Marc Dubois 
in: Interbellum, September-October 2010



Carlo Mollino (1905-1973) is one of the exceptional figures brought forth by the Italian culture of the 20th century. He was not only architect, writer, designer, university professor, furniture designer and photographer, but also inventor, stunt flyer and racecar driver. Anyone who goes through the reference works about Mollino will be impressed by the multitude of activities and by the diversity of assignments and projects. It is an oeuvre that distinguishes itself through an organic language of shapes, a strong surrealistic undercurrent and, very often, an erotic connotation. He had many affinities with the development of a European surrealism, which is projected in his writings as well as in his photomontages [1]. One may understand why it is hard to classify this exceptional personality under one specific movement or current. The oeuvre of Mollino can’t be categorized under one tendency, which is one of the strengths of his activities. His major architectural construction from the Thirties, the Società Ippica Torinese, a building in Torino for an association of horsemen, has already been demolished. The masterpieces he built after 1945, casa Miller and casa Devalle, belong to the world of the intimacy, especially the interior of the residences. The part of his oeuvre that is the most known is his furniture, characterized by a pronounced expressive language of shapes. Most of these objects are unique copies or were made in limited edition. The exceptionally high prizes that people are willing to pay at auctions for his furniture creations, only confirms his singular position in the European history of design.

