Turin, Italy

Carlo Mollino

Galleria d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea/Castello di Rivoli

I wonder what it would feel like to live in an interior designed by Carlo Mollino. Unsettling, presumably, since to do so would mean being at home with both Eros and Thanatos—the two forces we can never live comfortably with. This uneasy character is what sets Mollino apart from the other great designers of postwar Italy, with whom he shares a sense of elegance, sensuality, and irony; he worked much more closely than they did with the darker psychological sources of intense form. It is for this reason that his work—not only the astonishing photographs he took for his own pleasure (presented at the Castello di Rivoli) but also his furniture, architecture, and even cars and other projects (actual examples of which were shown alongside drawings and photographs at GAM)—should be considered that of an artist.

That Mollino, unlike contemporaries such as Giò Ponti and Achille Castiglione, rarely designed for industrial production may account in part for the specifically artistic dimension to his work. Aside from a fairly small number of important large-scale edifices in his hometown of Turin—such as the Turin Horse-Riding Club, 1937–40 (demolished in 1960), the Chamber of Commerce, 1964–72, and the Teatro Regio, 1965–73—he focused his energies on a series of domestic environments, for which he devised distinctive furnishings. Mass production would have been unsuitable to his ends, not only because the extreme formal refinement he sought would have been difficult and expensive to achieve in this way, but also because the emotional tenor of his work is too idiosyncratic and peremptory.

Mollino’s furniture typically has a skeletal aspect. This is not the formal or rationalist reduction typical of mainstream modernist design; rather, these objects are death-haunted. Using the dinner table he made for an American traveling exhibition of Italian design in 1950, for instance, would be like eating on a piece of glass over an animal’s rib cage. Even the coat hook he designed in 1945 for the A. and C. Minola house, 1944–46, is about as charming as the pair of blackened bones it resembles. Mollino’s forms are typically organic rather than rectilinear, but spindly and fierce rather than comforting, or else evocative of fragility, like the hanging glass shelf he designed for the same house. Perhaps his most remarkable sculptural approach to a domestic object is the series of variations he made on the idea of a narrow wooden chair whose back takes a flamelike form, as if just sitting down were something like taking one’s place on a funeral pyre. It is not surprising that Mollino was fascinated by the mortuary culture of ancient Egypt.

Mollino had long had an interest in photography—in 1949 he published a theoretical tract on the subject, Il Messaggio dalla Camera Oscura (The Message from the Darkroom)—but he only came into his own as a photographer in the late ’50s, during a hiatus from architecture, and flourished with his adoption of the Polaroid camera in 1962. His models were prostitutes, whom he posed in his own apartments—which he did not live in but pursued as autonomous projects. These pictures might be dismissed as simply softcore porn of unusual quality, if their formal obsessiveness (Mollino meticulously hand-altered them to give the women’s bodies a stylized strangeness comparable to that of his designs) didn’t articulate an impulse at work throughout Mollino’s oeuvre: perversity as the distillation of the ideal from the abject and contingent.

Barry Schwabsky