Architect And Designer Patricia Urquiola: Thinking With Her Hands in Living Colour

Urquiola’s Beam Sofa System for Cassina. Photo Courtesy Cassina.


When multi award-winning architect and designer, Patricia Urquiola was a little girl in Oviedo, Spain she played with dolls but with one exasperating quirk: she liked to pull their heads and limbs off and look inside. “My sister wouldn’t let me touch her dolls for that reason and my mother has told me, “‘you approach your work with so much attention and quality now – but when you were little, you destroyed everything at home.’” “I said, Mami, creative people do that when they’re little because they are curious.” Urquiola laughs uproariously at her own anecdote then adds, “thinking with my hands is what I do to this day.”

It’s taken two years of an unremitting schedule of international furniture, product, and hotel projects, to finally free-up Urquiola, one of the world’s most important designers, to visit Vancouver. Fortuitously, Urquiola’s London studio’s product design manager is B.C.-born, Emily Carr alumnus, Jakub Zak who facilitated the visit working with Inform Interiors owners, Niels and Nancy Bendtsen. How serendipitous then, that it happened to coincide with the 10th Anniversary of their 30,000 square-foot, 50 Water Street Showroom in Gastown, designed by Omer Arbel. Seizing the opportunity, Urquiola’s Beam Sofa System and Gender Chair for Cassina, are making its Canadian debut.

Urquiola is a firecracker. The vivacious and opinionated dynamo’s 30- year- plus career has included designs for B&B Italia chairs; Flos lamps, the stunning lifestyle department store, Shinsegae Gangnam in Seoul; Mandarian Oriental Hotels and Object Nomades seating for Louis Vuitton. She took over the reigns as Art Director at Cassina in 2015.

Urquiola’s Gender Chairs for Cassina. Photo Courtesy Cassina.

We are actually sitting in the display window at Inform Interiors on Urquiola’s cozy modular poppy red Beam Sofa System with detachable oak table, while passersby outside seem completely unfazed. Speaking in rapid-fire Italian-punctuated English, Urquiola, 55, has lived in Milan for decades since leaving Spain at age twenty-two after graduating from the faculty of Architecture in Madrid, then in Architecture and Design at Milan Polytechnic. She was mentored by two great masters of industrial design, Achille Castigliani then Vico Magestretti. Today she lives and works under one roof, a convenience Urquiola has been dreaming of creating for several years, with her husband and business partner, Alberto Zontone and their two daughters.

“There were not many women in my profession when I started and perhaps, if I were a man, I would have opened my studio a lot sooner,” Urquiola admits. “I took ten times longer to finally go out on my own in 2001. Everyone kept saying, “‘go Patricia, come on, it’s time.’” “But when I did, WOW- we had so much energy to do things. Then Alberto came into my life and really amplified the business. You see a lot of couples in architecture and design, they help each other, and this arrangement allows me to focus on the project. It’s really important for me to get out of my comfort zone.”

Urquiola’s Shimmer Collection of furniture for Glas Italia. Photo courtesy Glas Italia

Colour is as intrinsic to all Urquiola’s work as the air she breathes. Wearing a blue cashmere coat with tie-dyed elements by Serbian designer, Dusan, hounds tooth Marni pants and paint splattered Martin Margiela running shoes, her personal style instinctively projects her personality: imaginative, playful, casually luxurious, optimistic.

Her sensual Gender Chair is dressed in layers of turquoise and brown, and pink and green. Urquiola chose the name for its yin yang contrasts in textures and combinations of tailored fabric with leather. “It’s made up of two ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ independent shapes that together create one form,” she explains. Teasingly she adds, “I’m very curious to see which the public will understand more. After all, isn’t it time to blend gender?”

Urquiola references her New York pal, the performance artist, Marina Abramovic and her controversial 2010 Exhibition, The Artist Is Present, at MOMA. “Marina wore a different color dress each week for a month – red, yellow, white, blue starring into the eyes of someone seated opposite her. She told me colors affect the nervous system and she wore blue when she needed to be tranquil and red on days where she really needed the strength to sit for hours on end,” Urquiola relates.

Her Shimmer Collection of furniture for Glas Italia is as luscious as sorbetto. Pieces are coated in a multichromatic iridescent finish that changes colour with the light.

Urkiola, a twist on her last name, is an abstract collection of stainless steel bowls, vases, candleholders and trays commissioned by the Danish design house, Georg Jensen. Photo courtesy Georg Jensen

Urquiola’s Credenza Collection with Federico Pepe, (which in Italian means both a cupboard and one’s belief,) is a spectacular interpretation of art meeting functionality in patterned glass. Commissioned by design boutique, Spazzio Pontaccio, the furniture was inspired by original stained glass windows created by Gerhard Richter for the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. Credenza made its debut during 2016 Milan Design Week.

Urkiola, a twist on her last name, is an abstract collection of bowls, vases, candleholders and trays commissioned by the Danish design house, Georg Jensen. Made out of stainless steel and rose-gold PVD finish, there is textural and reflective light interplay between the bold corrugated steel and the smooth surfaces.

“Light and colour are so important for any architect and designer,” enthuses

Urquiola. I’ll tell you a story about Il Sereno (the new contemporary hotel on Lake Como for which Urquiola was the architect and designed all the interiors and even the speedboat.) “I wanted to work in a very organic, and connective way and when my client said we need to have a meeting on the colour palette, I said forget it – I know what I’m doing. We are using the blue of the lake, the green of the gardens and natural wood. They said okay. Luckily I have a very smart client,” Urquiola laughs.

Il Sereno, is the new hotel on Lake Como, Italy for which Urquiola was the architect and interior designer. Photo: Patricia Parinejad

For Urquiola, all her projects must be “sympatico” with the environment. Recently, she took another opportunity to move out of her comfort zone:  “This year we travelled with friends who do research with NASA, to Greenland, on a boat without connections and there was not a lot of colour. Everything was an incredible palette of whites and light. It was very emotional because you could see for yourself the arguments for climate change. I didn’t go there for a client or for a new collection, but you never know. Instead, it was a white canvas for my heart.”

TOP PHOTO: Patricia Urquiola in her Milan studio. Photo: Marco Craig

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