Carlo Mollino is told through a series of unpublished letters
Architect, photographer, urban planner and interior designer but also skier, motorist, airplane pilot, Carlo Mollino (Turin, 1905-1973) was the protagonist of Turin's lively cultural environment between the two wars. He was a fundamental figure in the design, architecture and culture of the twentieth century project, in his works modernity and tradition, art and craftsmanship, extreme rigor and creative freedom blend. His work is characterized by a profound modernity while promoting a return to craftsmanship and the genuine relationship with the artistic artefact.
On the occasion of the exhibition Carlo Mollino. Hyperformal Allusions, Triennale Milano presents some unpublished correspondence in which Carlo Mollino, criticizing the direction taken by the institution, distances himself from industrial design in favor of artisanal production.
© Triennale Milano
In one of his articles in the magazine Atti e rassegna tecnica della società degli ingegneri e degli architetti di Torino: “The authentic artist always faces two ways; he comes from tradition, that is, from contemporary taste, and proceeds beyond, where common taste has not yet arrived.”18 This was exactly what another friend and colleague of Mollino, Gio Ponti, admired in him, stating: “He has the courage, the freedom, the conceptual unrestrainedness mixed with bravura and fussiness of execution, the sensitivity to colour, to matter, to drawing— very great in him — and finally the lyricism of the artist.”
This “freedom” and “unrestrainedness” applied to design would be the subject of the encounter/clash with the Milan Triennale.
This important chapter in Mollino’s epic career reveals some distinctive traits of his work and thought, an idea of beauty in contrast to the mechanistic-scientific ideal, a craftsman’s approach to the object and a cautious harmony in taking part in the professional debate of his time.
Evidence of the fluctuating relationship with the Triennale can be found in an autograph letter from the Triennale archives addressed to Elio Palazzo, a member of the Executive Committee, in which Mollino clarified that he did not want to align himself with the establishment of industrial production and complained of an underestimation of the work of small artisans. In fact, the latter were “sporadically willing to be enthusiastic and collaborate with architects,” a “collaboration that was at times even moving in terms of understanding and a native agility of taste.” However, the projects he was assigned were excessively expensive and therefore unfeasible. He would not have accepted to take part in them “just for the sake of knowing they were to be exhibited at the Triennale.” For their part, companies conformed themselves to current taste, discouraging creativity and rejecting ideas that were too ambitious or eccentric. This sums up his polemic towards the establishment and the whole production chain deriving from it. He also mentioned a meeting on the same subject held in Turin with the participation of the Giunta and his friend Ettore Sottsass Jr.
The tone of the correspondence gives an idea of the reasons why Mollino did not participate in the 9th Triennale.
© Triennale Milano
Dear Prof. Palazzo,
I am replying to Your kind letter of the fifth current month (EP/js) and at the same time to the mimeographed one from the Executive Council (FA/GG/la, 3408) but unfortunately “no news” as we have not yet met. My friend Sott-Sass, whom I urged, promised me that he would arrange for us to meet this week, as we had agreed that he would do. However, I don’t think much will come of this gathering of Turin architects, and not through the fault of Sott-Sass. From the meeting I had with you, Council, in Turin, at the risk of sounding like a spoilsport, I made it clear, as soon as I entered, that while we might find colleagues willing to collaborate, we would, on the other hand, also find a “vacuum” or almost a vacuum among the contractors willing to realise our designs. I also added, on the basis of “decades of experience,” that I personally would not have been able or willing, for obvious reasons also outlined, to devote myself to “soliciting” the work of these executors and craftsmen in any case. This is the problem that occurs monotonously in Turin at every Triennale: 1° The large companies almost totally and ostentatiously refuse to accept the invitation of architects or in any case to work to their designs. They want to exhibit without discussion and with the horrors that their internal designers have created. 2° The industries of materials and objects made in series still refuse to embark on the “study” of new and risky “models” as these are perceived as “elite pieces” (sic) that they fear are not acceptable to current taste. This presumption also stems from the fact that “constitutionally” the managers are far removed from the problems and from any movement of any taste. Here in Turin, this is a state of affairs that I dare to say is normal. 3° The small-scale craftsman is sporadically willing to show enthusiasm and collaborate with architects. Indeed, the projects that I have had the satisfaction of setting up for private clients, who commission and pay for them, have all been possible thanks to this collaboration, which at times is even moving in terms of understanding and native agility of taste. However, these small artisans cannot and do not want to work for nothing, allocating significant sums of money to create “pieces,” “environments,” etc., just for the sake of being exhibited at the Triennale. No offence if I say that, while it flatters them in abstract terms, in practical terms they don’t really “give a damn.” Dear Palazzo, I prefer to be clear rather than lose time with “we will do” and “we will see.” I have a perhaps overly realistic sense of the situation; but it is only right that I should set it out without continuing to favour vague rallies that are destined to end in imperceptible results. This sums up what I said to the Council when it came to Turin, and which may have been overlooked as a result of the general programmatic optimism of even my Turin colleagues present that morning. I hope that the facts will disprove my picture of the situation. But I cannot fail to express what previous experience suggests to me. In my opinion, it is necessary for Turin to approach the matter in a different way and above all without relying on “abstract” adhesions, even if in good faith, which invariably lead to results for which Turin runs the risk of being notorious.
© Triennale Milano