The Italian architect Carlo Mollino was a luminary who is celebrated for his transdisciplinary creativity. Fulvio Ferrari, the owner and curator of Mollino's home and museum, discusses his extensive work.
Carlo Mollino (1905–1973) was an innovative architect that embraced an all-encompassing approach to his environments, incorporating interior and furniture design along with photography. In 1960 he bought a small apartment on via Napione in Turin, which Fulvio Ferrari restored and turned into a museum called Casa Carlo Mollino in 1999.
Carlo Mollino was a modern-day visionary that defied categorization. Not only did he work as an architect and create unique, one-off furniture pieces for his elaborate projects but he was also involved in car and aeronautical design, fashion, theatre and film sets. While this kind of transversality is quite current today, in Mollino's time a cross-pollinating approach was radical enough to be frowned upon.
Significantly, his exquisite, elegant pieces in organic, sculptural forms, which were informed by ergonomic considerations and created for specific environments, strongly inspire contemporary designers. Indeed, Mollino's influence can be traced in some of the pieces by Philippe Starck and Mark Newson.
Although his notoriety is not as far-reaching as it deserves to be, there has been a surge of interest in Mollino's work in the last decade. Several museum shows, including a retrospective at the Castello di Rivoli and the Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, both in Mollino's birth town Turin, have spotlighted his wide-ranging legacy. And in December 2007, one of his furniture pieces fetched over $880,000 at a Christie's auction. It illustrates how modern design, and not just contemporary design, is rising in popularity and attracting increasingly more collectors.
Fulvio Ferrari, the owner and curator of Casa Carlo Mollino, is an expert on his work. Together with his son Napoleone, he restored Mollino's former home in Turin and turned it into a private museum. The father and son team also co-authored Phaidon's monograph on Mollino's furniture and interior design.
Here Fulvio Ferrari shares his thoughts on Mollino's rich and varied body of work.
How did you discover Mollino's work in the early 1980s?
I discovered Mollino while studying twentieth century design, and the furniture made by Italian architects. Mollino had already passed away but his clients told me such fascinating stories about him that I started to become interested not only in Mollino the architect but Mollino the man and philosopher.
You organized the first Carlo Mollino exhibition in 1985. What did you present and how was the show received?
The show was in two parts: the first featured 220 photographers from the 1930s-1940s, and the second part featured furniture, including some pieces from his private house. On this occasion, I published the first book on Mollino's photography in addition to a catalogue. The show was a big success. It had been a while since people had discussed Mollino and it generated a lot of curiosity. Two Parisian gallerists, Yves Gastou (www.galerieyvesgastou.com) and Marc André Dubin along with his partner Denis Bosselet, bought the furniture while the Swiss gallerist Bruno Bischofberger (www.brunobischofberger.com) acquired many of the photographs that constitute the main part of his collection. But I recall how the visitors from Turin didn't even dare to look at his Polaroids hanging on the walls!
You founded Museo Casa Mollino in 1999. How did you come to own this house and acquire your collection of his works, and what was your mission?
The former owner of Mollino's apartment sold this really special place to me in 1999. I immediately got my son, Napoleone, involved. The museum was intended to be a serious reference point for professionals. I got rid of anything that wasn't original, and acquired Mollino's furniture, objects and documents to entirely reconstruct the interior. It dates back from the 1960s and is the only surviving example of one of Mollino's furnished environments.
Your museum is open by appointment. What are the profiles of the visitors?
The small apartment housing the museum is essentially a place for study. It's necessary for everybody – from architects, designers and photographers to journalists, fashion editors and students – to request an appointment. Our last guest was the German designer Ingo Maurer, who cancelled a dinner appointment so he could stay in the museum longer.
How would you describe his aesthetics, which often echoed his fascination for feminine forms?
After learning about technical structures from his father, who was an engineer, Mollino developed a sophisticated, organic knowledge of materials. His works became like rational, beautiful organisms, as lovely as a woman's body.
You've identified Mollino's surrealist, sculptural and structural approaches to design. How would you describe this evolution and the defining pieces?
In the 1930s, Mollino was inspired by surrealism, instead of the rationalism that was in vogue. The Devalle House, which brought together virtual space, old styles, modern materials, photography and furniture, illustrated this brilliantly. In the 1940s, he designed anthropomorphic structures and furniture reminiscent of nimble animals that looked as if they had been made from bone. The two Minola Houses best exemplify this organic period. In the 1950s he moved towards tighter, curved forms, as seen with the furniture in his Sun House in Cervinia in the Italian Alps.
