‘Carlo Mollino was a man capable of being brilliant across all sorts of media,’ says Simon Andrews, Senior Director of Design at Christie’s London. ‘Whatever he turned his mind to he conquered.’
This is no exaggeration, for not only was the Turin-born designer one of the most versatile architects of the 20th century — famous, in particular, for his alpine buildings — he was also a champion skier, an acrobatic pilot, a photographer of beautiful women, and a racing enthusiast. ‘He had such a passion for speed he even designed his own sports car so that he could take part in Le Mans,’ Andrews explains, referencing the legendary Bisiluro Damolnar, which for two years from 1955 held the 750cc category record at the 24-hour endurance race.
If this makes Mollino (1905-1973) sound like a playboy, he was anything but. He was, in fact, a fanatically idiosyncratic designer who rejected mass production, and who committed his life to creating beautiful one-off designs. A fine example of this is the ‘Tipo B’ side chair, designed for Lisa Ponti (daughter of the major-domo of Italian design, Gio Ponti), which is being offered in the Thinking Italian, Design sale on 17 October at Christie’s London.
‘I have always loved this chair,’ continues Andrews. ‘The shape and personality is utterly beguiling. The skill and quality is more akin to couture.’ The ‘Tipo B’ is one of six identical chairs Mollino made for Lisa on the occasion of her marriage to the lawyer Luigi Licitra in 1950.
‘It has these elegant stiletto legs and a mechanised spine, and it is upholstered in Resinflex — which was a very new material at the time, almost like vinyl,’ adds the specialist. ‘It has this animalistic feel about it — think of the human body and the way the muscles stretch over the bones. The upholstery behaves in a similar kind of way. It’s an anthropomorphic object.’
Perhaps most intriguing of all is the chair’s back. ‘Depending on how you look at it,’ says Andrews, ‘it resembles a tongue or horns, either of which would be an unusual metaphor, but one that is consistent in Mollino’s oeuvre.’
Born on the 6 May 1905, Mollino — a Taurus — developed an obsession for the Zodiac from an early age. ‘The key here is Turin,’ Andrews explains. ‘It forms the pivot of the black magic triangle together with London and San Francisco, and the white magic triangle with Prague and Lyon. Mollino was acutely aware of the cosmic resonance of his home city.’
‘Mollino only produced objects for clients to whom he was close — like a couturier creating a bespoke outfit for a friend’ — Simon Andrews
This diversity of his fascinations is perhaps why, in the late 1930s, while his contemporaries in Milan were busy promoting a sleek, rational modernism, Mollino rejected it in favour of Baroque — ‘lots of deep velvet curtains, mirrored surfaces and trompe l’oeil,’ says Andrews. ‘He was looking to other conjurers like Gaudí in Barcelona, who was designing architecture and furniture like nobody else.’
Was Surrealism another influence? ‘Absolutely,’ states Andrews. ‘You see this real shift from modernism to Surrealism in the late 1930s. In Surrealism, objects change their personality, they acquire different mannerisms. Mollino was certainly playing with that ambiguity.’
The market for Mollino’s furniture is currently high for the simple reason that his pieces are very rare. ‘Mollino only produced objects for clients to whom he was close,’ Andrews explains, ‘like a couturier creating a bespoke outfit for a friend.’
One of those friends was Gio Ponti, a tireless champion of Mollino’s work. ‘There was a real camaraderie there,’ the specialist acknowledges. ‘Here we have Gio Ponti, one of the giants of Italian design, and then we have Mollino, this unique and talented eccentric who is utterly divorced from the mechanisms of industry. But the two respected each other completely.’
Ultimately, what Andrews values in the ‘Tipo B’ is the symbolism. ‘Like poetry, it hints at what it might be about, but it is never specific and that is something to be cherished.’