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Photograph by Chris Brooks

Italian Furniture Designer Patricia Urquiola's Work Goes Beyond Just Furniture

With a blend of artistry and commercial savvy, Patricia Urquiola enthralls tony Italian furniture makers--as well as BMW, H&M, and high-end hotel chains such as Mandarin Oriental. It’s a beautiful business.

In the harried weeks before Italians' massive August vacation, Milan is a town of working stiffs. Even the beautiful people of its world-famous furniture industry are drones, slaving away to create the lust-inducing products that will hit retail outlets in September.

Nowhere is the hive busier than on the two floors of a 1918 terra-cotta and ochre building on Piazzale Libia, where 30 staffers at Studio Urquiola are working on a dizzying range of projects: a Marriott hotel in Barcelona with Ian Schrager, a line of award-winning bath fixtures for Axor, sets for a Monteverdi opera in Spain, and interiors for the fashion fair Pitti Uomo, in Florence.

The chief designer herself, 49-year-old Spaniard Patricia Urquiola, is spinning too. She must plan a trip to a factory near Venice to inspect some furniture. A protégé needs advice on a line of tiles for Mutina. New York is calling, eager to arrange a photo shoot at the Udine house she designed for her friend Patrizia Moroso, CEO of the eponymous furniture company. The receptionist announces that the head of Driade, an important manufacturer, is in the neighborhood and wants to stop by.

Dio mio!

The press has nicknamed Urquiola "Hurricane Patricia," a moniker she truly dislikes. As she enters her private office, in a plum-colored jacket and acid green top, she is doing everything she can to be the eye of the storm. But it's the kind of calm you get when the barometric pressure drops and the winds pick up, signaling the onset of tumultuous weather. As her conversation--a tsunami of Spanish, English, and Italian, punctuated with lots of spirited gesturing and tangents that race off in unpredictable directions--picks up steam, it's hard not to think of Penélope Cruz's charming, tempestuous, and strong-willed character in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. "If I'm doing faucets, I'm a superlover of faucets," she says, with a passion not usually aroused by plumbing. "In another moment, I'm thinking in bicycles. If the right person asked me for a bicycle, I'd be a bicycle woman for a long time."

One of the few women to make it to the top of an industry dominated by men, Urquiola is both a shrewd commercial thinker and a creative force, winning numerous awards from the likes of Red Dot and IMM Cologne as well as Designer of the Decade accolades from several European shelter magazines. She has helped BMW imagine a car designed by and for a woman, and she taught H&M how to maximize its retail space. Her range as a designer is rivaled only by Philippe Starck, Piero Lissoni, and Antonio Citterio. Last year, she completed the $194 million design of the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona, a gilt, white-glove-inspired tour de force that has spun off some 3,000 products from carpeting to china; and in March, she unveiled W Hotels' latest resort, a $150 million flip-flops-friendly retreat on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

"One of the secrets of Italian manufacturers is that they show these beautiful objects and you think they're making zillions on them, but in truth they're going belly-up," says Paola Antonelli, a Milan native who's now chief curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "For them, Urquiola is a winning horse. She gets business because she makes business."

Urquiola is always adapting to the times. "I want to think more about the final client, the person," she tells me in her office. "But it's changing because of the crisis." She is referring to the global recession that has prompted designers of all stripes to rethink their approach, to aim smaller economically and environmentally, despite grand instincts. "I've had many discussions--sweet and funny and hard discussions--about doing a project with a new idea. These clients are not so sure that the market is asking for that."

Case in point: a sofa she has been working on with the tony furniture firm B&B Italia, an affordable piece that would nonetheless seem as luxurious and comfy as the company's typical products. "We tried to do all these things all together. Me and them, them and me. And," she says, becoming increasingly animated at the wonder of it all, "we came up with a sofa that's half the price of the normal seat!" After prodding by Urquiola, B&B Italia developed a technique to inject more air in the couch's foam. "Incredible big leather cushions, with a lot of material! The sofa, its name is Blend."

