Why Carlo Mollino’s ‘Message from the Dark Room’ continues to seduce.

In many ways Carlo Mollino (1905-73) is very much a product of the city from which he came, that other North-Italian urban power house, Turin. With its wide colonnaded streets, its grand piazzas, its marbled late 19th-century gallerias and its once revolutionary Art Nouveau buildings, Turin would have made a unique and compelling blueprint for any young man coming of age there in the 1930’s. The son of an engineer, Carlo Mollino was schooled in the fundamentals of architecture and, having been formally trained, joined his father’s thriving practice. What is exceptional about Mollino and why, over forty years after his death, he continues to have such singular interest to us, is that he took the essence of Art Nouveau, Modernism, and Surrealism and created for himself an entirely new language which he applied with virtuosity to the fields of architecture, photography, and design. He is far more than a local architect and designer and is now secure in his place as one of Italy’s greatest 20th century artists. 

I became interested in his work about 8 years ago having first encountered it in through Fulvio Ferrari’s sumptuous red-cloth-bound book ‘Carlo Mollino: Polaroids' (which has recently been republished by Damiani/Crump, the first edition now being quite scarce) His Polaroid’s taken in the sixties and seventies showed women nude, partially nude, or overdressed, theatrically posed against a surrealist backdrop of rattan, zebra skins, red velvet and lace. In some of the photos his models sit on Mollino’s anthropomorphic chairs, their backs arched to follow his sinuous and sensuous lines or naked from the waist down, contrapposto and eyes to camera. These postcard sized images have a painterly quality and a dramatic eye for composition that elevates them far beyond their obvious eroticism. As I write, these Polaroids can be seen in both Gagosian's exhibition of them in New York and the Musse D’Orsay’s staggering Marquis de Sade show (closes January 25th) where Mollino's photographs hang next to Bellmers and Man Rays.  His inclusion as a photographer in such shows makes Mollino unique amongst Italy’s furniture designers. Here is a man that applies his dark and compelling aesthetic to different artistic practices.  His chairs, Polaroid’s, and buildings are very different and yet all undeniably Mollino. 

I have been lucky enough to visit Turin several times over the past 8 years and there you gain a unique insight particularly into Mollino’s architectural practice and his disparate influences. Alas, several of his buildings are no longer standing for in Italy, as in the case elsewhere, developers and planning authorities are negligent of their recent cultural inheritance. Mollino’s fabulous and decadent Teatro Regio (1965-73) is a masterpiece of a concert hall, a cathedral of sumptuous red velvet and has a vast crystalline chandelier spanning nearly the entire surface of the concave ceiling. It is one of my favourite buildings and brings together the traditions of Italianate opera house design of the kind seen in Milan’s La Scala but is also completely new and has about it something of a David Lynch film. Elsewhere in Turin you can see Mollino’s cantilevered chamber of commerce (1972). Here we have Mollino completing a cutting edge structure which is also an ambitious engineering feat completed in the year before he dies. It is remarkable when looking at this icon of late modernism that its creator was a major force in nearly every Italian and indeed international style of the preceding years and that whilst his work of the 30’s and this late work are separated stylistically and by nearly half a century they are in terms of sensibility clearly by the same masters hand. 

The jewel though of Mollino's Turin is the apartment looking on to the river Po that he created entirely for himself and where he photographed many of those girls against a backdrop entirely of his making. Now a museum the Casa Mollino is part bachelor pad, part stage set, part artist's studio, but more than any of those it is fantasy made real. He was able through his substantial commercial success as an architect, to indulge and make real what would, for many of us, remain a day or nocturne dream and we, as art lovers, are much the richer for its existence. This apartment carefully preserved by Mollino’s greatest champion and scholar, Fulvio Ferrari, is the artist’s greatest masterpiece because it brings together his furniture, his photography and his design for its interior. Here the baroque, modernism, and Mollionism, exist in quiet yet disturbing harmony. I would recommend anyone visit Turin, preferably in truffle season, and to make a special point of seeing the Casa Mollino which can be arranged by appointment. 

It is true to say that mollino is most famous and most revered, not for his buildings but for his furniture. Unlike the other giants of 20th century design, Jean Prouve and Gieo Ponti, for example, nearly all of Mollino’s furniture pieces were private commissions and not put in to production. The notable exception being the coffee table in sculptured wood and glass, which he made in 1950, for the American company J Singer. The scarcity of his work has made it all the more desirable because of course, and undoubtedly, Mollino was keenly aware of this, we want what we cannot have. Of the several hundred items mollino made, there isn’t a dud amongst them and even the ones which were made in some volume for nightclubs, restaurants and auditoriums are virtuoso expressions of how he saw the world. I’m thinking particularly of the polychrome chairs that he made for the Lutrario ballroom in the late 50’s. This must have been, when it opened, one of the coolest nightclubs in the world, alas it no longer stands. His masterpieces, some of which one can see in this catalogue, have a human quality to them which makes them entirely unique in the panoply of twentieth century design. Here we might have tables that bring to mind the curve of a woman’s back, a spine of wood supporting a cut glass top, chairs that use all the materials in a mid-century modernist palate but that have the organic curves that we normally associate with the Art Nouveau. Others are arachnine table tops or seats supported by spindly or elongated legs. Material however, was equally important to Mollino and the luxuriousness of these works may account for Mollino's reluctance to mass produce them. Polished bronze, bent plywood, sculpted wood and lacquered surfaces are very much truer to Italian furniture making of this period than they are to say, their French equivalents. Mollino’s furniture is utilitarian, indeed the patina of them has been improved by use over the years. If any furniture deserves the title of 'design art', it is his, for it goes far beyond its utility and engages both the body, the heart, and the head which is what, in my book, defines a masterpiece.