In the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, Patricia Urquiola’s roles as Cassina art director and champion of ‘feminine’ designs take on even more importance

SINGAPORE (Apr 2): It is rather fitting that I am speaking to Patricia Urquiola on International Women’s Day. She is arguably the world’s most famous female designer — her name is linked to everything from B&B Italia sofas and Laufen bathtubs to Panerai watch boutiques and Barcelona’s Mandarin Oriental hotel.

Urquiola is also a champion of designs that are softer, curvier and more tactile — qualities associated with being “feminine”. This, of course, raises the question of how one ascribes gender to a product. What makes a table or chair inherently masculine or feminine? Of course, if you are French, then both tables and chairs are feminine, by virtue of their pronouns. But more on that later.

I ask Urquiola what she thinks of the feminist age we live in — think movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp — and whether she sees her designs as being even more relevant now. “I think the world still has a lot of problems in its relationships with communities that are minorities. Not just women, but any kind of minority. It’s a complex argument. We have to believe a lot in people to help break those prejudices,” she says in an accent that is part-Spanish, part-Italian — a by-product of her bicultural exposure.

Urquiola does not actively try to promote a political agenda, but her work inevitably pushes boundaries and challenges preconceptions. Take, for instance, the first product she designed for Cassina when she became its art director in 2015. Called the Gender Armchair, it was so named because its shape, structure and material composition expressed gender stereotypes. Its enveloping form suggested a masculine embrace, while its softly cushioned seat hinted at a comforting feminine touch.

The genius of the design was that the end-user could choose the identity of the chair by picking different colour combinations for the structure and seat. A baby pink structure with a mint green seat might appeal to a beauty influencer on Instagram. A brown structure with a taupe seat could be attractive to a corporate warrior/ father of two.

The end-user gets to decide if the chair is “male” or “female”. Or both. The chair debuted at the Milan Furniture Fair in 2016, the same year that the discussion on gender fluidity hogged global headlines. In one fell swoop, Urquiola showed her deftness at capturing the zeitgeist.


Urquiola is a champion of designs that are softer, curvier and more tactile

Finger on the pulse

“It was on my mind,” she says of the discussion. “Gender was a bit ironic. The consideration of gender is a very large and complex argument, but we simplified it. You can have the chair monochromatic or as colourful as a tropical bird. It’s up to you to choose the gender you want to give it.”

For all her attempts to break stereotypes, Urquiola herself has faced prejudice — most recently when she assumed her role at Cassina. “[People were saying:] ‘Oh, she’s a woman, working with colours and gentle [shapes]; now she is working with Cassina, why? Is she going to change the company or change herself?’ But I felt I was mature enough to understand [the role], and I was going to find [the middle ground], not [gravitate] to one side or the other.”

As a design junkie, I, too, must admit that I was quite perplexed at Urquiola’s appointment when it was announced. Like others, I had formed an impression of Cassina as being very architectural in nature, with products that were formal and rigorous, all strict lines and geometric volumes.

“That was your Cassina,” Urquiola retorts. “Perhaps you were connected to Le Corbu,” she adds, referring to Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965), a frequent Cassina collaborator whose modern furniture epitomised the essence of Bauhaus.

“But there was Toshiyuki Kita, who in the 1980s was doing incredible work with curves. There was Gaetano Pesce’s [flexible] Feltri chairs [from the same decade]. Vico Magistretti worked with smooth cushions and colours in the 1970s. And Mario Bellini was doing crazy things with the company. I have to make [everyone understand what the company really is]. And then open the windows to the real heritage we have and what possibilities the future can give us. It’s a good thing [you didn’t understand my direction], because if you did, I wouldn’t have been causing a disruption. That’s what the company needed,” says Urquiola.

Past, present and future

Urquiola and her partner, Alberto Zontone, were in Singapore to speak at Brainstorm Design, a forum jointly organised by Fortune, TIME and Wallpaper* magazines. She spoke about the design process and how it combines elements of the past, present and future.

As art director of Cassina, there is perhaps no one more suited to this discourse than her. Originally a family business — as is the case with many Italian companies — Cassina was founded by brothers Cesare and Umberto Cassina in Meda, Lombardy in 1927. The Poltrona Frau Group brought the company into its fold in 2005, while the group itself was bought over by American office furnishing titan Haworth in 2014. Space Furniture carries the Cassina line in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia.

In the nine decades of its existence, Cassina has collaborated with the who’s who of design. Frank Lloyd Wright, Gerrit Rietveld, Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand, Pierre Jeanneret, Gio Ponti, Achille Castiglioni and Vico Magistretti were among its early partners.

More recently, wunderkinds such as Mario Bellini, Gaetano Pesce, Philippe Starck, Piero Lissoni, Jaime Hayon and Urquiola were roped in.

“If you think about the companies that [restarted] after WWII, making products that were of a certain quality and made a certain way — an industrialised way, not just craftsmanship — Cassina was one of them,” says Urquiola.

Lombardy in the 1950s was a hive of industrial activity, one of the main drivers of Italy’s post-war recovery. At Cassina’s headquarters in Meda, a town just outside Milan, research and innovation became twin pillars in the company’s strategy.

The firm provided the designers and architects, who worked side by side, with access to the most up-to-the-minute technologies and processes, thereby supporting their research into new forms and ideas.

In 1968, Cassina opened its first showroom in the heart of Milan, on Via Durini. This year, the 50th anniversary of the opening, the shop space will double: Cassina will now occupy the first and second floors of the building.

The bigger celebration, though, happened last year, when Cassina blew out the candles on its 90th birthday.

Ninety years young

“This is a company that has a past, a strong one, and we have to defend it,” says Urquiola. “We have a heritage, an archive of models — 600 pieces altogether. The way to defend the company’s heritage is to update the company and connect it with the market. We’re not a museum. The market shouldn’t run in front of us; we have to run in front of it.”

