IMPOSSIBLE is nothing - the clever, catchy slogan employed by a certain sports apparel company - applies just as well to Patricia Urquiola, the Spanish-born, Milan-based architect and designer whose feisty, animated personality and can-do spirit goes a long way toward explaining her outstanding success in a male-dominated industry.
It's easy to understand why Urquiola, 46, who comes from Oviedo in the principality of Asturias in northern Spain's Basque region, never met a design challenge she didn't like - or one that she was unable to find a solution to. She simply refuses to work within conventional boundaries in the effort to somehow find a way to design, say, a production-grade chair that satisfies her client's requirements while meeting her own design aesthetic.
'It's your responsibility to get companies to move their limits,' says Urquiola, who was in Singapore this week to help designer furniture store Space present an outdoor collection by up-market brand B & B Italia, one of the many high-profile firms she has worked with. 'You have to convince them to move the technological, cultural and emotional limits - if not, you're not doing your job.' Later, during a lecture to members of the local design fraternity at the Asian Civilisations Museum, she says, 'I know how to fight for my ideas.'
The creative process is the aspect of her work that excites her most, says Urquiola, who started her eponymous design studio eight years ago after cutting her teeth with some of the titans of Italian design, such as Vico Magistretti and Achille Castiglioni. 'For me, the 'drug' is to work with the companies. When we are given a brief, we look for the soul of the product, and then we work on how to make it real.'
She says, 'The happiest moment is at the start when the project is a sheet of white paper - I feel less afraid to have ideas now.' She adds that experience has given her a strong foundation and the confidence to trust her instincts. And, as a brand name herself, she has the freedom to pursue those ideas. Urquiola, whose entirely appropriate full name is Maria Patricia Cristina Blanca Urquiola Hidalgo, says her creative roots can be traced to her father, who was a banker, businessman, musician and family chef. 'He wanted to be an architect, but in those days you had to draw well - it's not so essential now - so I think he somehow communicated it to me and my sensitivity comes from him,' she says.
Her infectious enthusiasm and drive - some have called her character volcanic - translates into contemporary designs that are elegant, unique, unpretentious and sublimely simple, from sculptural yet functional sofas and chairs to quirky light fixtures, floral fabric patterns and colourful carpets.
She recently completed a four-year commission to design a complete set of crockery and cutlery for Rosenthal and has also designed three hotels in Barcelona and Puerto Rico. In Asia, she is nearing completion on a three-tower residential project in Shanghai.
Urquiola describes herself as a risk-taker with a global perspective - her works have a universal appeal - and says it was her mother who encouraged her and her siblings to leave provincial Northern Spain for more sophisticated surroundings. First in Madrid and later in Milan, Urquiola says she eventually found her place in the design world.
'I'm Spanish but I'm Atlantic not Mediterranean, so I'm very direct and energetic,' she says before adding, 'My Basque blood is a problem sometimes.' Despite awards and plenty of recognition from her hometown, she's still not the most famous person to come from Oviedo - that distinction belongs to Formula One star Fernando Alonso. Urquiola's product design team comprises only five people while her architecture office is much larger, but Urquiola is not seduced by thoughts of monuments to her style. In Italy, her mentors taught her to appreciate the little things in design. 'I'm much more proud of a teaspoon than a building - it's this poetry of the little domestic tool.'
Even so, she says her evolution as a designer has not made her better, just different. 'You adapt to the culture around you,' says Urquiola. 'I don't want to have a recognisable style - it's an error to think about this - because design is a discipline. The life of a chair you do is 20 years, it's not fashion - the essence of the project is more important than the style.'
Urquiola says after more than 20 years in the industry, she's still not exactly sure how she arrives at a finished design. 'All the little answers to the questions give you a sense of the product,' she says. 'It's a lot of work, the mood of the piece is what people catch - I just flow with the river and try to do things that are sincere, that anyone can understand.'