The firmament of 21st-century top-tier industrial designers is one dominated firmly by men. It's a fact that's simply impossible to quibble with. Yes, every year at Salone del Mobile in Milan or Maison & Objet in Paris, there are female breakout stars who take one's breath away with the ingenuity and sheer audacity of their designs, but the number who manage to break through and convert their designs into actual production and eventual brand recognition is minuscule.
All the more reason to admire and applaud the singular achievement of Patricia Urquiola. In terms of consistency and fearlessness, she more than deserves her place in the pantheon of world-class designers.
And the fact that the 53-year-old Spanish-born, Milan-based designer has never played the gender card is all the more telling. Her presence at the table has been achieved through a combination of trailblazing talent, luck, instinct and a great deal of commercial chutzpah.
And being canny and self-assured enough in her talent to never repeat herself. In the world according to Ms Urquiola, the secret to staying in the game for nearly a quarter of a century is never repeating herself. "After every project, I start all over again," she says.
"I bank on the experience of all the work I do with great clients, but I never create a style."
It shows. The breadth of her work is inspiring. Whether it's the grand interiors for the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Barcelona, a chair for Moroso, or a surrealistic opera stage set, when it comes to design, there's very little that she hasn't turned her hand to. "My philosophy is to try to keep a kind of intellectual rigour," she says. Which is not surprising, really, considering her mentors have included greats such as Vico Magistretti and Piero Lissoni, the latter for whom she was manager of design until she started her own business in 2001 in Milan.
Trained as an architect (her graduating thesis was on renowned Italian industrial designer Archille Castiglioni), Ms Urquiola achieves in her work what she acknowledges is a tricky balance between the intellectual rigour that is her trademark, and accessible (read consumer-friendly) utilitarianism. "I always try to keep very free in my ideas."
A different eye
Inspiration comes from the very act of "living, and watching society with a different eye", she says as she name-checks Jasper Morrison and Konstantin Grcic as designers who she admires for their work and research methodology, adding: "I am always trying to sense what's happening in the present, look for signs of the future, while also looking back."
But despite this amorphous assessment of her work, there is a very subtle element of precise bravado, one that is articulated most fully in her furniture design. Case in point is Gliss-Up, a wardrobe she's just designed for Molteni & C. Unusually, the module floats above the floor, leaving a metre-high space below for shelves, storage and display; and instead of melamine resins or faux wood, the interiors are lined with cedar which Ms Urquiola loves for the fragrance.
"Cedar is a kindness, I think," she says, demonstrating a forceful practicality in so mundane a piece of furniture. Who else, much less which other woman designer, would think of the olfactory element when opening a cupboard?
Not surprisingly, this has been a busy year for Ms Urquiola and her 35-strong Milan office. In addition to Bow, a bijou deconstructed table made of two pieces of bent plywood with no corners or joints, she is fresh off a Best of Competition win at Neocon in Chicago for Openest, a practical but comfy collection of upholstered sofas, pouffes, tables and recyclable moulded polyester space-dividers she created in collaboration with Haworth.
On the "to do list" are two hotels - one on Lake Como, the other in Milan - as well as restaurant projects in Paris and Spain, residences, and retail projects for Missoni, Panerai, Santoni and Gianvito Rossi.
She is currently working on the interior design of Oasia Downtown, a hotel and office tower in Peck Seah Street. Designed by Singapore architects WOHA for the Far East Organisation, the entire height of the 27-storey building is swathed with external green walls of creepers and flowering plants, and punched through with internal sky gardens.
Bringing experience to life
A veritable tower of Eden, the building achieves a staggering green plot ratio of 750 per cent - in other words, the garden space is over seven times the size of the land.
What has most struck Ang Chow Hwee, the lead WOHA architect on the project, about Ms Urquiola's creativity is "her imagination of how the space should be experienced. She brings that experience to life with her composition of materials. She is fully aware of the spatial volumes of the spaces and she is very clever to take advantage of that to great effect. She is a very rational designer".
Not surprisingly, the sheer out-of-box creativity of Oasia Downtown, due to be unveiled in late 2015, appeals to Ms Urquiola. "It's a very challenging project," she says with approval. "Light and nature are important, and in a city where it's normal to stay indoors with air-conditioning, it is offering a different experience. I think it's an interesting example of a smart city that is trying to excel in many categories."
It's a sentiment that we could just as easily apply to Ms Urquiola.
This article was first published on Dec 6, 2014.
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