In an effort to get to know the 20th-century Italian architect and designer Carlo Mollino, we’ll have to take his fast track, because it’s not simple to keep up with the manifold endeavors of this wildly flamboyant and sometimes controversial character. Mollino’s passions ran deep, wide—and fast.
Who He Was
Born in 1905, Carlo Mollino lived and worked in Turin, Italy, until his death in 1973. Building on the artistic flair he showed even as a child, he studied mechanical engineering, art history, and, later, architecture, graduating with honors in 1931. The young graduate took a job in his prominent father’s architecture and design firm, but received little acceptance there: Mollino was far more interested in the creative beauty of humanity than in the practical side of design that his father put forth. So Mollino embarked on a wide breadth of his own creative pursuits and zealous recreational activities, all of which were highly expressive in artistic interpretation and largely influenced by Futurism, Second Futurism, and Surrealism.
Mollino’s expert achievements included architecture, engineering, furniture design, interior design, and photography. But that’s not all: He was a professor of architecture, an author, an airplane and automobile designer, a stunt pilot, race-car driver, ski enthusiast, fashion and set designer, and a developer of numerous patents. He took on this impressive oeuvre with dynamism and a ravenous hunger for the provocative.
His quest is best summed in his famous quip: “Everything is permissible as long as it is fantastic.”
While Mollino’s architecture was distinctive—reflective of his expressionistic voice—he was clearly influenced by Futurism’s rejection of traditional forms and Surrealism’s embrace of unbridled, spontaneous expression. Unfortunately, most of his architecture has been demolished over time, though the highly regarded Teatro Regio in Turin, which Mollino redesigned after it had been destroyed during the World War II, is a remarkable showcase for the city of Turin. Among his other prized designs were the Equestrian Association in Turin, the modernist Casa Del Sol ski chalet in Cevinia Breuil, and a ski station at Lago Nero.
Mollino appreciated the Art Nouveau period, the surreal works of Salvador Dali, and the wild and whimsical architecture of Antoni Gaudi, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Mollino’s unique design is now regarded as historically significant for its avant-garde style and rarity.
Mollino developed a special process for bending plywood, creating furniture with unusually biomorphic and an often-feminine form—startling in impact. Unlike his Milanese contemporaries Gio Ponti, the Castiglioni brothers and Franco Albini, who had their furniture produced by large manufacturers in the Italian design capital, Mollino’s Turin-based furniture production was all hand-crafted as one-offs or in small quantities, usually custom-designed for commercial and private clients. The result is a body of work among the most rare and valuable today. Even 10 years ago, a 1949 Carlo Mollino table sold at Christie’s auction for an astounding $3.8 million.
Mollino created decoratively elegant interiors for private clients, public spaces, and his personal use. He designed Casa Miller in the early ’30s as a small private studio. Lush yet spare, he furnished it with tufted velvet walls and a chaise longue reminiscent of a Freudian analysis bed, floor-to-ceiling curtained backdrops, and sinuously formed track lighting (emulating the race track for which he had an obsession). Mollino practiced a great deal of black-and-white photography here; a taste of which Gio Ponti editorialized in his publication Domus in April of 1937.
The Museo Casa Mollino, which was his personal residential project of the 1960s, is preserved today by design scholars and authors Fulvio and Napoleone Ferrari. This 18th-century apartment depicts the epitome of sumptuous Mollino style. In his characteristically eccentric manner, Mollino designed one room specifically as a place to die—to model his dramatic death after the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs.
Mollino’s passion for photography spanned more than 30 years. After much experimentation, beginning with his black-and-white series of women shot in Casa Miller, he penned in 1949 what now is one of the most widely collected and coveted books on the history of photography, The Message from the Darkroom (Il Messaggio della Camera Oscura). Upon his death, a collection of more than 1,500 Polaroids of ‘ladies of the evening’ was found hidden in a drawer. Mollino meticulously styled these women in highly controlled settings at Casa Mollino, and he imperceptibly retouched the Polaroids for a painterly effect. It is a deep collective of images ‘representing feminine complexities and seduction’ of hundreds of women that still speaks today: As recently as this past December, the Gagosian Gallery in New York City held an exhibit of his erotic photographs in “Carlo Mollino: Poloroids.”
With his dark and irresistible features and the fearless speed with which he lived his life—plowing downhill on skis, writing a book on his theory of downhill racing techniques, creating rare furniture and interiors, or designing the automobile “Bisiluro Nardi” and racing it at LeMans—Mollino’s trailblazing force has left reverberations we still feel in the worlds of design and art. Ultimately it’s a fascinating set of achievements—all rare and tantalizing, and the design world can’t look away.