by Napoleone Ferrari

 

 

In 1936 the young Carlo Mollino promptly committed the first serious money he had just earned with his first built project, the Farmers’ Federation, to creating an experimental apartment for himself, Casa Miller. Beginning with this very first interior design and up until 1953 he realized another 10 interiors and almost 200 different models of furniture, then substantially abandoning this activity.[^]

In 1949 Mollino published in Domus[^] a witty brief history of interior design that connected the architecture of the interior with the zeitgeist of its historical period. For Mollino a home was like a shell that “is formed over time in infinite layers that are the negative and petrified image of the animal living within: it is the practical expression of a feeling.”[^]

The interior was considered by Mollino a unitary organism; in this sense he designed each of its components, the furniture, the in-built wall elements, and the plan of the space, as an interconnected whole. For this reason, most of his items of furniture are unique pieces expressly designed for a specific interior and client, even though he also experimented with single piece designs.

No Mollino design was ever industrially produced since he was never really interested in mass production,[^] whereas he cared for details in objects and high-quality construction.[^]

Looking at his interior designs we can clearly spot a developing line in his ideas, from the early Surrealist period to an Organic phase, to a final stage of simplification closer to Modernist ideas. We can roughly say that it was a passage from dreamy spaces to enchanted natural settings to half-natural half-mechanical environments.

Almost all Mollino’s interior designs have been dismantled over time; their surviving elements are today dispersed in museums and private collections and we can only make them come alive through the fortunately rich, vintage B&W documentation, although one thing is almost entirely missing: the vibrant colors, ever-present in his spaces.

carlo mollino casa sanremo drawing apartment
Carlo Mollino, drawing for Casa a Sanremo, 1948. Carlo Mollino Archives, Polytechnic of Turin

1936-1940: SURREALISM

In 1935 Carlo Mollino, together with his friend the painter Italo Cremona, designed the art installation Té numero 2 (Tea Number 2)[^] introduced by a page titled “Hints of Interior Architecture.” This enigmatic text clearly affirmed one thing: interior architecture had to do with the interiority of human beings, with their psychological architecture.

In a moment in which social issues deeply affected modern architecture, Mollino was appealing to a deeper, emotional human substratum, thus also tackling such ‘scandalous’ themes as decoration. No one had yet grasped the potential of Surrealism in architecture; Mollino pioneered the road:

“As regards my work as an interior designer, now completely abandoned, you will find some surreal-looking photographs which I by no means disown; they date from a decade before the war when people in Italy were not even certain whether or not Surrealism had to do with spiritism… this would mean nothing were it not that, subsequently, indisputable architects such as Loos and on to Le Corbusier had Surrealist experiences. It was a question of emerging from the cul-de-sac of Rationalism and my early architecture remains as evidence of this desire, felt as a need for personal expression, as in the Società Ippica [Horse Riding Club].”[^]

Mollino gave shape to spaces that induced a sensory and mental journey charged with historical references and symbolic meanings: he used fabrics, quilting, mirrors, and glass to dilate and make the space indefinite and soft; photographic blow-ups covered walls acting as conceptual-visual breakthroughs; curved walls and mobile partitions increased the unpredictability of space by introducing unusual movement and perspectives; color contributed in a refined way to give a sensual character to the interior.

Through these design elements Mollino expanded the contemporary architectural vocabulary; for example, he was among the first to make modern use of textiles, and interestingly each one of the four interiors imagined in this period represented a variant, a different possible interpretation of Surrealism. Focusing on furniture, we can identify some pieces as shiny machines with a strong evocative character; other objects explicitly recalled the antique; others had mysterious and esoteric qualities; in that moment the symbolic language of Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí were important reference models for Mollino.

  • Regio 3
    1936 Casa Miller
    Turin
  • Rivetti
    1937 Casa Ezio D'Errico
    Turin
  • Rivetti
    1939 Casa Giorgio Devalle I
    Turin
  • Rivetti
    1940 Casa Giorgio Devalle II
    Turin

1941-1949: A BIOLOGICAL CAMP

The clearly Surrealist atmosphere of Carlo Mollino’s interiors in 1941 suddenly transmuted toward the Organic, although on closer inspection maintaining a surreal nature. In a letter to a friend Mollino envisaged this turning point:

“Folders of drawings pile up. I have drafted some furnishings, the last one already developed in detail, an apartment like a forest with a biological encampment of furniture, stopped on the eve of its making with the sudden departure of the client for Japan.”[^]

In the manner of Leonardo da Vinci, Mollino considered Nature as the “master of masters,” that is, the source of inspiration for a design able to combine structural rationality with harmony and expressive beauty. His bony and vegetable-like pieces of furniture were truly three-dimensional structures that conveyed an extraordinary feeling of vitality.