An educational trip to Flanders

Professor Fulvio Irace’s publication from 1989, which gives a survey of Carlo Mollino, contains an interesting element of Mollino’s biography: “1929: Frequenta un corso di storia dell”arte presso l’universita di Gand” [2]. Why did Mollino visit in 1929 the region of Flanders, and why did he especially visit Ghent? Supposedly, there were other opportunities then when his illustrious fellow-countryman Francesco Petrarca stayed in Ghent in 1333, as a stop on his journey from Paris to Köln and the Rhine valley [3].
Which could be the explanations for this destination, and to what extent did this journey influence his life and work? Which factors made him decide to choose Ghent? Why does his short biography mention this stay? And did Mollino have a personal interest in mentioning this event? Most of the survey publications of Mollino’s oeuvre start in 1931, mentioning his graduation and his future cooperation with his father.
This article brings the limited number of found documents together. The story contains fascinating aspects, but it raises more questions than it produces possible answers. It isn’t a sound story, it rather an impulse for further interpretations and for finding new information to unravel the mysteries about his trip to Belgium. This contribution also contains some personal interpretations, which can’t always be backed up with evidence. They are rather ways of reasoning that could be one of the possibilities. It is an attempt of a first reconstruction, proceeding from found photos and postcards.
Carlo Mollino is born in Torino, as the son of Eugenio Mollino (1873-1953), a successful engineer who built, among other things, the big hospital in Torino. The Mollino family was very wealthy, and was considered to be a part of the upper middle class. When Carlo was six, he attended an educational establishment of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (Frati delle Scuole Christiane), called the San Giuseppe College, which still exists nowadays. Father Goffredo, who was also Carlo’s teacher for Greek and Latin, became one of the closest friends of the Mollino family [4]. The kept photographs show us the intense bond between the family and this clergyman with noticeable cultural baggage. In 1928, Carlo completes his military service. Before he starts working in his father’s office, he decides to spend some time in Belgium [5]. He didn’t graduate as an architect until 1931 [6].
Why Belgium and Ghent? According to Irace, Mollino had always been interested in the “liberty”, the organic movement of the art nouveau, as this European movement was called around 1900 in Italy. The oeuvre of Mollino shows a lot of differences from the tight use of lines typical for the modernism; the undulating curve was also preferred to the straight line. What’s more, Mollino was as a bachelor very fascinated with the curves of the female body, which shows in his photographs.
The interest for the expressive and the with nature connected language of shapes of the art nouveau is not surprising for someone from Torino. This city organized the International Exhibition for Modern Decorative Arts in 1902, with Raimondo d’Aronco as senior architect. Belgium occupied a prominent place in this event, and was very appreciated by the international media [7]. At this exhibition, one could see two ensembles made by Victor Horta, and some furniture made by Georges Hobé and Antoine Pompte. The ensemble of Léon Snyers and Adolphe Crespin was a tribute to their recently deceased master Paul Hankar (1859-1901). Therefore, one should not underestimate the relations between Torino and Belgium. The cultural bonding between Belgium and North-Italy culminated in Venice. On Fierens-Gevaert initiative, who was also in charge of the presentation in Torino, Belgium was the very first country to built its own pavilion in the Giardini in Venice for the Art Biennale [8].
Mollino’s preference for curve movements go further than the art nouveau of the female body. The dynamic movements obtained while skiing or stunt flying, which were some of Mollino’s passions, were also a source of inspiration. His great admiration for the speed of cars and planes goes hand in hand with its glorification by the Italian futuristic movement, already before 1914. His interest in speed and new technological possibilities was immediately related to a type of design with its foundation in the aerodynamics. His great fascination for car design culminates in the Fifties. In the year 1955, Mollino entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a personally designed race car.
Mollino’s biography tells us that he came to Ghent to follow a specific course: “un corso di storia dell’arte presso I’universita di Gand”. From 1927 onwards, Henry van de Velde became a professor at the “Hooger Instituut voor Kunstgeschiedenis en Oudheidkunde” (HIKO), the Institute for Art History and Archaeology, and it is most likely that the Mollino family knew of this educational appointment in Ghent.
His father, on the other hand, probably knew as an engineer that Ghent and Belgium were famous abroad for their engineer studies. The Ghent University counted a large number of foreign students during the interbellum period. This boom of students took place before the crash of the stock market in 1929; afterwards this number decreased significantly. During the academic year 1928-1929 there was a total of no less than 625 registered foreign students amongst the amount of 1650 students. 1030 of these 1650 students were attending the Technical Schools and the different engineering courses. For this academic year, 157 students followed the medicine courses, and only 18 students attended the courses at the HIKO [9]. A large percentage of these foreign students came from Eastern Europe, and according to their first and surname, a lot of them had direct connections with the Jewish community. The university lists contain little French or Italian students, in comparison with, for example, Portuguese students. Why were there so many foreign students in Ghent? The main explanation probably lies in the great international appreciation for the engineering educations, instructed in French. Perhaps certain movements, wanting to stop the university from becoming Dutch-speaking, stimulated the registrations of foreign students at their university. Nevertheless, on the registration lists of the “Rijksuniversiteit Gent”, the state university of Ghent (which is nowadays the Ghent University), the name of Carlo Mollino doesn’t figure.
Beside the fame of the Technical Schools in Ghent, the tutorship of Henry van de Velde and French as language during the courses, a forth element could be distinguished as one of the reasons for Mollino to visit Ghent. Given the long historical relation between Torino and France, the impact of the French culture and literature was important. Was Father Goffredo the key figure for this choice for Ghent? His contacts with the Fathers of the Christian Schools could have made it possible for Mollino to stay with the Fathers in Ghent. A proof of this stay, however, is nowhere to be found in the archives of Sint-Lucas, preserved in the KADOC. The archives do mention nevertheless that a sort of boarding school for students was established in a certain number of small houses in a street called Ingelandgat, starting from 1929.
The relations between the Fathers of Sint-Lucas Ghent and the Ghent University were certainly good. Father Urbain (Louis Van Mechelen; 1903-1984) graduated in 1927 as engineer-architect at the state university of Ghent. Between 1927 and 1948, he was the tutor of some ateliers in the two highest classes and he also taught different technical courses. He was the principal of Sint-Lucas between 1948 and 1974. Father Firmin (Firmin De Smidt; 1904-1983) studied archaeology and art history at the Ghent University, and he also became professor at this university. Father Alfred (Maurice Melens; 1883-1958), started in 1926 a renewing artistic theory of education, where the methods of drawing occupied centre stage: observational drawing and naturalistic sketching were according to him the basis for every art education, both for the visual arts and for the architecture.
Anyone who goes through the oeuvre of Mollino is surprised by his amazing talent for drawing. With a firm hand, he is able to commit his ideas to the paper. The archives contain thousands of documents, both rudimental impressions as very detailed realization drawings.
Mollino made in the autumn of 1930, just after his stay in Ghent, a series of analytical sketches of the rural architecture of the Aosta valley, in the north of Torino [10]. Anyone who looks at this series, can notice the direct similarity with the way of drawing that Father Alfred represented during the education in Sint-Lucas. Both the way of drawing as the composition seems very similar. The intense sketch education that was taught at Sint-Lucas had perhaps a important influence on the young Mollino during his stay in Belgium.
The diverse building fragments or objects are gathered in the oeuvre of Mollino on an almost surreal way. The collecting and assembling of objects without a concrete context is also present in the interior garden and object museum which the Fathers of Sint-Lucas had constructed. In the event of a stay with the Fathers in Ghent, this wonderful junction of objects will almost certainly have impressed Mollino.

