There is a story that the only attendees at Carlo Molino’s funeral were a group of sex workers. He may have paid them money to be there. It is possible that he designed their mourning clothes. Like many things about Molyneux’s private life, it will remain a mystery.
However, this architect is one of the great figures in design. He was also a stunt pilot, race car driver, engineer, furniture designer, surrealist, occultist, and champion skier. No novelist would dare to create such an unexpected character. Perhaps because his designs became such sensations at auction and his photographs became so influential in fashion and visual culture, the importance of mountains, skiing, and alpine architecture in his work has been downplayed.
But it is at the heart of his development as a designer, and the development of mountain modernism. Also, remarkably for such an avant-garde architect, his work presages ideas about sustainability and a modernism keen to learn from the vernacular rather than replace it.
Molino, who died 50 years ago, was born in Turin in 1905. He worked in a small office with his father’s brass nameplate outside the door, which he never changed until the end of his life in 1973, two decades after his death. The father has died. Eugenio Molino, an architect with an impressive mustache and a man of some potential, seems to have had nothing but contempt for his son, calling him a “sterile good-for-nothing.”
Yet he taught young Carlo everything. Eugenio’s part-owned aircraft company facilitated his son’s daring flying and designed his own planes; The darkroom he built allowed Carlo to develop a lifelong passion for photography. The skating that Carlo learned alongside his father led to a serious sporting career in which he competed first at the regional level and then at the national level.
His specialty was downhill skiing and he defined and refined the techniques that would become mainstream, codifying them in a best-selling book in 1951. Introduction to downhill skiing (Introduction to downhill skiing). For the illustrations, he photographed himself on skates in his studio and transformed them into dynamic, beautifully stylized drawings. Pointing his camera at the slopes, he recorded “arabesques,” the patterns made by skiers in the snow, their traces reinterpreted as abstract images of speed etched into the landscape.
Molyneux effectively aestheticized skateboarding, turning it into a form of art, a mode of expression. Heavily influenced by the speed-obsessed language of the early twentieth-century Italian Futurists and their obsession with movement and machines, Mollino pulled their sensibilities into the middle of the century, tempering the frenzied intensity of fascism.
He channeled more of his insatiable appetite for movement into cars. The striking-looking Bisiluro “Twin Torpedo” competed in the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, resembling a reinforced catamaran hull on wheels. When he wasn’t racing on the track, Molyneux would fly his plane over the Alps and point his camera down, framing the snow-capped peaks with the struts and wings of his plane, the view always viewed through the technology’s aperture and filtered through a machine. And very quickly.
It is impossible to look at his distinctive designs of organic, twisted, swirling and hand-carved furniture without thinking of the construction of an airplane wing or the aerodynamic curves of a propeller.
It is somewhat surprising to return to the snow-covered roofs below and find that this technology- and speed-obsessed architect has made in-depth studies of local traditional building methods. His meticulous 1930s drawings of “raw” houses in Italy’s Val d’Aosta region are full of energy. Records the fine cuts and joints of timbers, the build-up of the structure and timber walls.
Despite the established form of these houses, Molyneux clearly saw a kind of modernity in the economy of their construction, the way they used available materials and the way they stood out in the landscape, transcending the bases of the rocky building.
So when he came to design a house in the Alps, Villa Laura Totino (1946), you can sense in his drawings those folk forms, but sharpened, embellished with a little Frank Lloyd Wright and a touch of California Modern. This was not achieved but ideas resurfaced for the Lago Nero ski lift and lodge in 1947 (one of the few buildings to survive). A strange sculptural structure of concrete and wood, its roof resembles an airplane from some angles, its concrete supports look like landing gear, and a huge deck extends out to catch skateboarders and view the scenery.
The motifs reappeared strongly in his house on the plateau of Agra, Lombardy (1952), a long log cabin raised on elegant concrete legs, somewhat like a covered coffee table.
However, with Casa Garelli in Champoluc (1963-1965), he does something different. Through the guidance of Marcel Duchamp, he created Readymade. Just as an artist appropriates everyday objects as works of art, Molyneux took an existing house in the Alps, dismantled it, moved it across the road, and recreated it as an ensemble, using all of his knowledge of traditional carpentry. Slang suddenly becomes a piece of modern art.
If this seems a bit extreme as an explanation (it’s not as if others haven’t reassembled buildings before it), just look at the way it places the Alpine Inn on the rooftops of modernist towers. It turns them into surreal gestures. In his early designs for a tourist village in Cervinia (1945-47), a sweeping, world-class slab is crowned by a steeply pitched roofed house, hanging slightly precariously over the edge, as if about to jump.
We might think of the world of ski engineering as a convivial place of warm blankets, roaring fires, and cheese dips. And I’m sure some of that happened in these buildings. But that’s not how Molino lived in Turin. There, over the years, he personally designed seven apartments, most of which are unoccupied. But with its mix of surreal installations (including a coat hanger, padded walls, lip-shaped sofas, mirrored walls and disembodied limbs) and the dreaminess of modern art. The furniture and curtains created a theatrical world of illusion and deception, and their influence became greater with each passing year. These were interiors to accommodate the imagination rather than the body, irrational responses to modernity’s desire for pure function.
In Via Nabione 2 (1960) – now the Casa Molino Museum – he created the ultimate fantasy, a space separated from the outside and conceived only as a backdrop for a series of photographs. Molyneux had already used his interiors as sets for theatrical scenarios, with girlfriends taking highly charged, stylized photographs, but here he used this apartment that none of his friends knew existed to take Polaroid photos of strangers. He cruised the streets in his limousine, occasionally stopping to have his driver offer the women money to return to the apartment. There, Molyneux would create elaborate scenes, sometimes dressing women in clothes of his own design and photographing them in the format that Andy Warhol would make his New York leitmotif.
The 2,000 photographs, which were only found upon Molyneux’s death, form a stunning archive of a strange and disturbing imagination. In one, a woman in a corset is shown kneeling in a chair in front of a typewriter, with Molyneux’s initials engraved on her bare bottom. In other cases, semi-naked women sit on special chairs, posing with cigarette holders. Sure, they seem misogynistic, but they continue to exert a powerful influence on fashion designers and collectors.
There is some speculation, particularly by Fulvio Ferrari, founder of the Casa Molino Museum, that the architect – who became fascinated with magic in his later years – had designed his own apartment for the afterlife, filling it with meaningful objects and ritual spaces much as the ancient Egyptians did for their tombs in the plan shown. in Book of the Dead.
With his leaden mustache and deep dark eyes, there had probably always been something sharp and a little sinister about him. His friend Bruno Zevi wrote in an article that Molyneux was “a man certainly in league with the devil.” And it was nice. Perhaps the designs have worked and Molyneux is living an afterlife, enjoying the prices his pieces fetch at auction and reveling in the recognition that was largely lacking in his life but now seems certain.
Edwin Heathcote is the architecture and design critic for the Financial Times
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