View of Mollino's Casa del Sole (left) and Albini's Rifugio Pirovano (right), Cervina. Photo courtesy of Museo Casa Mollino.

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.

The cover of Mollino’s technical manual on downhill skiing.
Photo courtesy of Museo Casa Mollino.

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.

The region's vernacular architecture and a sketch by Mollino.
Photos courtesy of Museo Casa Mollino.

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.

A 19th century three-legged chair.
Photo by Riccardo Moncalvo, courtesy of Museo Casa Mollino.

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.

Sketch by Carlo Mollino.
Photo courtesy of Museo Casa Mollino.

Carlo Mollino

As a child, Carlo Mollino was smitten by the engineering work of his father and his infatuation led him to the study of constructional engineering and architecture at the University of Turin. After graduating, Mollino worked at his father’s studio before founding his own architectural and interior design practice run out of the same space. He built several famed structures including the Società Ippica Torinese (1937-40, now destroyed), Casa del Sole, Cervinia (1947-54) and the Teatro Regio Torino (1965-73) as well as several private homes and apartments.

Aside from architecture and interior design, Mollino possessed a love of race cars; he created sweptback cars for himself to race and even set a record at Le Mans that remained unbroken for two years. An expert skier obsessed with aerodynamics and clean lines, Mollino wrote a book on the subject. Not only did he love speed and the sleek bodies of automobiles but the voluptuous curves of the female form inspired a series of erotic photographs featuring nude models on and around his own furniture designs. The idealized female form and aerodynamics motivated his design aesthetic, curved backs, slim ankles, and hourglass shapes abound in his furniture designs. Moving away from the austerity of the Modernist movement, Mollino imbued his furniture with a sense of the feminine and the surreal.

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