Explore any interior design or furniture showroom in Italy and a roster of industry-leading names will soon present themselves: Boffi, B&B Italia, Cassina, Kartell and Alessi, to mention just a few. Many of them are still independent or family businesses with a reputation for pushing the boundaries of form as well as manufacturing methods. These are household names in some of the world’s most chic homes.
One woman, Patricia Urquiola, is increasingly involved with developing ideas for such interiors brands. Born in Spain, she trained in Italy under and alongside some of the country’s leading designers, including Vico Magistretti, Achille Castiglioni and Piero Lissoni. Urquiola lives and works in Milan; she set up her design studio 15 years ago and is arguably the most important designer of her generation.
Design on her mind
When we meet, she runs her hand over the functional but warm surfaces of the kitchen she’s designed for Boffi and points out the design’s modularity, which makes it suitable for smaller spaces. ‘Look at this,’ she says, suddenly grabbing hold of the chopping board-style wooden counter-top, which slides out to become a breakfast table.
This is the first Boffi kitchen to be designed by a woman. ‘We’re a very masculine company with a very masculine product but we knew we wanted a more feminine element in the approach to materials and colours, and to put the kitchen together without the usual traditional cabinets,’ explains Roberto Gavazzi, the CEO of Boffi, of its decision to hire Urquiola. ‘She uses curves where we, well, we might tend to be more square.’
The feminine touch
Curvaceous, tactile, playful: these are all adjectives which have been applied to Urquiola’s work for a wide range of clients, from Hermès and Salvatore Ferragamo to Driade, Moroso, BMW, Ruinart, Panasonic, Mandarin Oriental and Flos. These could be considered feminine qualities in what Urquiola describes as the ‘industrial world’ of design. ‘There are a lot of men, a lot of managers making decisions and feeling that perhaps they need a man to front a project to give it credibility,’ Urquiola suggests, going on to say that women’s talents should be given space blossom. ‘I think society understands that, as it’s becoming more and more feminine in some ways, and more democratic.’
Design for life
The success of Urquiola’s designs is, perhaps, a result of her readiness, where possible, to live with her prototypes while refining them (her home is above her office). She speaks of the need for each design to appeal to a sense of familiarity, an idea that her friend, the chef Ferran Adrià, gave her. Her 2006 Smock office chair, for example, incorporates the design of a smock worn by her first baby. Her Night & Day sofa for Molteni & C, another Italian company, acknowledges how we use sofas, not as showcase pieces but as island hubs on which to rest, work and play. Hers is a basic but clever structure, onto which cushions can be configured as well as armrests, baskets, storage units and occasional tables.
‘Functionality is important of course, but it isn’t enough. For me it’s about experiences and bringing them together in a product. It’s about taking a critical attitude and connecting with the relevant culture and about your sense of how society is evolving. You don’t need to know everything there is to know about chairs to design a chair.’
Furniture for the family
Urquiola is equally interested in working with companies to find new ways of making, whether that be a craft technique or an industrial process. Another sofa, for instance – Bend, designed for B&B Italia – uses a clever patchwork form for the covering and saw the development of a pioneering multi-perforated foam inner which gives the same comfort as standard foam but is lighter and uses less material. Husk, a chair also for B&B Italia, has a cushioning system that can be fully removed for washing, while each piece of the design is removable and replaceable, should a leg get damaged, for example.
‘I’m just curious,’ she says of her predilection to keep pushing at things until they’re just right. ‘When I’m working on one thing, that’s all I’m doing, that’s all I’m thinking about. And I love to break a prejudice, including my own. Like artists, to move forward you have to get out of your comfort zone.’