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As I sit in the lobby of the breathtaking Art Deco Raleigh Hotel in South Beach, Florida reviewing my notes before my interview with Paola Navone I catch myself nervously peaking at the door. Three months ago, when I first spoke to her assistant Ornalle I thought I would send some questions via email and just write my story. I did get an email that she was visiting Miami Beach for the new jobsite, Traymore Hotel and Ornalle could set up an interview for me. Now, here I am about to meet her for drinks. As an interiors & product designer myself and being the designers representative for two of the most exquisite Italian furniture brands that she designs for, Baxter and Gervasoni this is so surreal.
She greets me as if we have been friends for many years and we walk back to the Royal Restaurant. She gives me her signature red fish business card, as I pass her mine I asked her about the fish and the 45 minute interview turned into a 2 hour conversation about our lives, travels, design and the future generations.
I have seen your icon in many things; Can you tell me why you chose a fish?
“I was born in March, so I am a Pisces. I lived in Asia for many years where it is a symbol of good luck. I like to spend time by the water…the waves and sounds are hypnotic. So, you see, I am a fish.”
What sign are you?
I was born in November, I am Sagittarius, so technically I am half man and half horse. (chuckles)
How did you first get into design, were your parents in this field?
(chuckle) No, no my parents were adamant that I did not study architecture. I got into design by accident, you see I was always very stubborn and curious, so when I began the University, I had a friend that was in Architecture and I started studying with him, but my father was furious and thought this was a man’s field.
How were you able to finish and begin your career?
As I said, I am very stubborn and defied my father. While in school my friend and I were active in the Alchimia movement and as soon as we finished, we left and continued research throughout 1970 and 1980’s. Part of this research was my thesis in the University. Later on I was asked by a magazine to do more research on the movement for one year which turned into three.
I read that this work gained you the prestigious Osaka International Design Award in 1983. That is amazing? Do you think a lot of your inspiration comes from that work, from your travels or both?
Yes, throughout my life I have traveled extensively, I lived and traveled back and forth from Hong Kong to Italy for over 20 years. I now live between Milan, Paris and the Greek Islands. Everywhere I go there is inspiration. I love to design “by mistake” rather than say I have to design a sofa so it can sell. Some of the things I have designed in my life never sell; it is just for design purpose.
My husband and I have an apartment in Cali, Colombia which we love to go to.
Oh, I would love to go to Colombia! I have never been to South America but I think there is much to explore there for materials, inspirations and design.
Well now you are talking my language. I am Cuban American and am married to a Colombian man and I think that Latin flare influences my designs and style.
I know first-hand by being around the furniture you design for Baxter, Gervasoni and Casa Milano that you have a free spirited, eclectic and fun style of design. What would you call your particular design and style?
I do not have a particular style that I stick to; I see something that inspires me and begin the thought process. Sometimes it could be years later when I use it in one of my designs. I think many of my designs come about “by mistake” rather than create something for mass production.
What has been your greatest success in your career to date and where would you like to design something in the future?
I think one of my favorite things I did was my time in Hong Kong, also the lines I design for Gervasoni and now I am doing hotel projects here in Miami and in Phuket, Thailand which is very exciting. I definitely want to design something in Colombia. When I go to Colombia you have to show me around. I want to go to the beaches and you should show me Miami also because I always come for one or two days and only work.
There are many breathtaking beaches in Colombia like Santa Marta and Cartagena. I will definitely show you Colombia with my husband whenever you want to go. As for Miami, I am a native and there is so much to do that you will need a weeks’ vacation, dancing shoes, a bathing suit and a good camera for all our sightseeing.
You have designed both independently and for select clients like: Baxter, Armani Casa, Knoll International, Crate and Barrel, Alessi, Mondo, Casamilano, Antonangeli, Dada, Molteni, Natuzzi, Roche Bobois, Swarovski and of course Gervasoni, and so many more.
What are the benefits and/or disadvantages of designing for a brand rather than your own private label?I have never really looked to design for these brands; it just has come by accident. When I first designed for Baxter, for example, it was awful. Years later, with their new direction we had a synergy and I have been able to freely play with some new things like putting the stitching outside of the upholstery on the Damasco.
I have been designing many years with Gervasoni and last year came out with a new collection called Letti & Co for sleeping.
I do not look at it as designing for a brand or my own private label. What I design is my label no matter who it is for and I never design to sell, I design for design purpose. I do not believe a designer can focus on design if they are focused on whether it is going to sell or not.
You are an architect, furniture & jewelry designer, interior decorator, industrial planner, event creator and in your words, “a little bit of an anthropologist”, you have designed everything from buildings to teacups all over the world. What advise do you give to young architects and designers?
Design is so different now than it was in the 80’s, everyone is copying everything with no regard for true design. I would say if you had to study design then “be very good at one very small thing or go large but never ever be in the middle, being in the middle is average and very crowded.”
As she was finishing this thought, we were approached by a driver that came to pick her up to have dinner with the COMO property owners. We walked through the lobby talking about her next visit to Miami and a pending trip to Colombia. As I got in my car I felt that I not only got an interview but a life lesson from an icon in the design world. I drove off thinking accident or fate?
I am a firm believer on living your life by design and I also think everything happens for a reason within that design. The question whether things happen by accident or fate; as part of a grand plan underlies many of the battles fought in the culture war. The debate between the chance and grand plan factions is best embodies by two men: Rev. William Paley and his “Argument from Design” theory and Charles Darwin and his “On the Origin of Species” theory.
You may spend your entire life deciding whether Rev. Paley or Darwin hold the key to life’s ultimate mystery. Life is full of gray areas. Deciding if things happen by chance or by design is perhaps the grayest area of all.
I choose to believe that this interview was fate!