Carlo Mollino and Alpine Architecture
by Fulvio and Napoleone Ferrari
In the first half of the 20th century it was habitual for the well-off families in Northern Italy to spend their leisure time in the mountains. Carlo Mollino made no exception, as a young man he was a climber and a skier. In 1942 he became a ski instructor and in 1950 he published a prominent technical manual on the subject: Introduzione al Discesismo.
Mollino brought the culture of the Alps into the Modern movement.
In 1930, as a student, he spent the summer in the Aosta Valley, studying and sketching the traditional stone and wooden houses of the Walser culture. This seminal work left a permanent influence on his architecture emerging during the years in several projects. Mollino appears to be intrigued by the plastic qualities of this particular mountain architecture: asymmetrical volumes, cantilevered balconies and roofs, the play of voids and solid mass on different levels giving a strong feeling of depth to the space, the geometrical pattern of the orthogonal grid of wooden sticks that make up the facades providing a texture as the one of a Scottish Tartan.
Mollino brought the culture of the Alps, which for centuries had been refining forms toward a simple functionalism made sharp by necessity and scarce resources, into the Modern movement. The typical alpine chair (common to all Alps, from Austria to Switzerland, Italy and France), three-legged with a wooden board seat and a back connecting with the back leg, is re-designed into a modern chair by Mollino. And he would develop about dozen different chairs, all together forming a variation on this same theme.
Casa del Sole chairs were produced in a small series. Each one machine made then refined by hand to its smooth finish.
The model designed for the ‘Casa del Sole’ apartment block in 1953 is the most pragmatic; it is a sturdy chair designed to be used by the skiers in the building and the restaurant at its ground floor and to sustain heavy boots, heavy weights, snow and moisture, and rude sportive manners. The chairs worked admirably for more than 60 years. They were produced in a small series by Ettore Canali firm in Brescia, a company that specialized in high-quality, luxury wooden furnishings. Each one was machine made then refined by hand to its smooth finish. The chair lacks the sophisticated shapes of its ‘cousins’ by Mollino, with its more modernist and ‘straight’ design, yet it is in fact a complex project full of exceptional details: the thickness of the seat is different on each end, carved for maximum comfort; legs are symbolically shaped from circle to square; the back is shaped in a sculptural way to ergonomically follow the line of a human spine housing it in its middle, it is thinner at its ends and aptly thicker in the central part for bearing the greater weight; the little brass elements racily fix together the wood; there is an overall play between symmetries and asymmetries and the insertion of the back into the seat is perfectly mastered.
In the end the Casa del Sole chair is not deprived of the classical feminine touch of Mollino nor is it lacking the distinctive figurative allusion of his designs... skis vertically, and neatly, resting after the daily run on the snowy slopes.