New York

Carlo Mollino

Robert Miller Gallery

The celebrated architect and furniture designer Carlo Mollino coupled erotic imagery and an obsession with the machine in all his work, including his photography. He began taking Man Ray–inspired pictures of women in the ’30s, and by the ’60s, Polaroids of prostitutes had become the primary means through which the middle-aged Mollino bluntly fetishized the female form.

The earlier, larger photographs seem almost innocent, if clichéd: an image of a woman’s head, gently balanced alongside a glass box, or a streamlined profile, a nose stretched forward like the prow of a plane with a plunging Alpine mountainscape in the background. The presentations are as sensuous as the pictures: mostly 30-by-18-inch rectangles mounted vertically, with the photo occupying only the top half. The inner edge of the frame is outlined in lipstick red, leaving the exposed soft plywood skin on the exterior—plywood, in Mollino’s hands, seems to take on an almost erotic quality.

But it is the eroticism of the later Polaroids that most evokes Mollino’s furniture and architecture. Mollino collected the Polaroids in a scrapbook for his own perusal and never intended for them to be published. Arranged along the back wall of the gallery, in two neat rows, the tiny celluloid prostitutes seem trapped in their frames. In one image, a stoic subject stands naked in front of a mirror in a starkly lit room, the bed reflected in front of her. Other, more abstract images reveal a preoccupation with surface and form: a woman is shown kneeling, her legs drawn apart—solidly balanced like a lounge chair. In another, a body is tightly crumpled with the hard curved lines of a sports car.

Mollino reworked the images in these photographs, painstakingly coloring in pubic hair with a pencil, strengthening the line of an arched back, dolling up the eyes. These women, in his treatment, have literally been turned into architecture—carefully manufactured formal objects. The body has become something to be measured and tested, fodder for his more famous designs. The best photos—like the women themselves—seem to be research tools for his grander works. The plan for an opera house echoes the outline of a bust; the top of a coffee table traces the arch of a naked back. The design work—table as stripped carcass—is about as subliminal as red lips sucking on a lollipop.

The contrast between the photos and the furniture is telling. Mollino aimed to create a sexually charged world of the everyday. If the photos imply a hidden world of secret pleasures, in his built work the erotic is more subtle, surreptitiously invading the home. The sexual dance becomes a physical object, something you can touch. Given the relationship between the photos and the rest of Mollino’s work, it’s not difficult to see the subjects in the pictures as the personal little muses of an obsessed designer.

Nicolai Ouroussoff