For One Designer, the Materials Are the Message

March 15, 2019, 1:16 AM UTC

Patricia Urquiola, regarded as one of the world’s most prolific and innovative designers, believes that designers have to change the way they use raw materials for the sake of the planet.

“I don’t believe we can approach any of our raw materials the way we approached them before,” Urquiola told attendees of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore last Wednesday. “This involves how we relate to our planet.”

While many designers, companies, and manufacturers are talking about recycling materials, Urquiola said that chatter does not go far enough.

“We have to move from recycling to upcycling,’’ she said. “If we use a material that has been used before to make something new, we have to add value to that new material.”

Recycling takes an item made from a material such as paper or aluminum and returns it to its original raw material. Upcycling, meanwhile, takes an item made from a particular material and makes a new item directly from it. (Think: An item of clothing made from soda can tabs.)

The Spanish-born architect and artist, who has long lived in Milan, has been working with upcycled materials for an impressive array of clients that includes car manufacturers, office furniture makers, carpet makers, and flooring firms.

Urquiola said she draws inspiration from the particular qualities of the substances she works with—including wood, marble, and synthetic ceramics— to produce distinctive designs for furniture, lighting, and more. She also designs hotels and other buildings around the world, and is busy organizing the exhibitions and shows of her award-winning work that museums and galleries seem to demand every year.

Urquiola enjoys the challenge of designing new products with companies open to her inventive approach.

“I don’t always know the path, but I will find it,’’ she said. “It starts with a conversation, and I want the dialogue to be disruptive.” The feeling from that type of dialogue—what she refers to as the “discomfort zone”—generates new ideas and inspirations. Not only in her, but sometimes in the clients she works with, too. Urquiola said she isn’t afraid to take risks, and more often than not she is able to convince her clients to take those risks with her.

“I come from a generation that did a lot of wrong things,” Urquiola said. “I know what it is to fail. The concept of failure is very strong in my mind. It adds a value to my creative process.”

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.