A true renaissance man, Turin-born Carlo Mollino was a designer, an architect, a photographer and so much more.

In the mainstream of 20th century design, Carlo Mollino – the man and his work – defies easy definition. Would he have achieved celebrity status if he was practising today? Probably not. For Mollino – unpredictable, enigmatic, unclassifiable – eschewed attention and was incapable of designing to a prescribed aesthetic or for a remote market. Indeed, throughout his comparatively short career from the 1930s to the early 60s, his clients were mostly friends and acquaintances and his output was relatively small. Yet this limited body of work, now highly sought after, had a unique and lasting impact on 20th century design.

Mollino was born in Turin in 1905, the son of a well-known engineer and architect. Reputedly a lacking student, he nevertheless graduated as an architect from the Turin Polytechnic in 1931. For the next five years he worked – not always compatibly – in his father’s studio. But architecture, interior and furniture design were not Mollino’s sole passions. He was also mad about aeronautics (he was a stunt pilot), car racing (he

took part in Le Mans), skiing (he raced competitively), photography, fashion and set design. He was an inventor (he applied for 15 patents for different devices) and was interested in eroticism and the occult. Apparently a confirmed bachelor, Mollino avoided long-term relationships but had innumerable short-term ones! And despite the enigmatic nature of his life and work, he left behind a huge archive deposited in the Turin Polytechnic following his death in 1973.

While Mollino’s constructed buildings were few, he was relatively more productive with designs for interiors, furniture and light fittings. Significantly, none of these interiors survive today and it is Mollino’s furniture, in most cases created for specific interior schemes, that is his greatest legacy. It is also Mollino’s furniture, together with his extensive archive of photographs, drawings and ephemera, which provide the most accessible means of decoding this elusive designer’s unique aesthetic.

In many ways Mollino’s design work is autobiographical, an expression and integration of the many interests and influences that were at play in his life. Like the designer himself, Mollino’s furniture does not fit into any particular school or movement. Not surprisingly he admired Antonio Gaudi, the great Catalan architect whose unique and idiosyncratic furniture and architecture was an outpouring of his very personal religious and aesthetic convictions. On the other hand, Mollino also admired the work of Alvar Aalto, the Finnish architect whose personal but more rational brand of modernism was to radically impact on the course of 20th century design. Aalto’s experiments with plywood in furniture were particularly influential and Mollino’s use of this material for furniture in the 1950s produced some of his most iconic designs.

Mollino’s early career coincided with the Dada and Surrealist art movements and both infiltrated his design aesthetic. Dada’s experimentation with displaced objects and chance occurrences was particularly evident in Mollino’s photography and his early interiors, as was Surrealism’s weird juxtapositions and fluid organic forms.

The latter was to define the look of much of Mollino’s work throughout the 1940s and 50s. Curvy, sensuous, flowing shapes, often made possible through the use of highly pliable plywood and glass, became Mollino’s signature style for tables, desks and chairs in the post-war years. However, Surrealism was not the only inspiration for Mollino’s organic aesthetic. Eroticism was also an acknowledged source. The shape of the glass top of Mollino’s celebrated ‘Arabesco’ table of 1949, for example, was derived from the outline of a reclining nude painted by one of the designer’s contemporaries. If Mollino’s interests in aeronautics, skiing and car racing seem less obviously related to his design vision then it is worth drawing attention to the wing strut-like structures that form the supports for some of his tables and desks, the ski-like curves of his plywood pieces, and the soft ‘streamlined’ silhouette of much of his upholstered seating furniture.

Mollino would probably have been the last person to acknowledge his pioneering role in the re-born Italian furniture industry in the years following World War II. His furniture was rarely designed for mass production and indeed relied on the skills and traditions of local craftsmen for its limited production. Nevertheless, Mollino along with other innovative contemporaries such as Gio Ponti and Osvaldo Borsani, did play an important part in both re-invigorating local design and ultimately drawing international attention to the creative potential of Italian designers. The harnessing of this potential by dynamic and visionary Italian manufacturers during the 60s defines the next chapter in the history of Italian design. Unfortunately Mollino, who almost totally retreated professionally in the early 60s after the death of his parents, was not to be part of this exciting new era.