Patricia Urquiola shuffles into the windowless meeting room at the Cassina HQ in Meda, clutching a roll of eye-popping shiny violet upholstery fabric. In boyfriend jeans and trainers, with her long blonde hair worn loose, she is nursing a skiing injury to her right leg, which is fortunate for me in that she is unable to fly to Stockholm for February’s furniture fair. Instead she has time to introduce me to her new domain – Cassina – one of Italy’s more revered furniture makers and home to some of the most recognisable designs of the 20th century, from Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Le Corbusier, Vico Magistretti and Gerrit Rietveld.
The windowless room is unsettling Urquiola’s equilibrium a little, as is her need for coffee, so we head to the coffee machine next to the building’s depot, framed by a large open-air hangar, with the blue skies of Italy’s mountainous north beyond. This, she laughs, is where all the big decisions happen, as staff gather around to work through the latest design hiccups as they race towards this month’s Salone – Europe’s major design show – with Urquiola as creative head.
Spanish-born Urquiola was recruited as Cassina’s art director last September, since when, she says in her super-speedy English, punctuated with Italian colloquialisms, she has been getting her teeth into the huge Cassina archive (500 designs, each potentially a classic). “It would be easier to some extent if there were only six or seven classics in the archive,” says the Milan-based designer. “But 500! It could be seen as something heavy. But if you look at it with a certain freedom of mind, it becomes something of lightness, of incredible value.” That value will inform Urquiola’s mission to bring the company stylistically into the 21st century.
Urquiola is – thanks to her success at reinterpreting the past with a whirlwind of verve and positive energy – “the most important female designer in the world today”, according to Roberto Gavazzi, CEO of bathroom and kitchen brand Boffi, who describes her design aesthetic as “completely different from what others do. That is quite unusual nowadays with design becoming more and more homogeneous.” Her recent work for Boffi – which includes her first kitchen, the Salinas (from £36,000), a modular, texture-heavy design loosely based on her grandfather’s rustic Asturian kitchen – and new bath designs for Agape, such as the rounded Cuna (£6,983), with its innovative external pipe structure, and the nautical, angular Lariana (£8,338), reveal the unusual combination of romance and structure in her work, or what she describes as “that exchange between craft and the industrial”. This, she believes, comes from a sense of “Atlantic rigour – being from the Milan of Spain, the north, where the weather changes so often you have to be flexible and open-minded – combined with the hippiness of Ibiza, where my mother had a house. I learnt to embrace diversity and what people could offer because of who they were and not which society they were from.”
Cassina, on the other hand, formed in the 1920s by brothers Umberto and Cesare, has for some time been seen as a little dry – the antithesis of the dazzling purple fabric Urquiola is clutching. Overtly masculine (the last time the company worked with a woman was in the days of the late Charlotte Perriand), architectural and safe in colour and material, it was also perhaps overly dependent on its classic 20th-century designs. As Patrizia Moroso, creative head of Moroso and Urquiola’s great friend, says of Cassina, “Everyone has been expecting something new, some kind of change.”
Cassina itself has been aware of this need for renewal and already put in place a number of new commissions, notably Jaime Hayon’s wooden Le Corbusier-inspired tabletop accessories, Réaction Poétique (from £468), and Luca Nichetto’s 2013 La Mise sofa (from £3,726) – a reinterpretation of Vico Magistretti’s iconic Maralunga sofa with “floppy” arms. There is also a collection featuring updates of some of the company’s most iconic designs. For example, the famous Gerrit Rietveld Red and Blue chair of 1918, which sums up the de stijl movement, has been reissued in black and green (the original colours Rietveld devised for it; from £2,268), with softening, removable cushions. The fabulous Carlo Scarpa Doge dining table, with its long welded-metal base that resembles construction beams, has been reissued in a zingy copper finish and now comes with the option of a white marble top (from £8,550), as well as the original clear glass (from £5,580). Piero Lissoni’s 1990s Met sofa has been released as a tidy armchair (£2,484) with updated matte black legs, as well as an independent chaise longue (from £2,496), or one incorporated into the sofa (from £3,924). And the Utrecht upholstered armchair (also by Rietveld; from £2,142), with its leaning angular body that touches the ground at the back, now comes in jazzier colours with zigzag stitching. This month it will also be available in a new geometric rainbow fabric (price on request) from Bertjan Pot.
Urquiola’s arrival was largely serendipitous, explains Gianluca Armento, Cassina brand director. She was already working for Haworth, the giant US office furniture brand that bought the entire Poltrona Frau group (including Cappellini, Cassina and Poltrona Frau itself) in 2014 for $270m; she was very much liked and respected there and seen as a bridge between Michigan and Italy. A possible project with Cassina turned into the offer of a much larger role.
