Eye Of The Storm

Patricia Urquiola shakes up the world of Italian design with daring work and a larger-than-life persona. Enter “the Hurricane.”

Patricia Urquiola puts her head down on the table in her studio and sighs. She’s exhausted, but can you blame her? At this year’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile she showed six chairs, five tables, four sofas, two beds, one lamp, one hammock, a rug, and a watch for a slew of companies. And together with architect Martino Berghinz she’s developing stands and showrooms for Moroso and Knoll, the interior of the Valentino store, and her Water Dream, an installation for Hansgrohe. Her studio has several other projects under way: a series of chairs for Driade; porcelain, glasses, and cutlery for Rosenthal; Patrizia Moroso’s new home; and a restaurant concept for Nutella. To top it off, she is pregnant. But don’t expect her to get any rest any time soon. She’s not called “the Hurricane” for nothing.

It’s the kind of name usually reserved for American athletes, but it was bequeathed on Urquiola at last year’s fair. Whether the name was just a good phrase (“Uragano Urquiola” rolls off the tongue particularly well in Italian) or because suddenly she was everywhere (blown in like a hurricane), the name stuck. “Hurricane?” says Patrizia Moroso, owner of the eponymous furniture company. “That’s the least you could say about her. She can transform a room in less than ten minutes.” Giorgio Busnelli of B&B Italia calls her “volcanic.”

Today the Hurricane is flagging. Urquiola looks up and says, “I want a sabbatical.” Even if she could have one, she probably wouldn’t take it. Full of energy, she constantly twists and fiddles with her chunky rings, while behind her in a space of no more than 140 square meters, a warren of 12 people in her studio tackle a small crisis. The legs for a chair prototype came back wrong, and tomorrow she has to go out to B&B to sort out a table—all this less than a month before the fair.

Blonde with a long, almost horsey face, Urquiola could easily be called the furniture world’s Sarah Jessica Parker. She’s got sass and style—and a similar penchant for footwear. She sports a gorgeous pair of purple-suede-and-yellow-patent-leather heels accessorized by bold striped socks. She bought the shoes the day the doctor told her she was pregnant. “A woman needs to feel good,” Urquiola says. Though the accent is heavy with the breathy “th” sounds of her Basque and Asturian roots, she also sprinkles her conversations liberally with ecco and capito when making a point. She laughs heartily and talks even more. As Busnelli says about their first meeting, “It was such a warm feeling, totally simpatico, even if she did most of the talking—seventy percent of it.”

But, at 43, Urquiola isn’t some new star appearing on the scene as if sprung full-grown from the head of Zeus. She came to Milan two decades ago for love and stayed for the architecture and design, studying with Achille Castiglioni at the prestigious Milan Polytechnic. After he convinced her to focus on design, she did her laureate with him, becoming his assistant lecturer. He remains the biggest influence on her work. Nearly every time she discusses it, she references the late designer. Later this evening when Domus holds a panel discussion on Castiglioni’s work, Urquiola will appear on it. Her next mentor was Maddalena De Padova, a woman the rather formidable Moroso calls “the first lady of Italian design.” Urquiola worked at De Padova with Vico Magistretti, then left to become head of design at Studio Lissoni. With a background like that, you don’t just come from nowhere, but it was only at 39, after her divorce, that Urquiola opened her own studio. “I didn’t really have anything to lose at that point,” she shrugs.

Perhaps it’s the male-dominated furniture industry in Milan, but the whole idea of soliciting people to make her projects seems brutal to Urquiola. “Please sir,” she says, clasping her hands together like a glamorous Oliver Twist, her luminous blue eyes and diamond earrings glittering. “Please, please. And they say, ‘Oh you’re a nice girl, a very nice girl. Would you like a drink? Oh, fantastic. Well, we’ll call you back.’” But six years ago she sought out Moroso. A mutual friend suggested they meet, and Urquiola arrived carrying a maquette of a sofa. Moroso loved it. “It was supposed to be this relaxed meeting a few months before the Salone,” Moroso says. “We had all our products worked out. I wasn’t looking for anything, but when I saw this girl and that object, I thought it would be a pity to lose something like that, so we had to make it.” The sofa was a perfect distillation of everything Italian. “This Spanish girl coming from the outside could perhaps see more clearly than others the lessons of important Italian design.”

