Casa Mollino in Turin by Carlo Mollino

The ‘Mediterranean’ bathroom at Casa Mollino, covered in Vietri maiolica tiles.

The legacy of the brilliant architect and designer Carlo Mollino includes a mysterious, shrine-like apartment in Turin, which is now open to the public.

It’s a large apartment that belonged to a man who spent eight years furnishing and decorating it, but never, as far as we know, spent a single night there. A man who kept its existence a secret even from close friends — such as the artist Carol Rama, who lived right across the street.

Today, this riverside apartment on Via Napione has become a museum, in some ways a shrine, described by curator Fulvio Ferrari as a modern-day Egyptian Book of the Dead. Written not in ink but in "tiles, rugs, mirrors and second-hand objects," it was designed, he believes, to prepare its maker’s soul for the hereafter, and to act as a letter of introduction to its tutelary spirits.

Yet Casa Mollino is delightful. Neither pretentious nor lugubrious, it appears at first sight to be the bachelor pad of a wealthy aesthete with impeccable if eclectic taste. Which, in a way, it was. But although its owner and creator, Carlo Mollino, was an independently wealthy lover of beautiful things who never married, he was also one of Italy’s most influential 20th-century architects and furniture designers.

An essay on Mollino by a younger Italian architect, Paolo Portoghesi, recognizes that he was a trailblazer, but opens by acknowledging that he "is today remembered above all for his erotic photos, and because the strange furniture he designed, with its bone-like forms, is sold… for stratospheric prices, as if they were paintings by Klee or Picasso." He is not exaggerating: in 2005, a wood-and-glass table designed by Mollino in 1949 sold at Christie’s New York for $3,824,000 — then a record for a single piece of 20th-century furniture.

As for those photos, they consist of around 2,000 Polaroids discovered in an antique cabinet by Mollino’s executors after his untimely death in 1973, aged 68. They depict individual women, none particularly glamorous, some clothed, some partly disrobed, some entirely naked.

...even in the projects he carried out in and around his native city, Mollino displayed multiple architectural personalities: "In one he was an orthodox rationalist, in another a mad modernist, but he could also decorate houses for Turinese old ladies in pure retro-antique style… and the first interior he designed, Casa Miller, is out-and-out surrealist."

...Mollino himself left little or no record of the what and why of his Via Napione refuge. After all, this was a man who once wrote: "Someone has asked me to ‘explain’ one of my works. I find the request embarrassing in that I am firmly convinced that the best explanation of one’s work is the silent display of the same."

...There’s no need to take the entire curatorial construct on board to find a visit to Casa Mollino a rich and fascinating experience. Whether or not the architect was preparing, as Fulvio Ferrari believes, "an initiatory temple… a place to allow those who visit Via Napione to reach a state of superior consciousness," or simply playing games with future generations of keen exegetes, this hidden riverside apartment provides a wonderful introduction to the life, work and mindset of one of the 20th century’s true Renaissance men.
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