"Bend," murmurs Alberto Zontone, Urquiola's companion of nine years, who has been monitoring the conversation while slogging through email from his desk on the far side of the room. While Urquiola is from Spain, Zontone, 40, is Italian. He has the easy charm of a man who's comfortable being the facilitator of the business, not the center of attention. Urquiola is the creative dynamo, while Zontone is the levelheaded CEO and manager, taking care of such gritty details as contracts, deadlines, marketing, and even the carpool that gets their 4-year-old daughter, Sofia, to preschool.

"Blend," she tries again.

"Bend," he corrects gently.

The Bend sofa, which debuted at this year's Milan Furniture Fair, was an immediate hit. Liz Cingari, a co-owner of Montage, a contemporary furniture store in downtown Boston, is so enthusiastic she's considering getting one herself. "I love it!" she says. "It's got everything that you want: It's sexy, fresh, innovative, and gives you a lot of different options for different scenarios. The market is coming back, but people are demanding more for their money. This delivers it."

Maria Patricia Cristina Blanca Urquiola Hidalgo has always carved out her own place in the world. As a middle child growing up in the northern Spanish town of Oviedo, she enjoyed slipping away undetected while her parents focused on her older sister or her little brother. "Being in the middle is very good because you learn very early to be free, because you disappear," she says. But she also learned to speak up for herself. "Many times you have to say, 'I am here. I want the dress too!'"

Urquiola's mother, who has a degree in philosophy, encouraged independence. "She and my father were open-minded," says Urquiola, citing her parents' opposition to the fascism of General Francisco Franco's Spain. "They bought a house on Ibiza because it was a place with a high density of hippie people: Americans, Scandinavians, French."

Her father was a gentle Basque engineer who loved playing the piano. Her mother called the shots in the family. "The more logical and practical side of my brain is the more feminine side, because my mother is tough," Urquiola says. "My father is more sensitive."

At age 18, she headed off to study architecture in Madrid and eventually transferred to the Milan Polytechnic. There she found her way to a class with renowned Italian industrial designer Achille Castiglioni, whose Arco floor lamp and Cumano folding table are classics of modern design. It changed her life.

"I fell in love," she rhapsodizes. "I focused on design because of that man." Castiglioni was famous for using a minimal amount of material to maximum effect, long before resource efficiency became a hot-button issue in design. "He taught my generation about tools for living, in relation to the habitat and the people who would use them."

Castiglioni was just the first of her mentors. Following graduation, she worked for Vico Magistretti, resident master of the furniture company De Padova and creator of the stackable plastic chair. He taught Urquiola how to create something elegant and ingenious that would also connect with buyers. She then joined Lissoni, eventually becoming head of his design team, where she learned that sustainability means creating something that endures. ("When you design something," Lissoni says, "you need to think of it lasting for a minimum of 10 years.")

Urquiola, then raising a young daughter from a first marriage that ended in divorce, was hesitant to open her own shop. "I had a lot of prejudices about it. We are women; we have babies. And I didn't think I could have my own business." It was Lissoni who pushed her from the nest when she was 39. It turned out to be easier than she expected. Word spread through the Milan furniture ecosystem that she'd opened her own studio, and suddenly she had work. "I had more problems with myself. For me, I was surprised."

Today, many of her collaborators are women. She counts Moroso as best friend and champion. Besides designing Moroso's house, she dreamed up the firm's booths for the Milan Furniture Fair, as well as some of her most expressive creations, including the leather-flower-petaled Antibodi chaise longue, and the asymmetrical Fjord chair that is in MoMA's collection. Moroso once described her relationship with Urquiola this way: "To work with another woman as a woman, you have more complicity, more things to share. You go deeper. She's given me projects from her soul."

Maria Reig, CEO of the Barcelona-based investment and real-estate firm, Reig Capital, is another fierce advocate. Reig lobbied for Urquiola to design both the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Barcelona and the Vieques W, despite the fact that Urquiola had never done corporate hotel work. "I was an absolute outsider," says Urquiola, "and I didn't think I could do a chain hotel, with all the compromises and problems. But Maria said, 'I want an architect like you, with a different point of view.'"

As more women attain key decision-making positions in the industry, these kinds of relationships will become the norm, says 2010 National Design Award winner Ayse Birsel, founder of Birsel + Seck. "When you go out with women, you talk about funny stuff that creates a bond," she says. "After a certain age, there's a sense of camaraderie. We've all been through the same difficulties together, and we know how hard it was to get here, so if we can help each other, why not?"

