Profile: Patricia Urquiola FX outstanding lifetime achievement award winner

Recipient of the 2014 FX’s Outstanding Lifetime Achievement award, Patricia Urquiola is both an architect and a designer, and believes the two disciplines have much to give to each other.


Words by Emily Martin

Patricia Urquiola is one of the most influential designers of the 21st century. Last year she was awarded the Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Design gong at the FX Awards, as voted for by FX readers, adding to a long list of international accolades scooped by the Spanish designer throughout her career. At 54 she is looks to be at a career peak, with seemingly countless projects making up her portfolio and in demand with prestigious clients, including W Hotel, Puerto Rico, and B&B Italia. Urquiola tells me why how being both an architect and designer has paved the way for her success.

'Me, I am an architect and a designer,' begins Urquiola as we sit in the courtyard at Domus soaking up the afternoon sun during this year's Clerkenwell Design Week. Visiting from her adopted home city Milan, Urquiola is promoting her latest tile range, Tierras, being sold exclusively by Domus and manufactured by Italian ceramic manufacturer Mutina. I have been lucky to get an interview slot as she is short of time, yet we sit and chat like there's all the time in the world.

Tierras tiles, designed by Patricia Urquiola, made by Mutina and sold exclusively by Domus
Tierras tiles, designed by Patricia Urquiola, made by Mutina and sold exclusively by Domus

'I studied in Madrid [architecture] and Milan, but when I was there I studied the architecture and design together,' she tells me. 'But if I had finished at my studies in Madrid, then I'd only be an architect.' Urquiola believes that to be a designer of furniture, products, lighting, surfaces and so forth you must first be an architect. That has long been the Italian way.

When she graduated the two professions 'came together' through Urquiola's schooling in Milan. 'Now the universities are divided; you can study either architecture or design,' she says while looking mystified. I also sense her disapprobation at this kind of approach to design education.

Urquiola credits 'architectura' and design for her early success, which she modestly puts down to luck. 'I was more focused on design, but my clients asked me for many opinions or solutions for design problems within an existing project.

Like a hotel, for example, which would involve architecture,' Urquiola explains. 'I needed it to do my own design work; I could do my handles and I could do my plates. It was under very lucky circumstances that this happened for me.'

For Urquiola the two disciplines are to be mastered as one in order to become an expert - or cognoscenti. And by feeding into each other is how Urquiola founded her successful studio, which continues to bring the work in. Yet her focus is on design. 'I am very, very comfortable in the land of design (if you were to ask me), but I am still an architect and it's quite natural to me to include it with in architecture,' she says, creating spin-off projects in which 'real products of design' can then be developed, such as a surface material.

But Urquiola says these take time and she is choosy about companies she works with. Her latest tile range 'rethinks' terracotta in a contemporary way. It's development was a project that came about after a conversation between Urquiola and Massimio Orsini, Mutina's CEO. 'And I loved the conversation,' she says animatedly. There's a brief slowing in the speed of her talking, which until now has been rapid.

Tierras tiles, designed by Patricia Urquiola, made by Mutina and sold exclusively by Domus
Tierras tiles, designed by Patricia Urquiola, made by Mutina and sold exclusively by Domus

Quicking up again she explains: 'I need to work in something that I believe in doing, but also that the company believes too. It's the only way to do it; work with what you like and the people you like in order to get the quality. At the end the problem in design is getting the quality.'

And it's this 'conversation' that drives Urquiola to produce such varying work. She spent two years working on the Tierras tile range before it was ready for launch, and believes time is needed in order to create 'real products of design'. Client relationship is a key factor and Urquiola expects patience in return for the best. 'It is to be very inclusive and very open in order to provide the quality, not only in the product but in the way we introduce the product,' Urquiola says. 'For example we might present project research at a dinner event as a way to showcase it. That's the way I approach it.'

Working on numerous projects encourages Urquiola to move out of her comfort zone, something that has always been encouraged by her mother. One of her own daughters, Giulia, 23, is a communications student in London, and Urquiola says she wants to pass the same message on to them. 'My mother told me and my siblings to move from Spain to get out of our comfort zone and prejudices, then come back and make new spaces. I hope ...the energy that comes from my mother goes to my daughters.'

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