‘Sensitivity is a democratic quality that is not specifically gender-related’

Milan – From her childhood in Oviedo to one of the most celebrated and sought-after designer in the world, Patricia Urquiola – one Milan’s favourite adoptive daughters – reflects on where it all began.

When I became a designer, my mother said: “How is it possible? You were always breaking down the house!” I was a very curious child, constantly trying to understand things by opening them and taking them apart. She’s right – I did break down the house. In the end, there was always a piece left that didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Typically a child who’s cut out to be a designer, I think.’

My mum studied philosophy. She was not the typical mother – our circumstances were different – but she was a fantastic lady. We got a lot of advice from our parents, who encouraged my three brothers to leave home. “Spain is little. Move! Learn languages, get out of your comfort zone,” they would say. I believe in that as well. It makes for a quicker evolution of your personality. It gives you confidence.’

Above, the Hotel Room Mate Giulia in Milan; below, the Hotel Il Sereno on the shores of Lake Como

The teachers in Milan, some of whom were architects, were very good designers. One course was called Industrial Design within Architecture, which didn’t exist in Madrid. I became both architect and designer. One of my professors was Achille Castiglioni. He taught me to value the tools for living. Thanks to him, I developed a new attitude. Milan was the perfect place for me at that time. Even though the move was complex, in the end it gave me two professions. I was meant to work in both.’

The architectural process is not necessarily longer than the design process. That’s important to understand. Sometimes it takes longer to put a piece into production or to optimize a new technique than it does to realize an architecture project – at least at the level of architecture that I’m engaged in, which doesn’t include the biggest constructions. As a designer, though, I have less distraction and fewer people to deal with. Architecture is complexity. The level of dialogue is much higher because of all the different materials and technical parts. When I’m working as an architect, I often complain and talk about closing the architecture part of my business and keeping only the small design studio.’ [Laughs.]

Empathy is key when working with different brands. You have to feel and understand the person in front of you, from the inside, even though you arrive from the outside. You have to respect their roots, their heritage – to focus and give it your all. Then you can move from company to company.’

Working with Piero Lissoni was interesting because he designs for many companies – Cassina, Cappellini, Boffi and more. Now acquainted with the technical side of design, I learned how to present myself and to relate to each company in a different way. By the time I opened my studio in 2001, I was known as a serious person who liked to work hard, qualities that may have appealed to clients – like Patrizia Moroso, for example, who asked me to do sofas. Collaborating with her boosted my credibility.’

 

I see sensitivity as a democratic quality that is not specifically gender-related. You can’t say that men are conceptual and women are sensitive, at least not in my experience. My mother was the more conceptual side of the family and my father, who was an engineer, the more sensitive side. Women are very flexible, very open to change. Women know that if something happens in the family, with the children for example, they have to manage. We practise being adaptable in our jobs as well. That’s not a bad thing. We are not insecure about switching points of view or rethinking prejudices.’

Thinking in terms of goals is a very masculine thing. When I have goals, I keep them quiet. My philosophy is to go step by step and to let things come to me. It’s more serene that way. I don’t believe in saying that I’m reaching for a specific goal. If you reach it, it’s not interesting any more, and if you don’t reach it, you get frustrated.’

patriciaurquiola.com

This is an edited version of our interview with Patricia Urquiola, featured in full in What I’ve Learned. The book, which also includes conversations with the likes of Tadao Ando, Alexandre de Betak and Hella Jongerius, is available for purchase here.

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