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Carlo Mollino and the Vertebra Table

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“It’s a brilliant summation of the principal facets of Italian design. It belongs to no school, subscribes to no isms, it is a vivid and personal and free from personal preconceived forms”.

When I first embarked on the journey of studying Carlo Mollino, it was hardly in my vision that it became one of the most challenging tasks I ever got my hands on. After reviewing books, essays, and panel discussions, the image of this creative genius of modern Italian design is only getting more mysterious and enigmatic. And it’s all due to the complexity of Mollino. Carlo Mollino was a holistic man with multiple façades. He is an architect, an interior designer, a furniture designer, a professional skier, a racing car designer, an aerobatic pilot, a writer and a photographer (Mollino’s erotic polaroids inspired Jeremy Scott for Moschino’s fall-winter 2018/19 pre-collection). Besides, his approach to architecture projects and his design style continue to evolve throughout his life. Which makes him not definable by any school — a true modern eclecticism. One of the repercussions of being a non-conforming disobedient is that Mollino was always considered a “bad boy” in Turin’s art and architecture circle and never an orthodox in any spectrum of his work. But I trust he couldn’t care less about that.

carlo mollino
Carlo Mollino in 1920s

If we let go of the presumptuous ambition to categorise an organic individualist into a labelled cage, we shall free ourselves from the dreadful schematic review of Carlo Mollino’s intricate design journey and joyfully receive the aesthetic ecstasy by lay our eyes selectively on one table from Mollino — the Vertebra table designed for the Lattes publishing house in Turin. The table is perceived as a timeless masterpiece by collectors, the work also reveals the mastermind behind it. Just like what Mollino wrote in the essay Utopia and Setting in 1949: “Every act reveals its author, every work is made in the image and likeness of he who made it”.

Carlo Mollino Vertebra table
the Vertebra table for the Lattes publishing house

A prior version of the Vertebra table was made for the exhibition Italy at Work: Her Renaissance in Design Today in 1950. On 28th October 2020, the exhibited dining table that belongs to the Brooklyn Museum was listed among Alexander Calder, Mark Rothko and Jean-Michel Basquiat in a contemporary art auction of Sotheby’s and sold at a record-breaking price of over 6 million USD. The Vertebra table for Lattes publishing house, made in late 1950, is the concluded version of the auctioned dining table. It’s worth emphasising that these two pieces are the only two large moulded plywood dining tables by Mollino. They mark the pivotal point of the last phase of Mollino’s furniture design, which evolved from the early stage of Surrealism (1936-1940) to Organic (1941-1949) and finally to the sinuous Linear approach (1949-1953).

Dining table by Carlo Mollino
Dining table by Carlo Mollino. Photo courtesy: Sotheby's

Both versions use tempered glass, moulded plywood and polished metal to form the poetically sinuous lines that evoke an instant impression of a prehistoric skeleton, ready to move in the next second. Looking closer, the perforation design on the legs and the construction of the ribs exuberate a strong aerodynamic aesthetic. Aviation has been related to Mollino’s life since a very young age. Carlo’s father, Eugenio Mollino, was a successful engineer who designed over 400 buildings throughout his career. Eugenio worked for a company producing aeroplanes in Turin at the beginning of the 20th century. His library at home contains many books with aeroplane design illustrations which the young Carlo got inspired from. Trained and worked with his father, Mollino combined that engineer structural technics with his unique artistic vision, which was finely described by Napoleone Ferrari as “a quest for volumetric movement, aerial suspension, and overhanging structures, a search for lightness and dynamic tension.” For Mollino, the beauty of aerobatics is the prudent use of materials that rigorously prohibit unnecessary components in order to reach lightness and agility: “an integral of precision, matter brought together where needed and in no more measure than strictly necessary; maximum force and minimum weight: elegantia.” After inheriting his father’s fortune after he died in 1953, Carlo Mollino obtained a private pilot’s license in 1956 and purchased many aeroplanes afterwards. “Those who know me recognise that I do not do aerobatics out of vanity, but as a sport designed to attain harmony in the conscious use of meticulous control. This passion is closely connected to my profession and, as a matter of principle, excludes any desire for thrills, risk or exhibitionist daring.”