Mollino's designs are known for combining gracefulness, elegance and sensuality with structural ergonomics, and for experimenting with materials such as glass and plywood. Which iconic pieces best highlight this?
The curved metal silhouette of the console table in the hall of the Miller House is a typical example of the grace with which Mollino solved a problem. His capacity to create elegance, sensuality and mystery is represented in his famous photograph "Fiabe per i Grandi". His automobile, designed to beat the world record for speed, is a masterpiece of structural ergonomics. With his glass staircase in the company headquarters of Società Ippica Torinese, the sheets of glass support the sinuous, metallic tube-like banister in a structural way. His chairs in curved plywood, held up by consecutive folds of a unique piece of plywood, is the finest example of how to develop these pieces.
Mollino embraced a transdisciplinary approach to his working practice. How radical was this at the time?
Both before and after the Second World War professionals were very rigid and "trespassing" between disciplines was considered proof of a lack of serious professionalism. Mollino's way of working was exceptional.
In 1951, Mollino won the Vetroflex-Domus competition for the design of single-family houses in the mountains, on the lake and by the sea using prefabricated elements. How curious was he about prefab concepts?
Although prefabrication wasn't one of his main interests, he studied prefabricated construction systems for furniture and wardrobes in the 1940s and made an Alpine house in wood, which was constituted from elements that could be assembled in places with different morphologies. These drawings were published in Domus in 1948 and won him the Vetroflex-Domus prize.
Giuseppe Pagano, the Italian Rationalist architect, said: "Mollino doesn't do experiments. He does experience." Do you agree?
I completely agree. Mollino didn't proceed through trial and error but produced his projects very carefully as if he were realizing the final result of a possible experimentation.
Is there more interest in Mollino's work now than a couple of decades ago?
Mollino's work is far more recognized today than when I started taking care of in it 1985. The numerous shows in Europe and above all in the US have contributed to sales of 35,000 copies of the book that I published with Napoleone.
Is Mollino's work still not as recognized as much as it should be and perhaps undervalued?
I think there are still things to discover in Mollino's work, above all his photography, architecture and the less noted aspects such as his passion for planes and his writings. However, I think that the sale figures of his furniture have reached a very high level that would be difficult to surpass. His photography merits a different discourse, and I think there's considerable space for growth.
Who are Mollino's main collectors?
His biggest collector is still Bruno Bischofberger (www.brunobischofberger.com), who began acquiring his work right at the beginning. Toni Cordero's collection is dispersed today, but there are a couple of collectors in New York and one in Los Angeles, who prefer to remain anonymous. The two galleries that deal in his work are Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn's Salon 94 (www.salon94.com) in New York and Francesca Kaufmann (www.galleriafrancescakaufmann.com) in Milan. The Brooklyn Museum in New York, the V&A in London, the Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the Pompidou Centre in Paris all own a few pieces.
What do you think about the heightened interest in unique, sculptural pieces in sensual forms that we are observing in contemporary design?
This tendency for sensual, pop forms is in response to the demands of the contemporary market, which requests "nice" objects for its consumers. Mollino serves as a source of inspiration for many designers and photographers that have embraced the formal aspects of his work but not the complexity of a person that is impossible to imitate unless you had the same gifts.
Which designers today do you feel are most influenced by Mollino's work?
I recognize a revisiting of Mollino's forms in the work of Philippe Starck, who is a self-confessed, big fan of his work.
Is there a possibility for you to re-edit some of Mollino's pieces, or do you feel that would be betraying his legacy?
Re-editing Mollino's work is not possible because he conceived them like works of art. They are unique, one-off pieces that were destined for special clients. Re-editing them would be like re-editing pieces by Michelangelo! Mollino never designed anything for a furniture producer and so, in this sense, he was not a designer and was completely indifferent to the problems posed by industrial design. This confusion about him being a designer derives from people struggling to truly understand that a table or chair can be a work of art.
What is your definition of luxury?
Luxury is the most delicious of sins.
If luxury were:
An object: Tutankhamun's tomb and its mummy.
A person: Anyone who owns at least three Borzoi, the Russian hounds.
A moment: The last few moments before an airplane lands on the ground.
A place: Museo Casa Mollino, of course!
For more info:
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