A champion skier, stunt pilot, racing driver and photographer, Carlo Mollino (1905-73) was also an architect and a designer of interiors as timeless as they were unorthodox.
For all his prodigious talent, however, little survives of his actual output beyond a handful of buildings, interiors and exceptional items of furniture crafted for individuals with whom he was close — like a couturier creating a bespoke outfit for a friend.
According to Michael Jefferson, international senior specialist in Christie’s Design department, the table and chairs that Mollino created for Ada and Cesare Minola are part of ‘the most thorough residential commission of Mollino’s career’.
Offered in Thinking Italian Art and Design at Christie’s in London on 22 October, the furniture that Mollino created for the scheme, of which the dining suite was the centrepiece, is also among the most important the designer ever created.
‘The dining suite has remained under the stewardship of the family until now,’ says Jefferson. ‘The aesthetic, structural and symbolic beauty of the design is unmatched — its appearance at auction is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.’
Ada and Cesare Minola
In 1944, despite the constraints of wartime, Mollino commenced work on two large apartments, Casa M-1 and Casa M-2, on the top floors of a 1920s residential building in Turin’s via Perrone.
Casa M-1 belonged to Cesare Minola (1906-80) and his wife Ada (1912-93). Casa M-2, below, was the abode of Cesare’s younger brother.
The relationship between the architect and his client was born of friendship: Mollino and Cesare had attended the same high school, while Ada, who had grown up in Turin’s artistic milieu, had been introduced to him by the artist Italo Cremona (1905-1979). The latter friendship was recorded in Mollino’s photographic portraits of Ada in 1940-41, and it was around this time that she first asked Mollino to imagine the apartment.
The project was typical of those pursued and developed by Mollino, says Jefferson, ‘in that it grew from the willingness of an inspired and able client who gave space and resources to realise his creative vision’.
Ada’s creative association with Mollino would continue after the apartment was finished: an innovative jewellery designer, she was also a gallerist, representing and supporting Lucio Fontana, Giò Pomodoro, Antoni Tàpies and artists from the Japanese avant-garde Gutai group, among others.
‘The Minolas were no ordinary patrons, but creative partners who requested a stage for the expression of a life dedicated to art’ — specialist Michael Jefferson
Casa M-1 was Mollino’s first major project for a private client. Pivotal to the development of the architect’s aesthetic vocabulary, it displayed forms and concepts that would be reimagined in later projects.
‘The confluence of inspired individuals was hugely significant — both in terms of the arc of Mollino’s career and the development of a synthesised architectural interior,’ says Jefferson.
The scheme was characterised by soft, sensual, organic forms within an elaborate, personalised mythology. Gutai group paintings flanked windows and mirrored alcoves of the salon, which also featured a pierced Fontana ‘Fine di Dio’ painting.
‘The Minolas were no ordinary patrons, but creative partners who requested a stage for the expression of a life dedicated to art,’ says Jefferson. ‘Casa M-1 was a gallery and a Wunderkammer reflecting their intellectual and artistic endeavours.’
Mollino: Furniture as sculpture
Elevated slightly above the salon, the dining area was anchored by the dining suite being offered in London. As with the rest of the dreamlike space, it is ‘a study of tension and contrasting materials’, says Jefferson.
Sleek legs of carved, black-lacquered wood rise in pairs to meet at a suggestively anthropomorphic brass intersection, before stretching out over the laps of the sitters. The sides of the table are bound by maple, supporting three panes of tempered glass.
Intriguingly, the tabletop acts as a prism through which to view its structure as well as an additional glass shelf, which functioned as a vitrine for the display of Ada’s jewellery and other objects.
Jefferson likens the effect to that of ‘a tidal pool glimmering with artistic crustaceans… The glass has become a medium of tension and compression, reflection and transparency in concert with the wood and brass.’
The set of six dining chairs, meanwhile, offer a contrast in both materials and form: the seats are contoured and covered in original sea- or forest-green leather, while the carved and ebonised legs, in their tripod form, are both functional and sensuous. The result, says Jefferson, is a visual ‘instability that adds to the overall physical tension of the room’.
In the adjoining salon an occasional table carried an irregular glass top as a beetle carries its shell, a radiogram cabinet galloped on freeze-frame legs, and articulated wall lights reached upwards like the tendrils of a forest canopy beside armchairs with exaggerated silhouettes.
Christie’s has sold some of Mollino’s greatest works, including a ‘Tipo B’ side chair made for Gio Ponti’s daughter Lisa in 1950, which achieved £518,000 in 2018; and an oak and glass table for Casa Orengo (1949), which sold for $3,824,000 in 2005 — a record for a single piece of 20th-century Italian furniture at the time.
Casa M-1, which remained intact until 1983, was featured in a 1948 edition of Domus, in which the magazine’s founder, Gio Ponti, describes ‘furniture of precious manufacture, delicate and refined’. Ponti was a great admirer of Mollino, featuring nearly all his completed works in Domus while he was editor.
He acknowledged Mollino’s unique, singular approach to each project, even as his method ran counter to the mass-produced work of Ponti himself and other designers of the post-war era.
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‘Mollino the designer can be viewed in the same way as Arshile Gorky or Jasper Johns — as connectors between distinct movements,’ says Jefferson. ‘He brings the structural rigour of an Italian Rationalist architect while channelling a Baroque Surrealist fantasy. He has no peer.’