Since taking the helm, Urquiola and her peers — the likes of Piero Lissoni, Patrick Jouin and the Bouroullec Brothers — have worked towards this goal: setting the pace for the industry, leading the market instead of following it.

Urquiola says she is happy with the way things are going, but is also well aware of the cultural weight that a name like Cassina carries. “I know the heavy luggage they have given me, but I try to [express] it in a very light way.” One of the ways she lightened the load — so to speak — was to shake up the 90th anniversary celebrations. Instead of staging a retrospective as expected, Urquiola chose to look forward.

She called the exhibition Cassina 9.0, a hat tip to software lingo while paving the way for future iterations such as 9.1 and 9.2. Held at the Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli (near Milan’s iconic 10 Corso Como), the set-up imagined the home of the future.

“At 90 years old, we became young again. We were thinking about the future, not celebrating ourselves. We had the idea [to create] a funky house, where the walls could speak to you. We had a lot of little technologies that were part of the house, such as the Internet of Things. What we communicated was very affordable and sensible. Certain people found it strange how we celebrated 90 years, but it was my point of view,” says Urquiola.

The sharing economy

For all their big-picture sensibilities and decorative flourish, Urquiola’s designs are rooted in functionality and reality. Sure, pieces such as Gender can be interpreted as social commentary. But her work, as she puts it, is “connected with the way we live”.

Case in point: I am chatting with Urquiola and Zontone while sitting on a sofa (Cassina, of course) in the Space Furniture showroom. “This interview could be done at a table, with you on one side and us on the other, but it would be a separation,” says Zontone. “The way we’re sitting and speaking now, it’s natural. Spaces can give big changes to behaviour and the way people live,” adds Urquiola.

The current impulses that are shaping her designs these days have a strong social element. “We’re in a society of sharing. Nobody in my studio has a car anymore. If Alberto and I are going to a cinema that’s far away, we’ll do car-sharing. Or we’ll walk or use the metro. We’re sharing a lot, and that’s driving many values that are important to me,” says Urquiola.

She points to a project she did in 2014 in which she was asked to reinterpret a traditional Basque ceramic jug for the city of Bilbao. The jug would be used in 10 of the city’s most sophisticated restaurants to serve tap water. With Bilbao (and nearby San Sebastian) being known as a foodie destination, the idea was to showcase the region’s high-quality tap water. A limited-edition version of the jug, called H2O Bilbao, was sold at the restaurants, with proceeds going to Oxfam to support the construction of wells in Ethiopia.

“It became a social project,” says Urquiola. “We’d like it if Singapore could do more projects like Bilbao. It’s a city in the middle of Asia that can emanate a lot of context with all of Asia. Little design projects with social values will glue the whole of Asia. That would be fantastic.”

Urquiola herself is half-Basque, half-Asturian. Born in Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, in 1961, she studied architecture in Madrid before moving to Milan.

There, she enrolled at Milan Polytechnic, graduating under Achille Castiglioni in 1989. For six years, she worked at Italian furniture company De Padova alongside Vico Magistretti. In 1996, she became head of Piero Lissoni’s design group, Lissoni Associati.

By the turn of the millennium, she had lived and worked in Milan for over 20 years, and had become entrenched in the city’s design scene. She knew all its biggest players. It made sense for her to branch out on her own, and so she did, opening Studio Urquiola in 2001. Her clients included a roll call of top marques such as Agape, B&B Italia, Foscarini, Kartell, Laufen, Molteni&C and Moroso.

Kartell Trama tableware collection by Urquiola

Rise to the top

It was the Fjord armchair (2002) for Moroso that got her noticed. She was promptly named Designer of the Year at Elle Decoration’s inaugural International Design Awards in 2003. More accolades followed, including a 2003 Good Design award at the Chicago Athenaeum for her Bague table lamp for Foscarini, and a 2004 Compasso D’oro shortlist for her woven cane Flo chair for Driade.

By the mid-2000s, Urquiola had become one of the most bankable names in design. Around this time, too, she started manifesting her interest in traditional craft with pieces such as the Crochet rug for Paola Lenti (2005), Antibodi chairs for Moroso (2006), and Canasta (2007) and Crinoline (2008) outdoor furnishings for B&B Italia.

Her love for crafty, bohemian designs has never wavered. One need only look to Singapore’s Oasia Hotel Downtown, which opened in 2016, to see evidence of this approach. Woven cane chairs, lounges and side tables in outdoor spaces complement the organic nature of the architecture by WOHA.

Back in Milan, Urquiola will be working on a monographic exhibition on Achille Castiglioni, to be staged at the Triennale Design Museum from September 2018 to February 2019. The legendary designer would be 100 years old if he were alive today. He passed away in 2000, a year before Urquiola opened her studio.

“It’s a fantastic thing to do the exhibition,” she says. “I go to bed every night thinking about Achille. And I wake up with him on my mind. He’s part of my life all this year!”

Castiglioni was her former lecturer, and she also worked as his assistant from 1990 to 1992. I ask her what she thinks he would say to her if he were around. “I think after the exhibition, he will not be so happy! He will complain,” she replies, laughing. “He was very good at installations. He did a lot of exhibitions, even two of his own. I know it’s going to be hard work, but I intend to do it well. He was a man who had a sense of curiosity, a sense of magic, but he never added anything that was not necessary to a project. He was always in equilibrium. The projects were simplified and essential, but they made you smile and had emotional values.”

One could say the same of Urquiola. Castiglioni would be mighty proud of his former student.

Timothy Chiang is a design junkie who believes that everything from a doorknob to the entire building needs to display thoughtful design. He lives for meeting design luminaries.