The interior space accommodated these zoomorphic and biomorphic creatures, recreating a metaphorical nature immediately perceptible thanks to large photographic panels with naturalistic backgrounds of woods and streams covering entire walls.

The traditional Japanese house, symbol of harmony with nature, was a reference for Mollino, especially for its ideas of ‘moving’ the space by opening and closing mobile diaphragms (sliding doors, curtains, folding or pivoting panels) in order to constantly open up different panoramas.

  • 1944 Casa Minola 1
    1943 Concorso Garzanti
    Furniture for Garzanti competition
  • 1944 Casa Minola 1
    1944 Furniture for Casa Albonico 
    Turin
  • 1944 Casa Minola 1
    1944-46 Casa Ada and Cesare Minola, M1 
    Turin
  • 1944 Casa Minola 1
    1945-46 Casa Franca and Guglielmo Minola, M2 
    Turin
  • Rivetti
    1949 Casa Vladi Orengo
    Turin
  • Rivetti
    1949 Casa Cesare Rivetti
    Turin

1950-54: LINEAR

In 1950 Carlo Mollino moved toward a simplification of his designs, abandoning the highly carved wooden pieces and introducing the use of bent plywood, for the first time experimented on a chair in 1946.[^]

He was fascinated by the idea of creating a piece of furniture with a single sheet of plywood, thus providing it with the sinuous continuity and unity of an organic body. Some of his tables and chairs are masterpieces of a seemingly impossible achievement that opened new horizons in plywood furniture design.

He designed another group of furniture in a hybrid way, half organic half mechanical, mixing straight and curved lines, industrial and organic materials (metal elements, upholstery, plywood, tempered glass, and solid wood, either sculpted or straight cut). These pieces are closer to Modernist ideas of minimalism and purity but still attain a great evocative force, while their essential shapes and lines synthesize the structure of living creatures just like diagrams.

In this period Mollino had already and substantially lost interest in interior design[^] but he was still curious to experiment a number of new Modernist materials, such as Formica laminate, chipboard, fiberglass, and plastic fabrics; and for the Lattes offices he conceived fixed wall cabinets made of slotted angles and plywood.

  • 1950 MUSA
    1950 M.U.S.A.
    Exhibition for U.S. Museums
  • Regio 3
    1950Furniture for Casa Lisa Ponti and Luigi Licitra
    Milan
  • Rivetti
    1951Casa Editrice Lattes
    Lattes publishing house offices
    Turin
  • Regio 2
    1952-53Casa Cattaneo
    Agra
  • Rivetti 2
    1952-54Casa del Sole
    Cervinia

POST-MODERN

The death of his father in December 1953 triggered a crisis that led Carlo Mollino to significantly slow down his work as an architect for some years; in that moment he completely lost interest in furniture and interior design, only taking on a few special cases.

In 1955 he designed a dining room for Casa Provera with a strong esoteric connotation linked to the alchemic initiatory path through the purifying elements of water, fire, and air.

In 1959 the Lutrario Ballroom was designed as a cultured and ironic divertissement bordering on kitsch that recalled Art Nouveau in a postmodern way.

In the early 1960s, with the Warrior’s House of Rest (as he referenced this interior for himself), Mollino confronted the ultimate theme of life, and the ultimate project we will have to confront in life: death. The apartment set up in a 19th-century house overlooking the Po River in the center of Turin was not intended to be inhabited but imagined in the manner of the Egyptian Book of the Dead:[^] a viaticum for the difficult and dangerous journey into the afterlife.

Simultaneously Mollino designed the interiors of the Chamber of Commerce and the Regio Opera House of Turin fitting modern furniture to be found ready on the market into his highly engineered architecture.

  • 1955 Provera
    1955 Furniture for Casa Provera
    Turin
  • Regio 3
    1959-60 Sala da ballo Lutrario
    Lutrario Ballroom
    Turin
  • Rivetti
    1960-68 Casa Mollino
    Turin

ARTICLES