The present lot formed part of a unique and bespoke dowry that included six side chairs of the present type, a settee and a two-element sectional seat – all created by Carlo Mollino for Lisa Ponti, the daughter of his friend and supporter, Gio Ponti, on the occasion of her marriage to Luigi Licitra, 1950. Contemporary photographs of the Licitra-Ponti Milan apartment record that the interior was subsequently enhanced by an example of the designer’s Arabesque table, and that the six side chairs were to be sited around a glass-topped dining table with ceramic shaft by the sculptor Fausto Melotti.
The chair reveals itself to be an anthropomorphic study, agile upon stiletto legs and poised as if for imminent action. A brass spine, punctuated for aeronautical lightness, anchors the upholstered elements with robust brass bolts. This is a surrealistic design that summons physical engagement, provoking the touch of the observer. The off-white, skin-like Resinflex upholstery is wrapped tightly upon sensuously muscular pads that align as if vivid organic components, surging beyond the structure that fastens them. The lunging back is neither tongue nor horns yet somehow both, transmitting upon a barely audible, allegorical frequency.
Through use of machined, bolt-together metal and upholstered components the chair alludes to the serial-production furniture that Mollino resisted throughout his career – yet remains very much a crafted and considered bespoke object, intuitively interactive with the surrounding space. The perforated brass spine of the chair, resonant of avionics, reappears some five years later as the steering wheel of Mollino’s own racing car, the Bisiluro. The treatment of the surfaces and profiles, notably the upholstery, are guided by a singular meticulousness. Throughout his lifetime Mollino preserved an active interest in fashion and couture – celebrated not only in his photography, but also by the costume, dresses, shoes and even gloves, that he designed, made or modified for his friends and models. This chair features upholstery precision-tailored to seamlessly simulate skin or satin upon taut muscle, fastened with cordwainer’s skill by an obsessional repeat of small nails, more numerous than could have been deemed reasonably necessary for the purpose. Similarly, the stiletto brass legs invest the structure with an erotic mobility, a feature to be reimagined as a persistent signal within furniture, photography and even architecture over the ensuing years.
If the chair’s structure advocates synergy between the industrial and the organic, accentuated by hand-crafted couture, then of parallel significance is the metaphysical presence of the chair, in which allegiances to Surrealism and the Esoteric may be sensed. The luscious, seductive quality of the reaching back elements summon motivations similarly revealed by elements of the interior of Casa Orengo, completed in this same period, and in which leering, horned coat-hooks carved from black-painted wood line the red-walled interior to greet the entrant, or by the tongue-like protuberance that emerges from beneath the seat of that same apartment’s sculpted desk chair.
Unquestionably, this unique design must align alongside Mollino’s innumerable masterpieces. Moreover, the chairs were delivered to the Ponti-Licitra apartment during a period of exceptional fertility for the designer – bracketed by the completion of the Orengo and Rivetti apartments 1949-50, the Brooklyn Museum exhibition and the creation of the seminal Arabesque table, both 1950, and the anticipation of the project for the Lattes publishing house that was to commence in 1951.
The six chairs that Mollino designed for this important commission were released to the market by Lisa Licitra Ponti in the 1980s, and were swiftly rewarded with sanctuary amongst pioneering collectors. One pair of chairs has remained since then in an important European collection. A third, entered an important American collection in 2005, where it remains. Another pair was acquired 1997, of which one was sold at auction in New York in 2014 and the present example completes that pair. The location of the sixth and final example is not recorded. Important examples of Carlo Mollino’s furniture are retained in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, the Musée Nationale de l’Art Moderne, Paris, the Vitra Design Museum, Weil-am-Rhein, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs de Montréal, amongst others.
The present chair is registered in the library of the Museo Casa Mollino, Turin, as number 255-1.
Christie’s wishes to thank Fulvio Ferrari and Napoleone Ferrari, Museo Casa Mollino, Turin, for their assistance with the cataloguing of this lot.