In Beirut to celebrate the Middle East launch of one of her latest creations, Patricia Urquiola spoke to Selina Denman about why having a design style is just plain ‘stupid’
The Italians have fondly nicknamed her ‘the hurricane’ because of the force with which she careered on to the design scene; and when she talks – forcefully, fervently, swerving from topic to topic, barely stopping for breath as she flits from Spanish to English to French and back again – the moniker seems fitting.
Patricia Urquiola is one of the few women to have made a name for themselves in the male-dominated world of product design. Born in Oviedo in Spain, Urquiola attended Madrid Polytechnic’s faculty of architecture, graduating in 1989 after completing a thesis with Achille Castiglioni.
But in a built-up city like Milan, there was far more scope for designing products than buildings, and Urquiola went on to work with leading companies such as Alessi, B&B Italia, Flos, Kartell, Molteni&C, Moroso, Paola Lenti, Rosenthal, Kettal and Foscarini.
One of her more recent collaborations was with Axor, the high-end ‘designer’ arm of German sanitaryware company, Hansgrohe. The fruit of this partnership is the Axor Urquiola collection, which includes bath mixers, wash basins, a bath tub, accessories and a partition.
The new bathroom is infused with intimacy and human intuition, a self-proclaimed “space for normal life”. Boundaries between the bedroom and bathroom have been completely broken down and the space is divided by a single, multi-functional partition that can act as a divider, heater and mirror.
Taps are asymmetrical, sensual and sleek. Two sinks are set on opposite sides of the room – because who wants to watch their partner brushing their teeth? Sinks are reminiscent of a bucket, to encourage people to think about how much water they are using; two baths are set side by side, each designed for one person – after all, why waste the water if you normally bathe alone?
Perhaps unusually for a designer producing at the top end of the scale, Urquiola has created a collection of products that can be slotted into any environment. “The things you put in your house will live with other layers. There will always be other layers that existed before,” she commented.
In Beirut to celebrate the Middle East launch of the Axor Urquiola collection, Patricia Urquiola spoke about the meaning of luxury, and her lack of goals.
What are the defining characteristics of the new Axor Urquiola bathroom?
I think the collection is quite unisex – I don’t think it looks particularly feminine. When I was speaking with Philippe Grohe of Axor, the first thing we thought about was intimacy.
This is the place where you take care of yourself and you take care of your relationship with someone else. This is not just a space where you wash or use the shower.
It was important to insert my pieces into some kind of context. So we decided to create a scenario of a possible couple and see what would happen. Everything came from that.
In our scenario, there were no boundaries between the bathroom and the bedroom. There was just the paravant. That was the only divider — so when you are in the bedroom, you do not see everything; but you can see certain things, if you want.
The bathroom is a place where you reflect. This is a time when you are naked and you are not naked often, so there is that personal intimacy too.
You seem to have quite an interesting perception of what luxury is?
A client might say: “I want a double wash basin and a very big bathtub”. I say that the bathtub doesn’t really need to fit more than one person. I do not think that is the way for us to grow as individuals. There is no need to have swimming-pools in our bathrooms. The whole big bathtub filled with bubbles is a little bit ‘Pretty Woman’ anyway; it’s a little old-fashioned for me.
I always think about how people live and experience things. And then I play with that. For me, one bathtub is enough for one person. If need be, you can have two separate bath-tubs, which is quite playful; but the point is that when there is only one person having a bath, you only need to use enough water for one.
If you are using water in the Axor Urquiola wash basin, the fact that it is modelled on a bucket will always make you think about the quantity of water you are using. The typology reminds you. There are subliminal messages.
What is the future of bathroom design?
I think if you travel east from Europe and arrive in the Middle East and Turkey and so on, the relationship with water is not the same. It is not about ‘the fountain’, so to speak. It is more about the vapour – the mood of the hamam, for example.
I would like to explore new ways of incorporating that relationship with vapour into normal life, in an easy and inexpensive way. But you need the technology to make that happen and we haven’t got the technology yet.