Moroso and Urquiola became great friends. They traveled together looking at design, and Moroso gave her chances to experiment. After visiting Scandinavia, Urquiola designed the Fjord, her riff on Jacobsen’s easy chairs; a visit to the Noguchi Museum in Queens led to the Fjord footstool, based on stones in the garden. Both projects were meant to be conceptual, but Moroso loved them and got her uncle—who runs the company’s model shop—to fabricate the items which they took to the fair. The series has turned out to be one of the company’s best sellers. Urquiola’s Lowland sofa (named for the Bob Dylan song “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”) was so popular that other companies started knocking it off. Moroso sued, and in a landmark case in which design critics lent their testimony, the court ruled in her favor—rare in Italy. Soon B&B, Molteni, and Driade started calling, and in her headstrong way, Urquiola said she wasn’t going to give them her Moroso look. She told them they could have her intelligence—her approach—but not those lines. Instead she twisted and tweaked individual companies’ histories and heritages into something new.

When B&B beckoned, Urquiola took an ashtray to the meeting—not because she was worried about having someplace to put her ashes (this was before Italy banned smoking in public places and Urquiola quit for her pregnancy), but it was what she wanted to make for B&B. It was one of her favorite things—one of those 1970s fat-bottomed ashtrays. She turned it into a table called Fat-Fat, a joke on B&B’s classic Citterio look (think elegant, perfect, slim proportions). “I said I wanted to do a table—but a fatty with some kilos on it,” Urquiola laughs, grabbing her thigh in one hand, “because we have to give them something with a personality, another point of view—not the same elegance and streamlining he’s given them but another one, a little bit unformed.”

B&B loved the irony and fun in it. Busnelli says, “Sometimes people say B&B is so lasting—stuff for a lifetime—but it’s a bit, um, monochord.” He searches for a word, and you get a sense that he’s trying hard not to say “dull.” “Patricia changes that. She is very good for us. Citterio is very regal; her pieces create more emotion, more warmth. She brings a female charm to our collection instead of being too male, which was cold and strong—too cold and strong.”

Taking classic ideas and turning them on their head is a major Urquiola theme. She reinterprets them with new technology and forms, breathing life into old genres. The practice is certainly a good defense against questions about why one should design another nice-looking chair when there are so many beautiful, expensive chairs these days. In her hands, each one seems important. It’s an approach Urquiola calls alternatively “surfing” and “killing.” Her way of moving through the world is like surfing: looking for inspiration everywhere and taking everything in, while killing—making “killer versions”—is how she reinterprets old ideas, like a vintage ashtray or Jacobsen’s chairs. Naturally she talks of it in terms of Castiglioni: “Nothing is original. It all comes from somewhere else, capito? Castiglioni was always working with analogy, looking to the male world—metal and machinery. Me, I look for analogies from the female.”

In Urquiola’s Ideal Home at the Cologne Fur-niture Fair in January, nearly every piece of furniture was covered with embroidery, crochet, and macramé. The work was also inspired by her memories: a hammock came from remembering her father napping in the one at her family’s summer home in Ibiza. But instead of making her hammock from rope, Urquiola turned the idea on its head by using black leather, which suddenly gave it a sexy edge. She stacked and hung her Fat-Fat tables from the ceiling in an interpretation of the hanging macramé lamp from her childhood bedroom.

Moroso is putting the hammock into production, along with a chair based on a hammock. It is stretched across a steel frame to form the seat, and the fabric is sewn with smocking, the type of stitching most often featured on little girl’s dresses and peasant-style blouses. Urquiola’s next Driade chairs are a take on the high-backed rattan peacock chair. The models are still in the early stages—the chair won’t be announced officially until 2006—but mock-ups have it sporting afghans, so whether the chair gets a colorful woven rattan update or has a crocheted cushion is hard to tell. There’s certainly an edge of nostalgia in Urquiola’s current work, but she uses the past and memory as a starting point.

