Different Ideals

Designing Utopian spaces is not an easy task. Dominic Lutyens looks at two women designers’ interpretations of what constitutes a good design

For the first time, two women designers – Patricia Urquiola and Hella Jongerius – have been invited to envision an Ideal House for this month’s IMM Cologne 2005. Both houses explore the notion that ideals are elusive and transient. Yet these designers’ styles are markedly different. The work of Spanish-born, Milan-based Urquiola (furniture for B&B Italia, Kartell and other big-name manufacturers, as well as showrooms for Knoll and Moroso) is elegantly pared-down, quietly witty and subtly interactive. By contrast, the more mercurial Dutch-born Jongerius makes flamboyantly experimental pieces in an unpredictable range of media – ceramics, textiles, furniture. These typically mix the hi-tech and the craftsy, the minimalist and the decorative.

But how similar or different are these designers’ working methods and philosophies? We quizzed them to find out.

How have you interpreted the notion of an Ideal House? Have you viewed it ironically, in that there can be no such a thing as an ideal house, with its naively Utopian undertones?

Patricia Urquiola: For me, it’s an ideal space that’s given me the freedom to express myself without the limits and complications of the design and architecture process. It’s been a way to play, a liberation from our everyday problems. It’s also been a pleasure to work alongside Hella, a person and designer whom I like and respect.

Hella Jongerius: At first I interpreted the project as a big challenge that invited me to present my views on design. But diving into the topic more intensely, I found that the word ‘ideal’ is in conflict with reality. The minute something becomes real, the ideality that preceded it recedes into the background. But I don’t see this as ironic. My proposal doesn’t view an ideal as naively Utopian, but as a projection into the future with many possibilities.

What will influence design most in the future – technology or the more human input of ideas and traditional manual skills?

PU: There have been great, inspiring examples of technology in the past, as well as of technology that has gone hand in hand with craftsmanship. The key element that always influences design is to use all these things in a way that makes sense now both for designers and others. For whom is something designed and how?

HJ: Technological innovation has always vastly influenced how we designed and organised our world. But there is also a realisation that innovation per se cannot solve all our problems, nor satisfy all human needs. So there will be a greater demand for a more human input into the design process. The fact that craft is gaining more influence signifies not just a nostalgia for the past and local now that globalism is conquering the world. It also has to do with our growing awareness that contemporary society cannot do without the physical, sensual aspects of our human condition. When I sit in front of the latest computer, my body still touches the chair, my hand the tabletop. Traditional skills in design make a closer connection between user and object, and between user and designer.

Will design become more socially responsible and ecological in the future? Or will it continue to satisfy the capitalist hunger for novelty without regard to these issues?

PU: The main development will be that there are going to be different categories of usage. I may buy a product for domestic use or for use in a public space, such as a library. I can get pleasure from seeing a 2D or 3D image of that product in a magazine or in a digital format. Or I can design and produce my own version.

HJ: You have a somewhat old-fashioned view of capitalists – even they can think. Campaigning by pressure groups aside, industry realises it will lose the battle if it doesn’t address these issues. Socially and ecologically responsible design will inevitably win ground because we cannot afford not to pay attention to it.

What is more important to you – form or function?

PU: It depends on the brief. If I design a hospital bed, function should prevail. If I design a product that primarily aims to give visual, tactile and imaginative pleasure, achieving this end should prevail. But if function and aesthetics can exist in harmony, why not?

HJ: I can’t separate the two. I design functional objects which have sprung from a good idea and appeal to the eye. In the process of designing, sometimes function is more important, sometimes form. But ultimately, it’s the combination of the two I value most.

Are materials ever a starting point for your work, or do you choose them as a consequence of an idea or concept?

PU: They should only be used as an interesting solution to a problem. I never use a material simply because it is new or unexplored. HJ: Materials are very important to me from the start. They are never an afterthought. Sometimes they are the concept itself. But neither are materials more important to me than ideas. I have experimented a lot with materials, but I don’t start from scratch, kneading them until some form appears. From the start I have a hunch about what idea I am working with.

What future projects are you working on?

PU: Furniture, as ever, but I have a growing interest in architecture and installations. But I prefer not to talk about future projects, as not all of them see the light of day.

HJ: At Milan this spring, I’ll be unveiling a sofa, produced by Vitra, a majolica service for Dutch company Royal Tichelaar Makkum and lamps for Swiss company Belux. I’ve also been working on a project for Ikea, which will be finished in August. This was hard because I was combining industry with craft, and mass- production with my own handwriting. Another project is blankets for New York’s Cooper-Hewitt museum, to be exhibited this spring. I’ve also entered a competition for a design for a new bottle for Evian. It’s been exciting working within the strict parameters of blow moulding while preserving my way of designing.

Can you two see yourselves collaborating on future projects? And what would your ideal collaborative project be?

PU: I’d love to. But it would have to happen naturally, so it’s impossible to prefigure what future projects we might collaborate on.

HJ: I don’t see why I would have to work with Patricia on future projects. We are both women and our work has some things in common, but there are also differences between us.

IMM Cologne is at the exhibition centre in Cologne-Deutz, Messeplatz 1 (Halls 1 to 14), 50679 Cologne, from 17-23 January 2005 (+49 221 821-0; www.imm-cologne.de)

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