Annalisa Rosso & Fulvio Ferrari discuss the enigmatic design legend


Searching for Carlo Mollino

By Annalisa Rosso

During the last century, Turin-based polymath Carlo Mollino lived and worked according to a provocative overarching principle: “Everything is permissible as long as it is fantastic.” In all of his endeavors—design, architecture, photography, racing, skiing, flying—he mixed the rationalist rigor of an engineer with the curiosity of a philosopher and the urbane sophistication of a bon vivant. The chemistry of these opposing elements is captivating, and all his own. Nearly every Mollino design is a unique, bespoke object, an embodiment of the designer’s fascination with the sinuous forms of nature.

Mollino’s story remains little known—obscured by prejudice against his sometimes shocking behavior—even as collectors around the world pursue his designs with increasing passion. To learn more about this mysterious yet influential figure, I sat down with Mollino-expert Fulvio Ferrari, who, together with his son Napoleone, founded and directs the Carlo Mollino House-Museum and Foundation in Turin.

Annalisa Rosso: What do you wish everyone knew about Carlo Mollino?

Fulvio Ferrari: Mollino was an extraordinary man, immensely attracted to classical culture. He sought a philosophical answer to the eternal question “Why are we here?” And his inner research spawned such a special aesthetic. He was an artist with a capital A, with a limitless ability to express himself.

Carlo Mollino in the 1940s Courtesy of Museo Casa Mollino AR: Can you share some especially remarkable stories about Mollino’s talent and vision?

FF: His skills were far from normal. His extraordinary intelligence enabled him to have a clear and detailed vision of the work in his mind. When he was 6 years old, he drew the cross-section of an internal combustion engine. By the time he was 28, he had already written his autobiography. When it came to creating objects, he tried to get as close as possible to ideal shapes, and, as a consequence, he always continued to rework his finished designs.

He often retouched photos of his work to be closer to his vision. At the beginning of his 1950 book Introduzione al Discesismo, a particularly dramatic photo depicts a lone skier surrounded by nature. But the dark sky and the crevasse were reshaped, and even the skier himself was designed by Mollino. It is a false photograph crafted to bring the fantastic to reality.

AR: Where did his inspiration come from?

FF: Mollino studied the extraordinary beauty of creation in all its forms, and his architecture, photography, and furniture all draw from the organic laws of nature. The soft shapes of the female body in particular informed his vision.

Mollino believed we are all part of nature and also have empathy with it.  The flight of a heron and the velvet blue of a gentian are aspects of natural beauty and are part of every one of us. And for this, in my opinion, Mollino’s work is so special: it fills you with surprise and wonder, provoking the same mental process that enables us to recognize the beauty of a sunset—pure ecstasy that pierces the heart.

AR: Can you talk about the dark spots that obscure Mollino’s story?

FF: Mollino’s damnatio (damnation) is mainly related to the moralist misrepresentation of his work. The full freedom with which he was able to investigate every aspect of life was not accepted at the time, and perhaps still isn’t today. Let me explain further: How would our perception of Gio Ponti change if it emerged that in his archives he had conserved thousands of portraits of women en deshabillé (naked)? In the end, we have to remember that Mollino was more than just a designer, or architect, or photographer; he was a multifaceted, creative man of his time, and his complex profile is not easily understood.

AR: Why do you think Mollino’s work continues to find avid collectors even today?

The Museo Casa Mollino © Adam Bartos; courtesy of Museo Casa Mollino FF: It’s extremely modern work—but we're talking about a man who will always be a contemporary. In his youth, he had a classical education, which focused on the philosophical queries originating in ancient civilizations—the desire to know man and his problems—something that is always current. One example is the Lutrario Ballroom, which Mollino designed in 1959. This interior presented a crucial problem: the only way to access the dance floor was through a very long corridor. With complex decoration, Mollino transformed this corridor into a kind of wooded path leading to an idyllic glade, perfect for dancing. The ballroom has come to be seen as a timeless representation of the perpetual dreams of lovers of all ages.

AR: And what about the Mollino House-Museum that you direct? What are its origins?

FF: From 1960 to 1968—eight years—Mollino planned this house; an unusual timescale for him, as he usually worked very quickly. If you were to remove his furniture and photos, the house itself is not in line with Mollino’s character. And up until his sudden death in 1973, he lived in his old family home and never lived here. He did not leave a will or have heirs, and until 1999 the house was occupied by an engineer, who thankfully changed it very little. Mollino never spoke about the house, and it has not been easy to understand the secrecy of this project. However, thanks to a symbol and the aid of a prominent Egyptologist, we realized that this house was actually intended as an afterlife dwelling! Mollino had wanted to design this world in a sort of final thesis on life. In 1999, we took over the house, and began to refurbish it as closely as possible to its original state.

AR: What about the visitors’ reactions?

FF: The reactions are of total enchantment. They go away dreaming, fascinated by the project that the home embodies. And they become our best communication agents. In 80% of cases, visitors come from abroad, and they are generally linked in some way to the world of art, not to architecture or design. You don't receive a lesson from Carlo Mollino, but you are invited to discover his world. The Mollino projects are an emanation of what he had inside him. Not from the academies, but rather from the lessons of real life. This is why Mollino did not leave behind pupils: his work was too personal to permit acolytes.

 

The Museo Casa Mollino, located at Via Giovanni Francesco Napione 2 in Torino, is open to visitors by appointment only.

  • Text by

    • Annalisa Rosso

      Annalisa Rosso

      Annalisa is a freelance journalist, trendsetter, and independent curator often hired as an Italian correspondent on design and contemporary art. She is curious about everything, always looking for something new. Because unrest is a good engine.

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