Profile: Patricia Urquiola, Studio Urquiola

For this world-renowned designer and architect, life and work go hand in hand
By Alice Liao
July 14, 2010

Born in 1961 in Oviedo, Spain, Patricia Urquiola studied at Facultad de Arquitectura de Madrid and Politecnico de Milano, where she was mentored by and served as assistant professor to Achille Castiglioni. Her illustrious career has taken her from leading product development at De Padova to being named design director of Studio Lissoni Associati in 1996. In 2001, she opened her own studio in Milan and has since gone on to work with Alessi, B&B Italia and Kartell, among many others. Urquiola is the recipient of several awards, including a Good Design Award and the Design Prize Cologne.

Recently, Axor Urquiola, which results from her collaboration with Hansgrohe’s designer brand Axor, made its U.S. debut at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair and includes some 70 pieces. The line is striking not only for its mix of modern and archetypal forms, but also for the innovation involved in its production, which, Urquiola noted, “is always important because that's how you grow as a designer and a company.”

When you were a child, if someone had asked you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” you would have answered…
An architect. I was a good student and I wanted to do something rigorous because I liked math, but I also wanted to do something creative. Architecture seemed like the only profession that combined both.

What issues are you passionate about?
Sustainability is fundamental for me. If I am working on a project relating to the interface with water, the company should be one that is serious about water conservation, because water is going to be the gold of the new era in much of the world. We really can’t be lax in how we use it. When you work with a company that also shares this point of view, you feel like you’re not working for nothing.

Axor has been such a company. I have met with them many times, and even though they’re a big company, the way they shared information with me was transparent and easy, which is important to sustainability. To be sustainable, a company should be open to an outsider who will question them, present them with problems and push their limits in terms of the human and technical aspects of what they do. If they’re ready to be in such a relationship, the company will stay current, intelligent and sustainable.

Are you happy with the Axor collection?
We’ve done the first collection and we’re happy. The fittings were first, and after two years of working with Axor, we began to do the complete bathroom. For that, I wanted a collection of fixtures that would be contemporary and organic in shape yet could live in many kinds of environments. I don't think a contemporary tap should only live in a contemporary home with a contemporary bathtub. It should be able to coexist with things from the past and present.

So I proposed a lavabo and tub that would be iconic and simple in shape—like a bucket or washbasin—to make you conscious of the amount of water being used and ultimately thrown away. For the tub, I could have proposed a two-person bathtub that is very minimalist—like a small pool—to create a spa mood for the home, but a tub for one should be enough. And I don’t believe in the idea of a spa for the home.

What advice would you give young designers?
Design is a large field that covers many areas. As a young designer, you have to find what kind of design suits your personality. You have to cultivate yourself, travel while you still don’t have a lot of baggage and maybe study faraway from where you grew up. Then, when you have ideas, promote them at venues like Salone Satellite and don’t be shy. If you’re interested in industrial design, you have to be a fighter. When you collaborate with a company, you have to make them understand that your job is to push their limits. You can be a very shy person, but you’ll still have to find a way to communicate and defend your ideas.

Have you always been a fighter?
I enjoy the relationships that I have with companies and I like to defend my ideas. So si. I like the discussions and trying to find ways to provoke, as well as compromise—but only if it makes sense to me. I’m also a designer who’s not afraid of briefings. My mentor Achille Castiglioni used to say, “It’s like the bread for the marmalade.” Our creativity is sometimes like marmalade and the briefing is like the bread that gives structure to the marmalade. Approach the briefing in good faith but always have your own perspective. The best way to do so is to go out the door and come back through the window with your own thinking. Often I will counter their proposal with my own.

You mentioned travel. Do you yourself enjoy travel?
Traveling is fantastic, especially when you’re young. For me, the experience of waking up in the morning and being with Alberto (Urquiola’s husband) in a new place is such a luxury. It’s also one of those moments when I truly feel how lucky I am.

What do you like to do when you’re not designing?
I’m not the kind of person who has hobbies. My hobbies are my work. I think I am very lucky. I work with my husband. I work with my friends. There is not a big transition between my personal life and my work. For me, it would be fantastic to have my home and my studio together in one location because I don’t need this transition between work and life.

Do you have any professional pet peeves?
I don’t like the word “goal.” I prefer to have the notion of perspective. In life, when you have perspective, you have space and time in front of you to move. It’s more positive than feeling as if you have to arrive at something. If I think too much about goals, they become too big. And when you achieve them, they may not be what you expected. The idea of goals, I think, is a very masculine way of thinking. I try to think of work as something that’s an easy part of my life.

Where do you get your inspiration?
As designers, we are very curious about the society we live in. Because we’re interested in designing tools for living, we’re always inquiring and observing how people use these tools. My inspiration comes from trying to take it all in with a fresh and unique perspective.

So in a way, you’re always working.
Si, si. My life and my work go together. But I’m very happy about that. I hope that my daughters will have careers that fulfill them so they won’t need hobbies to be happy. It’s a more passionate way to work.

Is it still difficult for women in design?
In industrial design, you have to work with companies that have to invest money, so you need to have credibility, not just talent. The companies have to feel comfortable knowing that you’ll be very professional for a long time. But as a woman, you also have to share your personal life because maybe you want to have a family, which will require some of your time. If you don’t want to make too many sacrifices, it’s difficult for some companies to understand how credible and serious you’ll be.

But the fact that I had children while I was doing all of these major projects, I hope, is a good message for all the young women out there. I have tried to be credible while sharing time between my family and my work. It’s complicated. But then a woman’s life is always very complicated.

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