Inside the singular imagination of visionary architect and designer Patricia Urquiola.

By MARIA PAPANTONIOU

THE RECENTLY RENOVATED Four Seasons Hotel in the fashion district of Milan is a study in laid-back luxury — a series of warm, inviting spaces furnished with plump sofas, padded chairs and sculptural yet soft lighting. Guests are invited to sit and socialise while admiring the lush foliage in the central courtyard and cloister garden — some of the many historic features of the site, which once housed a 15th-century convent.

The preponderance of organic shapes and textural materials bears the hand of Patricia Urquiola, the celebrated Spanish architect and designer charged with executing the renovation. The transformation of the lobby, restaurant, bar and garden took place over six months in 2021 (the next stage will tackle the guest rooms). The result is an artfully balanced design that’s fresh yet timeless, and pays homage to the building’s original, sophisticated beauty.

A resident of Milan for more than 30 years, Urquiola has become internationally renowned for her versatile creativity and playful fluidity with colour. Throughout her illustrious, multifaceted career, she has collaborated with many well-known interior design and architecture firms. She spent 15 years at the Lissoni Associati design group where she became head of design, working across Alessi, Boffi, B&B Italia, Kartell and Cassina. She began her own design studio in 2001, then in 2015 concurrently became creative director of Cassina.

Over caffè in the bustling courtyard of the Four Seasons Milan, the esteemed designer took time out from her busy schedule during Salone del Mobile (the Milan Furniture Fair) to talk about her creative process, career and vision for the future.

Patricia Urquiola loves colour and comfort. 

How did the project with the Four Seasons Hotel in Milan come about?

I’ve had a relationship with Four Seasons Milano for many years, because I did the spa in 2011. I would always say, “You’ve got that incredible courtyard!”

They were worried guests would find the noise from the courtyard a problem — they thought the hotel should be a place of calm. But I said, “No! I dream of this as a garden, filled with people and action.” I am very happy that last summer we opened, and we made a garden. When I visit, I always check how the plants are growing and see the papillon [butterflies] that come.

“The city has so many layers. It’s very important to understand the complexity of our lives, to see it from many points of view and never look at it as a problem, but as something that can evolve with us.”

Q. What was your vision for the project?

I’d been to the Four Seasons many times as a client, so I knew it well. The idea was to change the lobby, and create a bar that was much more present, in the middle of the room. That way, we created a kind of energy or harmony that’s important, especially in the evenings. We kept the column elements and the arches that connected the first lobby to the restaurant, which faces the courtyard. We looked at the frescoes and walls, which are part of the incredible heritage of this place. We kept the energy, colour and palette. We let our imagination flow for the restaurant and its outdoor space, playing with lights. They asked, “Do you want to play?” and I said, “Yes, with light.”

The Four Seasons is so sophisticated, but at the same time, I wanted to give it a new feeling of action. I am very proud that the energy goes through the whole hotel.

Q. Did you start with a certain feature?

The beginning and end of the hotel, to me, is the courtyard. That was my first intention: to make it alive — in the botanic way and also the human way. When they asked me to do the project, I said, “I’ll do it if I can do the garden!”

Q. You’ve previously said that the role of the designer is to “design behaviours as well as products”. Could you explain this?

I trained as an architect and a designer at the Politecnico di Milano, a place with incredible teachers, designers and architects. People with double professions — something that, for me, has been very important.

Achille Castiglioni was always saying, “We are not just creating tools or products, we are creating new behaviours.” A chair is not just a chair; it is always possible to make people look from another point of view. If you change the point of view, you change the behaviour.

Any typology is a chance to change the rules. It can be the formal rules, the way we approach and experiment. Sometimes you do a kind of disruption that is playful.

“I am an architect. For me, design is part of a larger vision: it’s a tool for living.”

Q. Studio Urquiola has a strategy to push the limits of research and technology. Can you tell us more?

I am a person who loves her profession. If you are a designer, you need to love your relation with industry, craft and many processes related to little productions and large productions. You have to be really open to the system, and you must be adaptive. Sometimes you can disrupt and research, but other times you must do it through the product that a system needs.

I always say you have the space to move limits. We push ourselves to question what we could do to move these architecture projects, or change the point of view of a certain piece of design. And especially today, we know there is a very enlarged need for sustainability and technology. There is a lot of work looking back to our origins and our roots.

People ask, “Why do you do a new chair?” It’s because through a product, you can do a lot of research. Art teaches.

Sestiere vases for Cassina.

Q. How do you use art in your daily life?

I close my eyes. I remember my aunt, who was a painter. She would be painting the sea, and she’d give me a little tile and say, “Close your eyes.” I’d try to paint what I saw. I’d get the colour, the light. It’s not that important to represent it realistically.

With the Four Seasons Milan, I closed my eyes. Garden. Courtyard. Energy. Plants. People. Life. All the things came after that.

Q. Do you feel a lot of responsibility when working with heritage buildings?

I am now working on two hotels and a private build for Palazzo della Famiglia Borghese in Rome. I go inside and say, “What an honour to be working here.” We also worked in Venice on another building with an incredible story. It’s part of our heritage and it’s a fantastic thing. You have to close your eyes, as my aunt would say, to not get too much of the heaviness. “One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather” — a fantastic phrase from the poet Paul Valéry.

Q. Studio Urquiola celebrated 20 years in 2021. What’s your vision for the studio?

I run my studio with my husband, and we live with our younger daughter, who is 16.

I like frames and structure, but sometimes I need freedom. Sometimes I think of moving the studio, or working in a new way. I’m always thinking in a very flexible way. I don’t have this character of someone who only thinks of growth. To me, growing is something that runs after you. I want to grow as a person and do what is good.

I am so proud of the people who cross my life. We are a team, and a team has to do things in a serious way. Europeans are in a very serious moment, and so we do things with a big smile and make people happy, but we have to rethink a lot of things about our lives and be open to being adaptive.

Q. Your brand is very connected to luxury. What does luxury mean to you?

I have the luck to work with very different kinds of companies, big and small. They have all been defending the way they produce and create. In Florence, we recently launched a product that is, I hope, conceptually good, and also done with an incredible, new circular process. It’s just the beginning.

We’re not necessarily connected to luxury. In Milano, people say that design, for us, is connected to quality.

Urquiola designed the Sengu Bold sofa.

We sat down with the visionary architect and designer Patricia Urquiola in the bustling courtyard of the Four Seasons Hotel Milan during Milan Design Week.

See our film below.