The first time I saw Patricia Urquiola, she was snuggled into her newest armchair at the B&B Italia showroom during I Saloni 2007. A mass of eager journalists desperately clutching their Moleskines were pushing for some time with Milan’s Spanish star, while Urquiola, serene and beautiful with her crystal blue eyes and sleek blonde hair tied back in a bun, intently engaged with her current interviewer. Apart from her ability to be, or at least seem to be, unperturbed by the media frenzy around her, the most striking impression for me was how genuinely comfortable she looked in her chair – like an advertisement for her beautiful design come to life.
Urquiola has become synonymous with contemporary design, ever since, having studied architecture and design in Madrid and Milan, she opened her own studio in 2001. Famous for her elaborate soft seating products for Moroso, she has designed furniture for most high-end brands such as Kartell, Molteni and Flos. However, her 30-strong studio works on a lot more than furniture. A hotel in Puerto Rico, an exhibition space in Valencia and a private villa in Florence are just a few of her recent projects, not to mention the award judging and teaching. No surprise then that it is so difficult to get time with her – even this interview had to be wedged between New York’s ICFF, Design Miami/Basel and a trip to Puerto Rico – but once you do, she’s all yours!
Having sat on several of her sofas and chairs – which workplaces lucky enough to afford them will proudly display in their receptions – I can verify the experience of comfort that first impression in Milan gave. Indeed, for Urquiola, chair design is about “mental comfort, not just an ergonomic comfort” – a point that office furniture often still misses. To pinpoint what that mental comfort means is to understand Urquiola’s talent for combining physical ease with warm textiles, stitching together classic shapes with modern textures.
The perfect illustration of Urquiola’s style applied to a workplace product is her recently launched Lavenham chair for De Padova. An initial prototype was shown at Milan last year, with the final design exhibited at the furniture fair this spring. The chair comes with a variety of leg options, from wheels to a wooden frame or steel base. But her signature is felt most in the chassis design, a plastic shell with a soft textile appearance. As the name suggests, Urquiola took inspiration from the Lavenham jacket, which sports the classic English fabric with its diamond-shaped quilt pattern. “De Padova wanted a fresh design for a classic, plastic shell chair,” says Urquiola. “I’m very interested in surfaces and my studio has been researching three-dimensional patterns on hard, solid materials.” The quilt shape is moulded into the plastic, paying extra attention to the diamond joints, which almost disappear to create not just depth but the sensation that the surface will be soft to the touch. “We’re currently trying a similar treatment with marble,” she says.
As is often the case with Urquiola’s designs, the core concept is simple but with a twist in the detail. The Lavenham chair has a padded felt insert that can be placed onto the seat the way the fur inlay is zipped into a Barbour jacket. The quilted treatment prevalent in her recent work, such as the new Kvadrat fabric she designed for BMW this year or the Redondo sofa and armchair for Moroso, is obviously an adopted fashion treatment. And especially after the handbag she created this year for Salvatore Ferragamo, does she see herself as a “fashion furniture designer”? “No, the pace of fashion is not for me,” says Urquiola. “The handbag was a project in the context of I Saloni – I designed it as a product designer, a fun break for someone who spends around ten years developing a chair. But I believe it is important to respect the other disciplines as we can share, inspire and learn from each other.”
Urquiola speaks of personalities such as Martin Margiela, the deconstructive fashion designer, and the clear link to architecture in his work. “Fashion to me is the first skin, it is personal, you wear it all day,” she says. “Design is the second skin, you furnish your setting, and architecture is the layer that houses it all. That’s how I see it – as a designer I will always start with the function but will also have a look at what else is out there.” Interestingly this approach stands in direct contrast to our profile last issue, Naoto Fukasawa, who works for many of the same clients but claims to avoid looking at what’s on the market out of fear of being influenced.
How does Urquiola see this purist approach? “Well, good for him if he can,” she exclaims, laughing. “But I find what makes the society we live in today so fascinating is that we can learn from so many people all over the world. I love travelling, I encourage my girls to come with us when and wherever possible to see what the world has to offer. The important thing, I think, is to have your own way of digesting information. We have access to so much information nowadays, you need a personal filter. Personally, I’d want even more ‘cross pollination’!”
This openness to mixed influences is evident in Urquiola’s work, from the rugs for Gandia Blasco inspired by ethnic techniques to the intricate wood detailing on the Scriba desk for Molteni & C or the lamps for Foscarini. But what wisdom can she share on making a workplace work? “A rule that I have discovered from fitting out hotels is that each room, whether an office floor or a hotel room, should offer two to three seating options,” she says. “Take the Mandarin Oriental we did in Barcelona: it’s an urban five-star hotel but not an executive hotel. We ensured each room has a variety of clear-cut sitting areas, one black hard space for technical devices and a cosy seating area with original De Padova armchairs. Too often you only find designer furniture in the lobby and copies in the rooms, unless of course it’s a boutique hotel.”
This reality is often found in offices too – high-quality products in the reception and cheap, mass-produced pieces on the work floor. Money reasons aside, Urquiola feels that this is still down to workplace design lethargy. “I’m not so much into trends, I’m more interested in research, and even though the shift towards more domestic styles in the office has been labelled ‘last decade’, research shows that the focus on softening this traditionally sterile environment is still highly appropriate,” she says. “After all, it’s the human side of the workplace that needs more emphasis in the future, which will automatically rethink the well-being aspects of the home.”
Urquiola thinks offices need more “low seating – in a loungey way”. “Not just in creative studios, even lawyers want different ways to sit at different times of the day,” she says. This concept of offering a minimum of two seating options in a room also encourages more human interaction, such as getting smaller groups to meet both informally or coincidentally to exchange ideas. This social aspect does, after all, remain the raison d’être for offices in today’s digital age.
Describing her personal design process, Urquiola speaks of a spring clean, decluttering, rebalancing – a trait she is thankful to have inherited from her mother: “I used to go home and say, ‘Mama, what about that nice chair we had in the other room?’ and she would have given it away to friends, family or charity. Quantity was never a value to her.” As someone who has studied architecture, she feels she is constantly aiming to balance rigour and emotions in her designs. “Some products end up more on the emotional side, some on the rigorous side. The Lavenham chair, for instance, is not a terribly emotional chair.” But as far as office chairs go, is it not quite “pretty” and (dare I say) “feminine”? Is softness and beauty possibly frowned upon in the office world? Urquiola doesn’t like breaking things down into male/female. “Of course, I’m a mother, but it’s boring to always broach the issue of women in a men’s world,” she says. The Lavenham chair cleverly gives an impression of a soft texture while remaining formal, with three-dimensional depth in a simple plastic shell. It is a visual manifestation of her credo to “infuse comfort”, a trait many offices could do with more of.