We have to use vapour better. We have a global problem when it comes to water, but perhaps we don’t have to lose out on comfort. I don’t want us in the future saying: ‘Do you remember when we used to have long showers… and we can’t anymore’.
I’d rather we were saying: ‘Do you remember how silly we were having those long showers, wasting so many litres; and now we have this technology that allows us to have four minutes of real shower, followed by a vapour experience that uses less water but still allows us to be comfortable and de-stress’.
Is sustainability an important consideration for you?
Yes. Sustainability is a very serious argument. For me, it is a work in progress. I feel quite stupid when it comes to this issue – not only in my work, but in my life too. I am still trying to understand what I should and should not be doing.
There has to be a process of re-education, because my education was just the contrary of this. I am re-educating myself, and I am trying to re-educate my family to be more aware. And, obviously, it impacts my work too.
Now, companies of any kind – be it lighting, furniture, etc – are beginning to listen to you. I remember a few years ago when you very timidly tried to bring up the subject, companies weren’t interested. You would feel very silly for even asking about sustainability.
Now, finally, we can speak about it and companies are concerned about it. It is no longer a taboo or something that you have to fight for. Finally, they want it. We are just beginning to become concerned about this. It’s a very good thing, and I hope I’m going to grow a lot with this in my personal work. I feel like I’ve done nothing yet.
You are quite adamant about not having a ‘design style’. Why?
‘Style’ is a stupid concept when it comes to design. You can isolate a few projects from a certain period in my work or someone else’s; and you can understand that they were all driven by the same obsessions or the same concepts, that they are part of your personality. But if you take my work over the last ten years, you will find many different ways of working.
You evolve, obviously. A creative person must always evolve. For me, having one style is contrary to being creative. It shows insecurity in some ways. There are elements that are part of you and that come through in your work, but that is different from having a style.
Is there any type of product that you haven’t designed as yet but would like to?
Obviously – but I don’t work with goals. I think perhaps, in this way, I am very feminine. An important characteristic of women is flexibility, the ability to move from one thing to the next. Working without goals is very feminine.
If you want to dance with someone, you are better off standing as far away from them as possible; and then, if they ask you, that is the best dance. But once I get into a relationship with anything, I am extremely passionate. I am very much a ‘creative’ like that.
The Axor Urquiola collection is very accessible. Is this is a common feature in your work?
Designers have to be concerned about how people use things. When you create a tool, you have to understand what it will be used for.
If you don’t know how the product will be used, even if it is very nice, you are creating art, not design. My idea of luxury is that you can buy a bag that is very well done, a Ferragamo for example, but you can match it with any old pair of jeans.
You can have furniture from Ikea and then have an incredible, expensive painting on the wall. This melting point is important. People can’t always have everything of the highest quality. It really depends on what you are interested in.
You might prefer to have that quality in the glasses that you use and are not bothered about what shoes you are wearing. You might be more concerned with seating than lighting. It is all about being yourself in this very complicated world. Try to have your own style. I don’t like it when they use the word to define design, but style is important when it comes to personality, your aura, how you live and work.
Do you think modern designers have lost sight of the fact that design needs to be practical?
I think design is a discipline that is growing very quickly. Design is heavily linked to society because you are creating tools for living. You must be practical. After all, you are creating things that need to be used.
But the comfort that you give through a new tool is not only through the ergonomic relationship; it is through the eye, the mental comfort, the emotional response. It’s the link that you create. That’s where the comfort comes from.
What’s your favourite interior space? Your home, perhaps?
No, not my home. I’m in a period of my life where I’m working a lot, I’m busy looking after my daughters, and the dog might be peeing on the carpet. My home is comfortable, but nothing more than that.
For me, the best scenario is when I arrive in a new city or a new place. The first time you are in a new place, you become like a child, and you are far more sensitive to your surroundings. You are feeling new things and smelling new things, and that appeals to the emotional side of your personality.
“I am open to everything. Society inspires me. All the different facets of society – the crude and the problematic and the complex – it’s all really important. I am very interested in contemporary art, because I think these are the people that influence society. Everything inspires me. You must be curious and open to the fact that your point of view can always be changed.”