A journey through Belgium

A travel report or other written documents concerning his stay haven't been found up till now. The Mollino-archives in Torino contain some postcards and photographs [11]. It is certainly interesting to mention that the postcards representing buildings in Nijvel, Malines, Ghent and Bruges have a blank rear. They were not sent, just bought as a souvenir during the stay. With the exceptions of a few photographs, there is no information on the rear. For Ghent, the archives show some building of the Korenlei, the towers of Ghent and an image of the Castle of the Counts. There are no people represented on these shots. Most of the pictures were taken in Antwerp, as we can see on photographs of the cathedral and on images of the Scheldt near the Noorderterras where the passenger ships were tied up. The pictures of Bruges were taken at the Dijver, the Gruuthusemuseum, the inner courtyard of the halls of Bruges and in the neighbourhood of the beguinage.
What would the trip of 1929 have been like? The route was most probably a train journey from Torino to Paris. Which is also striking is that the archives show some shots of Paris, with among other things an image of the spectacular Garage Marbeuf, which was inaugurated in the same year. There are also two pictures of a construction site. The rear only mentions “Walter”: it represents a big housing project which Jean Walter (1883-1957) built in Paris. Jean Walter was in the Tourist the architect specialized in the building of hospitals with projects in Clichy, Paris and Lille. Maybe we could see here a connection with Eugenio Mollino, who had just made fame with the new hospital in Torino. Mollino probably visited the work of Walter on the advice of his father.
Who are all these ladies and the two gentlemen on these pictures? Seeing their age and their modern clothing, they are probably not co-students of Mollino. Two pictures disserve our special attention because they are not mere holiday pictures, showing souvenirs of visited locations and buildings. The first picture is a staged whole in which the three persons in the front are kneeled and the two ladies in the back raise their hands. We can only see the shade of a sixth person. Another remarkable fact is that the man on the right of the picture is wearing a long robe, very unusual for a city visit. Should we search the meaning of this picture in the world of theater of dance? Around the Twenties, the Italian writer Luigi Pirandello, started to know some success with plays like Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author). In 1922, Pirandello breaks internationally through, and he travels the world with his own theatrical company, which is financed by the fascist party of Benito Mussolini. Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author had its premiere in Berlin, directed by Max Reinhardt. The presentation in 1924 provokes a big impact along the many intellectuals. There even exists a picture taken in Weimar in that same year, entitled “6 persons have a car”, with, among others Marcel Breuer [12]
Perhaps it is an Italian theatrical company, who was traveling in Europe and Belgium in 1929, to represent the play of Pirandello? There is a second picture that also disserves our attention: a shot in the ruins of the abbey of Villers-la-Ville. Why is the young Mollino, together with another young man, standing in the background? Who are these nine women (a higher number than on the other picture) and why did Mollino visited these ruins together with this group? Or are they nevertheless students making a study trip to Villers-la-Ville?
As we already mentioned, all these observations raise more questions than they produce possible answers. It is a certainty that the young Mollino visited Belgium, but the questions on the duration and the purpose of his stay remain without answer. How long did he follow the course of Van de Velde? Maybe he only stayed with the Fathers in Sint-Lucas, following some classes at the university on a free basis. And perhaps, who knows, is this stay the first link in a very complex life story, filled with mysteries of this great personality of the Italian architecture and design.

Marc Dubois

Head teacher - Department of Architecture Sint-Lucas Ghent & Brussels
February 2010

Thanks to: Francesco Dal Co, Fulvio & Napoleone Ferrari, Fulvio Irace, Sergio Pace, KADOC, Dirk Van de Perre, Willy Le Loup, prof. Luc Frangois, Sylvia Van Peteghem


Chronological bibliography:

BRINO, G.: Carlo Mollino : Architecture as Autobiography: architecture furniture interior design 1928-1973. New York, Rizzoli, 1987.

IRACE, F.: Carlo Mollino. Milan, Electa, 1989.

BRINO, G.: Carlo Mollino : Architecture as Autobiography. London, Thames & Hudson, 2006.

PACE, S. (a cura di): Carlo Molino Architetto 1905-1973. Construire le modernita. Milan, 2006.

FERRARI, F.& FERRARI, N.: Carlo Mollino. Arabeschi. Milan, Electa , 2006

FERRARI, F. & FERRARI, N.: The furniture of Carlo Mollino. London, Phaidon, 2006.

FERRARI, N.,: Mollino: Casa del Sole. Torino, Museo Casa Mollino, 2007

COMBA, M. & OLMO,C.: Carlo Mollino / Architettura di parole - Scritti 1933-1965. Torino, 2007.

TERNAVASIO, M.: Carlo Mollino - La biografia. Torino, Lindau, 2008.