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Architect and designer Patricia Urquiola brings work to Vancouver

When multi-award-winning architect and designer Patricia Urquiola was a little girl in Oviedo, Spain, she played with dolls, but had one exasperating quirk: she liked to pull their heads and limbs off and look inside.

“My sister wouldn’t let me touch her dolls for that reason and my mother has told me, ‘you approach your work with so much attention and quality now – but when you were little, you destroyed everything at home.’

“I said, ‘Mami, creative people do that when they’re little because they are curious.’ ” Urquiola laughs uproariously at her own anecdote, then adds: “Thinking with my hands is what I do to this day.”

It’s taken two years of an unremitting schedule of international furniture, product and hotel projects to finally free up Urquiola, one of the world’s most celebrated designers, to visit Vancouver. Fortuitously, her London studio’s product design manager is B.C.-born Jakub Zak. An alumnus of Emily Carr University of Art + Design, Zak facilitated the visit working with Vancouver’s Inform Interiors owners, Niels and Nancy Bendtsen, then travelled there with Urquiola .

How serendipitous then that it coincided with the 10th anniversary of their 30,000-square-foot, 50 Water St. showroom in Vancouver’s Gastown, designed by Omer Arbel. Seizing the opportunity, Urquiola’s Beam Sofa System and Gender Chair for Cassina are making their Canadian debut.

Urquiola is a firecracker. The vivacious and opinionated dynamo’s 30-year-plus career has included designs for B&B Italia chairs; Flos lamps, the stunning lifestyle department store; Shinsegae Gangnam in Seoul; Mandarian Oriental Hotels; and Object Nomades seating for Louis Vuitton. She took the reigns as art director at Cassina in 2015.

We are sitting in the display window at Inform Interiors on Urquiola’s cosy poppy-red Beam Sofa System. Urquiola speaks in rapid-fire Italian-punctuated English, as people pass outside, seemingly unfazed. Urquiola, 55, has lived in Milan for decades since leaving Spain at 22, after graduating from the faculty of Architecture in Madrid, then in Architecture and Design at Milan Polytechnic.

She was mentored by two great masters of industrial design, Achille Castiglioni, then Vico Magistretti. Today, she lives and works under one roof – a convenience Urquiola has been dreaming of creating for years – with her husband and business partner, Alberto Zontone, and their two daughters.

Beam Sofa System (Patricia Urquiola)

“There were not many women in my profession when I started and perhaps, if I were a man, I would have opened my studio a lot sooner,” Urquiola says. “I took 10 times longer to finally go out on my own in 2001. Everyone kept saying, ‘go Patricia, come on, it’s time.’ But when I did, wow – we had so much energy to do things. Then Alberto came into my life and really amplified the business. You see a lot of couples in architecture and design, they help each other, and this arrangement allows me to focus on the project. It’s really important for me to get out of my comfort zone.”

Colour is as intrinsic to all Urquiola’s work as the air she breathes. Wearing a blue cashmere coat with tie-dyed elements by Serbian designer Dusan, houndstooth Marni pants and paint-splattered Martin Margiela running shoes, her personal style projects her personality: imaginative, playful, casually luxurious, optimistic.

Her sensual Gender Chair is dressed in layers of turquoise and brown, and pink and green. Urquiola chose the name for its yin/yang contrasts in textures and combinations of tailored fabric with leather. “It’s made up of two ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ independent shapes that together create one form,” she explains. She adds, “I’m very curious to see which the public will understand more. After all, isn’t it time to blend gender?”

Patricia Urquiola's Gender Chair (Patricia Urquiola)

Urquiola references her New York pal, performance artist Marina Abramovic, and her controversial 2010 Exhibition, The Artist Is Present, at MOMA. “Marina wore a different colour dress each week for a month – red, yellow, white, blue – staring into the eyes of someone seated opposite her. She told me colours affect the nervous system and she wore blue when she needed to be tranquil and red on days where she really needed the strength to sit for hours on end,” Urquiola says.

Her Shimmer Collection of furniture for Glas Italia is as luscious as sorbetto. Pieces are coated in a multichromatic iridescent finish that changes colour with the light.

Urquiola’s Credenza – which in Italian means both a cupboard and one’s beliefs – Collection with Federico Pepe is a spectacular interpretation of art meeting functionality in patterned glass. Commissioned by design boutique Spazzio Pontaccio, the furniture was inspired by original stained-glass windows created by Gerhard Richter for the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. Credenza made its debut during 2016 Milan Design Week.

Credenza by Patricia Urquiola (Patricia Urquiola)

Urkiola, a twist on her last name, is an abstract collection of bowls, vases, candle holders and trays commissioned by the Danish design house, Georg Jensen. Made out of stainless steel and rose-gold PVD finish, there is textural and reflective light interplay between the bold corrugated steel and the smooth surfaces.

“Light and colour are so important for any architect and designer,” Urquiola says."I’ll tell you a story about Il Sereno," the new contemporary hotel on Lake Como for which Urquiola was the architect and designed all the interiors and even the speedboat. “I wanted to work in a very organic, and connective way and when my client said ‘we need to have a meeting on the colour palette,’ I said ‘forget it – I know what I’m doing. We are using the blue of the lake, the green of the gardens and natural wood.’ They said ‘okay’. Luckily I have a very smart client,” Urquiola laughs.

For Urquiola, all her projects must be “sympatico” with the environment. Recently, she took another opportunity to move out of her comfort zone: “This year, we travelled with friends who do research with NASA, to Greenland, on a boat without connections and there was not a lot of colour. Everything was an incredible palette of whites and light. It was very emotional because you could see for yourself the arguments for climate change. I didn’t go there for a client or for a new collection, but you never know. Instead, it was a white canvas for my heart.”

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