When we meet, one of the first things Urquiola says to me is, “Proust I love, capito?” And Moroso says the Ideal Home was “about a memory in Patricia’s heart. Everything was strung through with her memories of childhood. With what she’s doing now, she is mixing in more of her own things, putting more of herself in her work.” Urquiola agrees: “My family—my roots—are important to me. Now I really get them and that history.”

Her daughter, Giulia, runs into the studio dancing around with her new Jack Russell puppy. Everyone stops what they’re doing. She manages to get one of Urquiola’s assistants to do her homework. No one can refuse her. She’s ten, adorable of course, and the boss’s daughter, but watching her makes you wonder how much daughter resembles mother—if this might be an insight into how Urquiola, as she puts it, “seduces” manufacturing companies.

Urquiola is one of the few major contemporary women designers. She and Hella Jongerius are certainly the only “stars,” and Urquiola is the only one working with all the major Italian manufacturers. She’s B&B’s sole female designer, and almost all the company directors who talk about her are reductive in the ways they describe her. One calls her “Mediterranean,” which sounds like a euphemism for “sexual” or, if nothing else, “hotheaded.” The men all talk about fighting with her. One says, “It’s always better to fight with a woman, no? There is irony then.” Women talk about how her approach is so feminine, “all these curves, a real generosity and open-mindedness.” Hearing this gives you some sense of why so few women succeed in the furniture industry. “The studios are so full of girls, but as assistants,” Moroso says. “And most just stay assistants.” Indeed she was drawn to Urquiola because she was a woman. “See, I am the only woman working in my company,” Moroso says in a tone that sounds suffused with regret.

Part of Urquiola’s success comes from being the Hurricane. But it’s a role—part caricature, part playing to type—that allows her to break with the expectations of the Italian industry. She also does what many successful women do in male industries: she works twice as hard as anyone else. The strategy has paid off. You only have to see the number of objects she showed in Milan this spring to know. But a key element of her success is clearly seduction.

“You need to seduce companies to go after your ideas,” Urquiola says, taking off her rings and laying them on the table. “Your role is to move the limits. The companies in Italy are cold. They give you a technology they know, and they may open their mind to go after an idea, but you have to be more flexible—because if not, you’re the one who loses. They will say, ‘No, no, no, no, no, we tried these other things.’ You need this energy to push.” And push and push, and argue and argue is what Urquiola does. Everyone she works with says so. She’s also involved throughout the entire process, which is why those legs on the Moroso chair are important.

Such keen attention to detail is a relative rarity in furniture design. As Busnelli says, “She follows projects all the way through with colors and fabrications. She even says how she wants it photographed. That impacts the quality of her work. Some architects just bring a rendering and assume the product is finished, but Patricia and Citterio are architects who know the market, so they start with an idea and move. Each part of the discussion—the back-and-forth—may be longer, but it creates a success.”

Urquiola looks down, realizes she’s late for the Domus dinner, and picks up a Magistretti Selene chair covered in a beaded seat cover that taxi drivers often use. Someone rushes over to take it from her. “I’m okay,” she says, and rolls her eyes. “Men. I love them but…” The chair from her Ideal Home is supposed to serve as an example of analogy. “Maybe it’s nothing; maybe in five years I will do something with it. It’s just an idea now, but I love it—the beautiful chair and the trashy taxi cover on it, like a dress or a scarf.” Urquiola swings hers around her neck for emphasis, and a taxi is summoned.

“I know that for my career some say it is not good for me to be pregnant now. But it’s the moment, ecco! And now I’m at an age where nothing matters—good or bad, you get over it. Plus I like entropy, that force you can’t control. Maybe I will change entirely, go in another direction.” There’s a moment of silence as the idea sinks in that she could perhaps pack up the idea of being the Hurricane. Just as quickly as it came, though, the pause is over, and after a hurried flurry of kisses, Urquiola settles the chair next to her in the cab.

Recent Programs