The 1950 December version of House and Gardens magazine commented on Mollino’s dining table as follows: “It’s a brilliant summation of the principal facets of Italian design. It belongs to no school, subscribes to no isms, it is a vivid and personal and free from personal preconceived forms”. Mollino was a highly talented architect who could simultaneously draw on two different projects with both hands. In the meantime, he is an absolute individualist independent from any political and religious ideologies. His vision was profoundly contrary to the culture of his time, which made his design and aesthetic one of a kind. One of Carlo Mollino’s most important friend is Gio Ponti, the father of modern Italian design, who are equally multidisciplinary as Mollino himself. They corresponded with each other to exchange ideas for over thirty years. Gio Ponti, through his essays published at Domus—the influential architectural magazine he had founded in 1928, formed the new conception of the designer as an all-around intellectual, capable of styling serial items into unique products, endowing prototypes with an unrepeatable touch and turning infinitely replicable goods into ever-diverse storytelling platforms. Without hesitation, I’d say Carlo Mollino is the designer of that kind.

Carlo Mollino
Carlo Mollino
Carlo Mollino standing in front of Casa Cattaneo (1952-53)
Carlo Mollino standing in front of Casa Cattaneo (1952-53)

On the first version of the dining tables, for each side of the legs, Mollino used the brass guards of the table’s feet to which the tie rods are bolted. While on the final version, Mollino abandoned the use of metal sticks and replaced them with cursive plywood structure extended from the table feet and emerged holistically into the wood base. Another alteration can be observed in the spinal compositions that support the glass surface: in the first version, the sculpted maple ribs function as connecting parts that are separate from the linear wood base. Mollino refined that connection design by making the ribs the natural extension of the torso. In this way, the final version’s base is made with a single continuous plywood sheet that imparts a stronger Art Nouveau sense with its enhanced curvatures around the legs, yet it is at the same time more modern with its holistic visual and simplified lines, which, paradoxically, brings higher complexity in the execution.

Carlo Mollino Vertebra table
Vertebra table, final version
Vertebra dinner table by Carlo Mollino
the first version of Vertebra dinner table

Carlo Mollino’s creations are a synthesis of engineering technologies, experimentation with new materials and artisanship. In order to develop his unconventional furniture design, Mollino collaborates with the carpentry workshop of Francesco Apelli and Lorenze Varesio in Turin. When studying the archive of the designer, architecture historians like Giovanni Brino found that many of Mollino’s drawings of the furniture are not as accurate as executive instruments but rather designed with open solutions for Apelli & Varesio workshop. And it was the artisans in the workshop who provided technical feedback and suggestions to Mollino to realise his furniture masterpieces, including the Vertebra table. Mollino recognised the importance of local craftsmen in his design:


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.

Carlo Mollino's furniture made in the Apelli & Varesio workshop.
Carlo Mollino's furniture made in the Apelli & Varesio workshop.
Vertebra table by Carlo Mollino
Vertebra table by Carlo Mollino

Carlo Mollino’s furniture design began in the late 1930s and terminated in 1953. During this period, Italy has been through WWII and the broad post-war reconstruction. He embraced the trend of adopting new techniques and materials like brass, copper, and plywood that were cheaper and suitable for mass reproduction. Mollino was very interested in developing furniture that is possible to mass produced. However, due to the limitation of mass production at the time and the complexity of his design, he gravitated to work with preeminent artisans who produced unique pieces by hand. In one of his letters to Elio Palazzo concerning participating in the Triennale Milano on 10th October 1950, he explicitly pointed out three obstacles to mass produce his furniture designs:

1. The large companies almost totally and ostentatiously refuse to accept the invitation of architects or, in any case, the work to their designs.”

3. 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’.”

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’ that they fear are not acceptable to current taste.”

Consequently, most of Mollino’s furniture designs are made on commissions by private clients, which inevitably results in its scarcity. But he does not intend to make his work only for the elite. This is evident in his comment on William Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement and the outcome of his furniture company “apart from the quality of the products, is a failure in every sense.” Morris advocated a return to medieval-inspired artisanal craftsmanship and criticised the barbarities of the machine. He believes work must be “made by the people for the people…an enjoyment for who makes it and who uses it”. However, as a man who was born in the industrial capital in northwest Italy and loves the fruit of machinery advances from racing cars to aerobatics, Mollino points out “the age of the machine, we know, has no reverse gear.” And the handmade furniture pieces from Morris and company “are extremely expensive: any who likes and buys them is perforce a rich and refined élite.” Today, some furniture designs by Mollino are reproduced by the Italian furniture company Zanott:, including the Arabesco coffee table and Cavour writing desk. Unfortunately, the Vertebra table’s reproduction is not on the agenda. Hopefully, one day, we will see them in the market again with an accessible price tag.

Carlo Mollino
Carlo Mollino
Mollino's Arabesco table by Zanotta
Mollino's Arabesco table by Zanotta:
Mollino's Cavour desk produced by Zanotta
Mollino's Cavour desk produced by Zanotta:

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