A glass topped table designed by the eccentric Italian architect, Carlo Mollino, sold recently at Christies, New York for a cool £2 million – setting a new world record.
Today you’ll find other “Mollinos” in the museums of London, Paris and New York, but it wasn’t always so. Born in Turin in 1905, Mollino was seen as an outsider. His idiosyncratic designs were attacked by conservatives and his masterpiece, the Ippica Building (1937) was bulldozed by bureaucrats soon after it was built.
So why is Mollino becoming a legend in our lifetime when it eluded him in his own?
A man ahead of his time, he was a post modern prophet, inspired as much by Playboy as he was by the Classics. He created the Mollino brand and applied it to a dozen different industries. If you want to understand the way we live now, get to know Mollino.
“He was a performer, this all skiing all flying character. His body was covered in scars from all the crashes he’d had.” Says Turner Prize winner, Simon Starling, who’s created two artworks in homage to Mollino.
Architect, designer and champion skier, pilot, racing car driver and lady lover; Mollino lived his life to the modern “max”. He even sketched designs with both hands to save time.
Mollino was a futuristic rebel with a seriously saucy streak. After his death, two thousand erotic Polaroids were found in his apartment.
Born the sole heir to a wealthy Turinese family, he had a strained relationship with his possessive and inflexible father. He came of age in the 1930s, when Fascism and Communism had a mutual stranglehold over Europe. Add to this the traditionalism of Catholic Italian society and Mollino should be applauded for his dogmatic, yet far-sighted devotion to non-conformity.
He established himself as a flamboyant individualist in his early practice as an architect - something that appeals to Starling: “He was never someone interested in mass manufacture, furniture was his legacy, something for the afterlife, not for mere mortals.”
Eschewing the production line boxes of the prevailing Modernist style, Mollino preferred the curvaceous, sensual lines of Art Nouveau and Gaudi. Eroticism and the female body were his great inspirations. He photographed women throughout his life and aimed to animate the solid geometry of buildings with their living, pulsing energy.
In his early works, Mollino created surreal, opulent interiors that broke all the rules. At the Casa Devalle (1939-40), he juxtaposed antiques with his own uber-modern designs. He coated surfaces with fleshly feminine velvet, exotic furs and silks. The bed was topped with a green mirrored headboard and a lip-shaped couch smouldered below. For Devalle he created a “garconniere” – or shag pad - to match any boy’s fantasy.
For others he made armchairs “ready for love” and gave them elongated legs, clad in black lacquer like stockings. A side table had “stiletto heels” and a 1950s chair is so redolent of female anatomy, it’s the soft furnishing equivalent of a pair of crotch-less knickers.
Imbued with these human attributes, his works have great dynamism and vigour; characteristics of their creator and his other great obsession - speed.
When his father died in 1953, Mollino threw off the family business and decided instead to race cars and fly planes. In 1955 he entered a car of his own design in Le Mans twenty four hour race. He also drew a prototype to challenge the land speed record. In 1956 he bought his first plane. Flying in straight lines bored Mollino, he wanted to master aerobatics and asked the world champion, Albert Ruesch, to teach him.
These experiences fed back in to Mollino’s creativity. In the Sixties he returned to architecture and his last public masterpiece, the Teatro Regio in Turin (1965-73) is noted for its vaulting, aerodynamic balconies.
A decade before his death, he fell in love with the instantaneous speed of the Polaroid camera. Abandoning his other photographic equipment, he started snapping local women as if his life depended on it.
His erotic shots explored every manifestation of male fantasy - from come hither brides to kinky secretaries. But his aesthetic perfectionism meant the images detoured pornography and arrived instead as sexually charged works of art. Dressed in outfits he supplied, the women stare with sullen bemusement down the lens. He doesn’t force them to play act and their real sexuality is palpable. To emphasise their pulsing curves he sets them against the geometry of a Venetian blind or a rectangle of reed matting. One woman’s sensuality pounds beneath her precision engineered, gold metal dress.
Mollino captured the life force between the lines, the irrepressible human spirit that bursts beyond rules and rationality. He reflects the warrior in all of us that cannot be contained.
In 1973 he died suddenly of a heart attack. With his usual foresight however, he had already designed his “tomb”, a beautiful apartment overlooking the River Po. Now preserved as the “Museo Casa Mollino”, Mollino called it the “Warrior’s Rest.”
But his spirit flies on at supersonic speed, and its little wonder we foot soldiers have taken a century to catch up.