Urquiola says that the greatest benefit of success is the ability to be picky about whom she works with. "Relationships are important to me," she says. "I do not work anymore with people I don't like. I turn down many opportunities." Yet even with partners she respects, she knows she can be difficult. "I have to work with many firms," she tells me. "If you give me only one company, I think they will kill me!"

Any manufacturer working with Urquiola can count on several "sweet and funny and hard discussions," and Urquiola comes armed. This was certainly the case during the five years she spent developing her latest triumph, a line of new bath fixtures unveiled this spring for Axor, the designer label of German bath-fitting company Hansgrohe. The line has earned rapturous reviews, even scoring a Best of Show award at this year's International Contemporary Furniture Fair. But getting there wasn't easy.

Several years ago, Urquiola and Zontone went to South Korea for a series of lectures. Her sponsor had set them up in a swanky hotel, and at the end of the long flight, she looked forward to sinking into a long, hot bath. She was dismayed to find a huge, sunken tub in their room. "I said to Alberto, 'I can't use this swimming pool and use this water only for me. I will feel like an idiot.'"

The tub triggered something in Urquiola, something that combined Castiglioni's respect for intelligent use of materials with the emerging sense in her industry that designers should consider the environmental impact of their products. When Axor asked Urquiola to create a line of bathroom fixtures in 2005, the memory of that absurd tub, with its extravagant disregard of resources, was still vivid. The line features some 120 pieces, and Urquiola and Axor chief Philippe Grohe struggled over each one as they sought to balance a sense of luxury with Urquiola's concerns for sustainability. Sometimes the balancing act worked. Seeking to find a shape for a washbasin that would convey a sense of water's preciousness, Urquiola seized on the idea of a bucket with handles carved in the sides. "When you fill a bucket, you think of quantity," she says. "The metaphor is important." As for a tub, well, she just refused to create an oversize version. "In a domestic landscape, the image of Pretty Woman, with two persons in a tub with bubbles, is really very '80s. It's impossible," she says dismissively. Instead, she conceived a curvaceous tub with a subtly tapered interior that's perfect for one person. (If you want to bathe together, says Urquiola, buy two tubs.)

Grohe loved Urquiola's unique feminine perspective on the bath, confiding that she told him "eye-opening" things he had never heard from male designers like Citterio or the Bouroullec brothers. But his Teutonic precision and her Spanish passion were a volatile mix. "Patricia is very, very emotional and very intense," he says. "We had conflicts all the time. But when she understands the issues, she's the quickest to change feet and come up with not one but three new solutions."

The duo couldn't solve everything, though. "I told them," says Urquiola, "that I would like a shower that after four minutes stops, and you touch something, and out comes more vapor and less water, and you can have a charming relation with water but not in the way that is just having more water."

"We've had a protracted fight with Patricia on this," sighs Grohe. "She's incredibly tenacious." The one still-unresolved problem: "There's a huge technical issue with Legionella bacteria that develops in warm water and becomes dangerous when vaporized." He's describing Legionnaires' disease, named for an outbreak of pneumonia at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia in 1976. There, 221 conference attendees got sick from vapor from a contaminated air-conditioning system, and 34 died.

"To work in sustainability is to work in complexity," says Urquiola, her hands wide, imploring understanding. "You don't get all the solutions. It gives you a sense of humility. But we have to take care. We have to give the example. We need to see the right side of the moon."

For Urquiola, complexity has become the norm. After 10 years, her business is outgrowing its digs. Her glass-walled office is littered with books, pottery, an assortment of chairs, plus albums of her children's artwork. The long studio table is jammed with prototypes and fabric, and the walls are papered with sketches. She's had to annex a small space across the street for a prototyping lab. She says she'd like to have more room, farther out of Milan where the big boys have set up studios with cavernous space. But she's reluctant to give up the nearby apartment she's had for 20 years--it's so close to the park, so close to the children's schools. "The family gives me three dimensions of myself," she says. "If you leave me here, I'd just never stop."

 

Browse the slideshow: The Beautiful Business of Patricia Urquiola

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