Mollino the Rationalist
by Fulvio and Napoleone Ferrari
In the early 1940s Carlo Mollino went through a radical change in his interior designs. From the very surreal and nocturnal projects of the late 1930s he shifted to the idea of what he called “the forest of an apartment with a biological camp of furniture”.
Mollino began developing organic furniture forms—extraordinarily animated wooden sculptures to inhabit his interiors. But looking at the spatial constructions of these apartments, their whole organization is strictly geometrical. Entire walls, fixtures, and service elements are all part of a rigorous composition defined by orthogonal straight lines. Only curtains soften these lines and black and white etchings of forests covering some walls break the overall geometrical rhythm, but still they are always framed and domesticated.
Mollino’s interiors live off this contrast between the fragmented linear composition of the volume and the nervy presence of the ‘mobiles’ (in Italian the word mobile means both furniture and mobile). It is also a contrast of materials....or perhaps a symphony: pure white marble, ivory painted metal, natural wood, gold and black lacquer, mirrors, creamy colours fabrics, shiny brass.
While the furniture is amazingly lively, it is at the same time extremely important that the fixtures are geometrically perfect; quality always mattered to Mollino, he was constantly choosing the best craftsmen which were not lacking in the ‘working’ town of Turin. Further, the composition had to be ‘exact’, like a law regulating nature, otherwise everything would collapse. Mollino understood that little details were fundamental to enhancing his forms. If the overall effect is far from the feeling of minimalism, the care for precision is the same as is the meaningful abstraction of the single forms of objects, both likely influences of traditional Japanese design.
In 1949 Mollino published an essay on interior decoration in Domus magazine. In it he refers to the Japanese house in these terms: “a clear rhythm of light partitions heralds the magical possibilities of retreat, designed as perfectly as an egg, in which all "...when a piece of furniture becomes unwelcome, it simply disappears into the wall." - Carlo Mollinomaterial circumstances had disappeared, or rather been transfigured into grace; no slumming doors or unsynchronised routines and no speed save for that of their fabled dragons. These spaces, modulated by the standard mats, seem suspended in space and free from the constraints of gravity...the Japanese, the animal and the spiritual, are reflected in the sacred proportions of a basic geometric harmony, steadfast yet always mobile...when a piece of furniture becomes unwelcome, it simply disappears into the wall”.
With the cabinet from Casa Cattaneo and the console from Casa Minola we also see the influence of traditional Japanese design on Mollino’s works. Take for instance the Cattaneo House cabinet, a well ordered and surprising function hidden in the composition of the complete room uniformly covered with a pinstripe made of Italian red larch and buttoned with the hundreds of polished brass studs. The organization is typical of Mollino, the vertical elements in the space giving a metaphysical pattern to the surface concentrating its vigour as if a mantra. It is evident at the same time that the Minola House shelf belongs to the complex composition of the entire dining room. The polygonal chain that limits the Minola House shelf is a carefully determined line, and a characteristic Mollino form. Unfortunately its original study does not survive but it’s easy to imagine its genesis looking at one of his architectural sketches for a shelf where the shape is configured after a series of trials as the artist slowly focuses his expression.