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Carlo Mollino – b. Turin, 1905
Sensualist, maverick, designer, architect, inventor and writer, Carlo Mollino worked in a milieu almost entirely of his own making. Creating over the course of his career a highly idiosyncratic range of works, including furniture, interiors, buildings and photographs, Mollino cheerfully subverted the laws of neo-plasticism and rationalism with a brand of surrealism grounded in extraordinary craftsmanship.
Having graduated in architecture (with a background in history and engineering) from Turin Polytechnic in 1931, Mollino first came to prominence in 1933, when his design for the Agricultural Federation in Cuneo won first prize, and went on to seal his reputation as an architect in as early as 1937, with his groundbreaking design for the Turin Equestrian Headquarters.
In a thinking that ran counter to the industrialised productions of Milan, Mollino regarded his work as art, and frequently produced one-offs, or if not one-offs, then very limited editions. ‘Whoever contemplates it (a work of art) receives a shock that is unmistakable and, above all, unexplainable – a shock that he or she will try in vain to explain in rational terms. There are no reasons. If there were, we would have a way to build a convenient machine for making art through logic and grammar.’ Surrealism, indeed – or as George Nelson once daubed it, Turinise Baroque.
Of special interest are Mollino’s Casa Miller (1937) and Casa Minola (1944), two extraordinary interiors for which he designed and produced a number of individual pieces, including a glass and metal wall table and the Milo Mirror, both for the Casa Miller. Each work, though possibly not as well known as some of the pieces designed in the 1940s / 50s, carry motifs typical of Mollino’s work. The mirror, a simple outline of a woman’s torso, is a playfully baroque homage to classical sculpture, while the table’s single leg curves sensually away from the supporting wall, a shape replicated time and again in Mollino’s chairs, tables and buildings.
The interior as creative space would continue to preoccupy Mollino throughout his life. Championed by Gio Ponti, whose return as editor of Domus saw Mollino’s work gain wide recognition, he designed the interior and seating for the RAI Auditorium in 1951, in Turin. Considered to be among the best of his works, the auditorium’s seats are especially excellent. Brass and velvet, their curved armrests, kinked backrests and deep seats are once again design elements typical of Mollino’s sumptuous style. He would go on to design the interiors of various self-builds, including the 1952 Casa Del Sole in Cervinia, the 1953 Casa Catlaneo in Agra and for one of his own homes in Turin. The last of these, his ‘warrior’s place of rest’, he is reputed to have never spent a single night in, and served as personal monument to his life and interests. It is now, like Casas Miller and Minola, a museum.
Carlo Mollino designed single pieces specifically for his interiors, occasionally for friends (the superb split back 1940 Gaudi chair for the Pontis is a fine example), or as limited editions for Apelli & Varesio, where the majority of his design prototypes were made. Highly collectable, some of these pieces employed a plywood mould technique developed and patented by Mollino in the 1950s. In 2005, Christies New York auctioned off a Mollino glass and oak table (1949, for Casa Orengo) for $3.8 million.
In addition to his architecture, interior and furniture projects, Carlo Mollino was enormously interested in engineering, designed two cars (the 1954 OSCA 1100, and the 1955 the Bisiluro Damolnar or Nardi), and in photography, particularly with the advent of the Polaroid, with which he built up a private collection of erotica. While he wrote a number of books, including a fascinating study of skiing (Introduction to Downhill Skiing, 1950), Mollino’s most pertinent work is his monumental Architecture, Art and Technology, first published 1948.
Still hard at work, Carlo Mollino died in 1973. Remembered for his fiercely individualistic designs, and for a life lived in the fast lane, he has become one of the most significant and influential designers in 20th century Italian design – so much so, in fact, that in 1994 Edizioni Galleria Colombari brought out a line, Homage to Carlo Mollino, which aimed to replicate as perfectly as possible some of Mollino’s most important pieces.