Internationally renowned designer Patricia Urquiola continues to guide premium furniture brand Cassina's artistic direction and welcomes its first Hong Kong showroom. Elizabeth Kerr sits down with the Spanish designer on International Women’s Day
“I am not going to be comfortable," says Patricia Urquiola, casually waving away a photographer in Hong Kong's Fringe Club as she sits down for a chat. She's in town for the opening of premium Italian furniture manufacturer Cassina's first showroom in the city and for all the focused, thematic symmetry and innovative design concepts she's come to be known for, Urquiola is also intensely Mediterranean: direct and decisive yet somehow relaxed about it. "I won't be natural with who I'm talking to because I'll be thinking about the camera," she says with a light chuckle.
It is fitting Cassina would pick International Women's Day in March for the grand opening of its first showroom in Hong Kong. Since 2015, Spanish-born architect and designer Urquiola has been the brand's art director, and after nearly three decades in design, she is arguably one of the industry's living legends, as well as one of the few women at her level. "No. And there still aren't. This is the problem," she declares when asked if architecture and design has enough women currently working in it.
For all the focused, thematic symmetry and innovative design concepts she's come to be known for, Urquiola is also intensely Mediterranean: direct and decisive yet somehow relaxed about it
"The numbers are growing but I'm still waiting for more to come into the industry." She doesn't dwell on the matter though. Urquiola credits a family of strong women and a forward-thinking engineer father for creating a home that allowed her to explore outside her comfort zone and put her on her current path. She's quick to get philosophical, which emerges naturally when Urquiola speaks – about anything, not just design. "My mother studied philosophy. She always gave us little pearls about being open-minded."
Born in Oviedo, in northern Spain, Urquiola has been living and working in Milan since she completed her architecture studies (started in Madrid) at Milan Polytechnic, under the equally legendary industrial designer Achille Castiglioni, graduating in 1989. It was in Milan that she studied architecture and interiors jointly but – contrary to scores of designers who covet the insideout cohesion of designing for both – doesn't believe is a practice that works under all circumstances. "I don't know if I prefer [doing both]; it's not just about control. I remember working for a company as a designer, where all sorts of opinions were flying around. It was sometimes hard to have confidence in everyone you worked with. A product might have been okay but the space [it was going into] was a disaster. The communication didn't always work," she argues.
Stints as head of product development for DePadova and with Lissoni Associates led to her establishing Studio Urquiola in 2001. "Professionally I'm a millennial," she quips, and though she's effortlessly bi-national, she does lean towards Italy in her work ethic. "I was born in Spain, I have a house there, family, I do all kinds of work there. I love it and it had an influence on me, obviously," Urquiola explains.
"But as a professional I'm Italian. The process of design there isn't just about ideas and prototypes. It's personal, then the brand gets involved and they give you so much in terms of people during the process – and all the time you want. It's very humanistic, and that I like. There's still some da Vinci there. "Independently, Urquiola has put her stamp on architecture and interiors for Oasia Hotel Downtown, Singapore, Mandarin Oriental Barcelona, Four Seasons Hotel Milan, Shinsegae department store in Seoul and Cassina shops and exhibitions in Meda (Italy), Milan, New York, and Madrid. Her product designs include pieces for Glas Italia, Kartell, Lasvit, Agape, Laufen, Flos and Louis Vuitton. Works for Alessi, Moroso and Flos were showcased at Salone del Mobile in Milan in 2019, including Cassina (pictured below).
I opened my studio and now people come to me with requests for something 'different'; they want my different point of view and my willingness to go 'out there’
Flos premiered Urquiola's musically inspired Flauta and botanic Caule, and Moroso presented the meticulously irregular Gogan sofa, which lifts its design from Japanese stacking stones. All share her signature mark of elegant contemporary foundations accented with localised details. Urquiola is just as likely to leave a surface blank as dress it up with a modern pattern, but she's uncomfortable with the idea of possessing a defining aesthetic. "I think aesthetics is an evolving concept and it evolves with your personality.
As Urquiola sees it, architecture and product design constantly need new ideas and approaches to process, sustainability and materials; the conversation can never stop if both are to stay relevant
I think clients come to me because they've found a [theme] in my work… I opened my studio and now people come to me with requests for something 'different'; they want my different point of view and my willingness to go 'out there'. My work is not my manifesto but if I had to I would describe it as explorative and inventive, but grounded in reality." She cites the Il Sereno hotel that bucked tradition in Como as an example of designing beyond expectation. In a town known for its classical 17th-century villas and the international glitterati that basks in them, the modern design was a hard sell. But ultimately it worked and it's a prime instance where, "there's a lot of me in that project", she says.
While architecture and interiors were inherently linked at Milan Polytechnic, product design was the outlier that became a seamless addition to Urquiola's portfolio, in part because her perspective on it didn't change. "The process of designing is always the same in some ways. You have your core elements and you have to defend the fundamental element but you can leave it open to other aspects that aren't as crucial. The first one drives the project and there is no compromise. In the end, they go together. And in the end architecture is a prototype."
The Cassina showroom on Hong Kong's Lyndhurst Terrace (pictured below) will be a must for anyone seeking out its singular brand of tech-enhanced craftsmanship and distinctive design. Among those who have lent their ideas to Cassina's furniture since its foundation in 1927 are Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Mario Bellini, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, Gaetano Pesce and Philippe Starck. Urquiola is, of course, on that list, but she would never go so far as to talk up her own work when the brand has "so many masters" designing for it. She will admit she was honoured to be asked to join Cassina, largely because the brand effortlessly blends tradition with modernity and historical technique with contemporary technology. The connection between culture and craft appealed to Urquiola, and she also appreciated Cassina's support for new artists and designers while respecting its legacy. "One of the jewels in Cassina's crown is the wooden laboratory. It can be extremely technologically sophisticated, and they also make very, very artisanal pieces. You can do both."As Urquiola sees it, architecture and product design constantly need new ideas and approaches to process, sustainability and materials; the conversation can never stop if both are to stay relevant and she hopes she has managed to foster an environment for that conversation at her studio, as well as at Cassina, with products such as GAN's sustainable felt, made from scrap wool that exploits its irregularity.
"Good design is also an evolving concept. When you give value to something by calling it 'good' – good food, a good book – it means you understand the state of mind of the society at the moment it bestowed that value. Look at food. 'Good' food right now is from zero kilometres away, it's cooked in a certain way, it must be natural and any number of concepts that we value right now," she says. "It's the same for design. It has to adapt to society and understand its needs in a given moment."