Discovering Carlo Mollino

Carlo Mollino is said to have said: “Everything is permissible as long as it is fantastic.” What lovely nuttiness!

Mollino was fiercely individualistic and nonconformist, a true iconoclast and a fearless, swashbuckling, fire-eating boundary-breaker. Like DaVinci on crank, Mollino was a designer, architect, engineer, race car driver, stunt flier, photographer (preferred nudes), fashion designer, stage designer, writer, dabbler in the occult, and all-around artistic nose-tweaker, chain-yanker, and eye-poker. A curse on anyone who would try to place him in any category or school of art, especially the Modernist camp. – One moron (name unmentioned) whom I read tried to cast him as a modernist because he took pains to consider the functional aspects of his furniture design. Well, by that criterion, everyone BUT the Modernists could be call “Modernists” since Bauhaus et al furniture is notoriously uncomfortable and mal-functional. Vitruvius (1st century BC) required attention to function (aka ‘utility’ (along with: aesthetics and ‘firmness’ (well-built-edness))), so one could hardly claim to call Mollino a Modernist because he followed ancient Vitruvian prescripts, especially in light of his more ardent attention paid to design aesthetics, and how wildly eccentric and peculiar those Mollino aesthetics could be! — If anything, he had more in common with the Jugendstil and Secession camps, in his preference for high craftsmanship and handmade nuance individuating each piece, in stark contrast to the gospel of mass-production rubber-stamp furniture evangelized by the Modernist.

Because he did not cram himself into the pigeon-hole of an ephemeral artistic fad, his designs remain even today fresh, unanticipated, and thrilling, though no longer ‘scandalous’ as they were to his contemporaries. Sure, he had his influences, from historical Roman/Italian architecture to ancient Egyptian design/architecture to Dadaism to Surrealism to second-Futurism, and beyond. But, his work was entirely his own, without precedent.

Born May 6, 1905 to a wealthy & austere father (Eugenio), who himself was an engineer/architect, and mother (Iolanda), who also certainly had high expectations for her son, being herself the daughter of one of Italy’s most famous generals, Carlo was forever haunted by a parental (especially paternal) lack of confidence in him, which pushed him inexorably to overcompensate in his achievements. He early on (in elementary school) showed prodigious ability in art, and lost himself, as a child, in his father’s study, frenetically delving from one book to the next, from adventure stories to engineering drawings to musical notation (which he appreciated on a purely visual level) to theoretical works. The experimenter’s restless lust for knowledge combined with the young artist’s fertile, precocious and inventive powers, gave rise in Mollino to an irrepressible artistic expressiveness, yielding such authenticity that his works never cease to astonish, as opposed to the increasingly stale forms from the ‘sacred halls’ of the Bauhaus.

On the other hand, such extreme individualism leaves no heirs. Mollino has become a richly endowed open/closed set of parentheses within design history. That being said, his iconoclastic *style* has been (attempted to be) repeated again and again by those who wish to trailblaze new paths through the design wilderness. Let us, though, take careful stock of his rootedness in the design past. {Here’s where I start to editorialize:} We are warned by historians that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. This is true for designers as well. A hallmark of ignorance (willful or not) is endlessly re-inventing the wheel, parading out tired design cliches as if they were new. Such ignorance includes *especially* those who are only aware of the recent trends. It’s like the 12 year-old who shops punk-wear at Hot Topics and thinks they are sporting a rebellious look that their parents didn’t already live through in the 1970s. Much of the pablum that gets cranked out of the contemporary design scene is that same re-tread of been-there.

Mollino teaches us that the *true* rebel, the *true* iconoclast, is the one that fluently speaks the language of the past, draws upon the rich conceptual resources of that ancient deposit of human creativity, then, against that clearly defined historical backdrop, creates a *genuinely* new design, which represents a *progression* in design history, and not a *digression” (or worse: a diarrhea squirt of nonsense masked as ‘avant-garde’).

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