Armento maintains that “Cassina does not need someone famous to amplify its image”, with a respectable €109m of revenue in 2014. However, if “Patricia communicates our great heritage and history more successfully than we have, with a more commercial response, then that is a welcome side effect. First and foremost, though, is the chemistry between us. There is an intense daily exchange – this is not a case of her saying, ‘Call me when you need me.’ She is extremely high energy and has a passionate fire for what she does.”
“She always has so many ideas of what to do and how to do it. For every kind of problem she finds a good solution,” observes Moroso, citing both Urquiola’s recent work for her company – which includes the confident blocky sofa Bold (from £5,800) and Lilo (price on request), a light lounge chair based on peas in a pod – and her creations for others. For Moroso she has been one of the chief saviours of Italian design, because “she makes something new without rejecting tradition”, continuing with the spirit of the 1970s, when the ideas of Magistretti, Achille Castiglioni and their contemporaries formed the bedrock of modern design, with its combination of industry, craft, ingenuity, simplicity and experimental thinking.
Urquiola herself, coffee imbibed and back in the windowless room, says that the lessons she learnt from these maestros still inform her. She studied with Castiglioni and worked with Magistretti, and was never overly reverential in her relationships with them, because “growing up in Oviedo, Spain, after Franco, I was fearless. I had a great sense of freedom, of experimentation. I still have.” But these were men who brought cultural, political and environmental considerations to design, who designed within the landscape around them and not apart from it. She attempts to do the same, she says, to possess “the best antennae for approaching new ways of working with quality and technology. We are in a privileged position today to go on creating and evolving culture in the best way we can. Everybody knows the hand-held phone, for example, has absolutely no future – you can’t do anything else with a phone in your hand – but we still have to create these imperfect items because they’re an opening for what will come next. So I love imperfect and brave design because the ideas move me. They are on the right path. For me the story is about evolution, not revolution.”
How this applies to Cassina’s back catalogue can be seen in the smart updating of those pieces of furniture that resonate. In a folder Urquiola has a clutch of unusual, rarely seen Cassina designs she knows she can rework with more modern materials – aluminium instead of chromed steel, for example – and also with new materials, such as a techno Ceppo Lombardo stone she’s just discovered. At least one is a Magistretti design. She fondly remembers him cycling over to De Padova, where Urquiola was assistant designer, for a coffee and catch-up. Here he would chat about his early projects for Cassina, such as the famous bicycle-chain mechanism he became aware of when his children were out cycling one day, which became the basis for the moving parts of his iconic Maralunga sofa.
Of Urquiola’s first two new designs (price on request), one is a cocooning armchair with this kinetically charged Cassina motif at its core. The high-backed chair is designed to literally wrap around the body and is also a play on Comme des Garçons’ idea of creating androgynous items of clothing that look completely different from back to front. The other – a sofa positioned on top of a metal beam – is made with newly developed fabrics and has movement too, so that the arms and back support the body in different positions. At the time of our meeting, Urquiola and the R&D technicians were still trying to figure out how the mechanism would work in practice. All this just weeks before the prototypes’ appearance at the Milan Salone.
There is undoubtedly much pressure on the Cassina team to present a great show. Especially since Urquiola has not been solely responsible for art directing either the updated icons collection, or Cassina’s new releases this year, which include upholstery work from Philippe Starck. But Urquiola is happy in the knowledge that it will take a while longer for her to put her full stamp on the collection. She has for now revamped the New York store – introducing architectural elements such as textured screens and windows to create more intimate spaces. The same will happen in Milan and London. The new Cassina catalogue is less architectural and more colourful – amplifying those architectural designs that are instantly more lovable in her upbeat hues. At the Salone – in a similar vein to the stand seen at the Cologne furniture fair – a combination of real greenery, textures, colour contradictions and a framework of cement-coated-polythene building blocks, inspired by Rietveld’s 1955 sculpture pavilion, dominate.
Although the Cassina role has meant Urquiola has had to relinquish future work for B&B Italia, her continuing diversity of studio commissions means there are several new pieces from the designer this year beyond her role of “enlarging the dialogue of Cassina”. A new collaboration with Georg Jensen includes a covetable stainless-steel pitcher (available from August, £175), while at Kettal, the Spanish outdoor specialist, she has added a cushioned-back chair called Roll (£1,488) to her collection. For Moroso too there is a brand-new sofa (price on request), launching at the Salone.
Patrizia Moroso is in no doubt that Urquiola will do a good job at Cassina, where her innate understanding of marketing and communication will bolster her successes. But she intimates that they need her more than she needs them. Urquiola herself is more than excited about all that Cassina has to offer. She laughs with delight at the possibilities of the purple fabric in her arms, even though Armento may look a little doubtful when she presents it to the R&D team. As we walk around the facility, Urquiola’s femininity and warmth are her most striking qualities. But, she admits, she can be very fierce when she needs to. She knows there is only so much treading softly. There is little doubt she will get her way. It’s just a question of where that iridescent upholstery will end up.