Patricia Urquiola has not only shattered glass ceilings in her field; she is one of the most celebrated designers of her generation. At the 2012 Salone Internazionale del Mobile this May, the prolific designer was rivaled only by Philippe Starck in new products: new striped wool rugs for Gandia Blasco’s GAN imprint; glassware for Baccarat; furnishings for Moroso, Kartell, and Kettal; and a new line of tile for Mutina.
It was not long ago that Urquiola was designing a Salone booth for Piero Lissoni, a fact that is not lost on her. “Industry is territorial, it is a territory of men,” she said. “For a woman to be successful you need a company to appoint you, to recognize you.” Holding court in her triangular cabana designed for Kettal, she recalls: “Moroso was the first company to appoint me and work with me. The company at the time was run by a woman, is there a correlation? I can’t say, but I think so.”
Twenty years later, Patricia has collaborated with a greatest-hits list of global brands, from B&B Italia to HansGrohe. And yet, it wasn’t until the Axor partnership in 2010 that Phillipe Grohe had ever worked with a woman designer. Their collaboration resulted in one of the most successful collections the brand has seen. Grohe attributes this to Urquiola’s female intuition. But do women possess some inherent sensibility that might inform how things work best in the bathroom? Urquiola says yes, as witnessed by her curiosity, open-mindedness, and the willingness to take risks. “There is a human sensibility that comes through in design by women. We are more adaptable. We have many layers and have the ability to change as we shed those layers. My work then was different from now because I have changed as a woman.”
The one thing that has changed Urquiola more than anything is motherhood. One might expect the designer’s history to be a tireless campaign of effort—especially given her fiery personality—but in fact, for a time in the 1990s, her career took a backseat to her children. “Women have roles in society. Babies come and we must stop and take care of them. If you have a passion for something you will have to share that passion with your role as a mother.”
Urquiola’s accomplishments serve as a compelling counterpoint to conventional gendered arguments about success, reliability, and competition. Working among men, Urquiola says, has made her realize the strengths women have compared to their male counterparts, and, moreover, has taught her how to use them to her advantage. “We can solve problems in companies better than men. We see things in different ways and can take a different approach. And we are more open to more to change, it’s normal for us. We are good for industry.” You won’t find many companies today who would argue with that.