not only revolves around the budget, but above all relates to the place and to the feelings that you aim to convey. The space must be designed with an awareness of the three spatial coordinates and of a fourth – time –, as well as a fifth and sixth, namely, humanity and its relationship with the world. The amount of coordinates is infinite! We must not think of objects and spaces as being defined, because they are ‘changeable’: they are changing and evolving over time in terms of their use and relationship with light. My aim is to create empathic processes and to try to change the mentality of clients, as was the case for the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona, a very traditional hotel that we renewed with a contemporary approach, which the ownership greatly appreciated. When people call you because they want to share a change with you, when there is an element of experimentation and overcoming a challenge, then this coincides with my logic and we can talk about high-quality work regardless of budget – quality in keeping with the times. We used to talk about food quality in terms of rich sauces and highly complicated recipes; today, quality derives from zero-kilometer ingredients, from vegetables that the chef grows on the roof or outside the city in his jardin potager, offering you these culinary proposals with simplicity and a curious, innovative process. In this regard, people have already understood the change. The same must also happen in the perception of the quality of public spaces and this is something I am fighting for.

Photo © Marco Craig