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Posted in Interviews

Inter­view with Mario Bellini

Mario-Bellini-Context Gallery
Mario Bellini, archi­tect & industrial designer. 

In an exclu­sive inter­view with us, the 84-year-old master, Mario Bellini, remi­nisced about his exem­plary career and talked about his sources of inspi­ra­tion and expressed a tenta­tive opti­mism about the future of design.

It’s fair to say that Mario Bellini was born in the right place at the right time. The Milanese archi­tect studied under lumi­nar­ies like Gio Ponti and became a product designer just as Italy was enter­ing its Golden Age of Design. Bellini not only seized the moment, he completely aced it, winning no less than eight Compasso d’Oro awards (the highest acco­lade in the field). His excep­tional work for furni­ture compa­nies like B&B Italia, Cassina and Vitra, as well as for highly tech­ni­cal manu­fac­tur­ers like Olivetti, Yamaha, and Renault (for which he was a design consul­tant between 78 and 82) earned him a retro­spec­tive at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1987. Bellini’s iconic type­writ­ers, record players, lamps and chairs are now part of the perma­nent collec­tion at MoMA and other museums around the world.

What led you to study archi­tec­ture and design? And what were your early years in the field like?

Mario Bellini: I clearly remem­ber the moment I decided to enroll in archi­tec­ture school at the Politec­nico di Milano. I just knew it would the best envi­ron­ment to foster my already strong penchant for the figu­ra­tive arts and my irre­press­ible desire to design and build things. When I was 10 years old I built my first house,” a small-scale construc­tion with real bricks, a door and a roof. 

Back then, we were less than a hundred archi­tec­ture students, all together in one class­room. We each had a desk and a chair and the profes­sors called out our names to take atten­dance. Now there are thou­sands of students. Ernesto Nathan Rogers and Gio Ponti were among our profes­sors, all under the chair­man­ship of the great archi­tect Piero Portaluppi. Gio Ponti would later turn out to be one of the great figures of 20th-Century design and archi­tec­ture. Being there was an extra­or­di­nary lesson in postwar Italian creativity.

Archi­tec­ture has always been at the fore­front of my mind. It was only by chance that in 1960, imme­di­ately after grad­u­at­ing from the Politec­nico, I was offered a consul­tancy in the field of design, even though I did not have a specific acad­e­mic back­ground in that area. In fact, there were no dedi­cated design schools at the time in Italy, and the already growing phenom­e­non of Italian Design” was entirely fed by archi­tects. Unlike what happened in the rest of the world after the war, in Italy we contin­ued the tradi­tion of the Modern Move­ment” of the 19th-Century, where all aspects of a project were consid­ered as a whole, includ­ing archi­tec­ture, inte­ri­ors, furnish­ings and objects.

My early years were quite success­ful: I won the Compasso d’Oro for my first piece of furni­ture (a table) in 1962 and another Compasso d”Oro for my first machine (an Olivetti) in 1964, followed by six others. Then came an unstop­pable stream of work, exhi­bi­tions, publi­ca­tions and confer­ences all over the world.

Camaleonda Mario Bellini BB Italia 3

What were some of the most impor­tant moments in your career? 

Mario Bellini: Winning my first Compasso d’Oro at the age of 27, of course, and then the second one at 29. But the year that really changed my life was 1987, when MoMA asked me to design an exhi­bi­tion to cele­brate my work as a designer. It was an absolute priv­i­lege. Right then, I also decided that I wanted to recon­nect with archi­tec­ture. After twenty years of, shall we say, ongoing reflec­tions, the call of archi­tec­ture and the desire to prac­tice on a large scale began to feel unavoid­able. It was like start­ing over again and reestab­lish­ing a second life without disavow­ing the first. It was not easy, but it was excit­ing to redis­cover and culti­vate a talent and a passion I’d kept alive for a long time in my heart and mind.

Can you tell us more about your second act” as an architect?

Mario Bellini: I worked on a few projects that were extremely reward­ing and also demand­ing. One is the Villa Erba Inter­na­tional Exhi­bi­tion and Conven­tion Centre, built in 1990 in Cernob­bio. It was a chal­lenge in the sense that there was a histor­i­cal context [the glassed exhi­bi­tion space is adja­cent to a 19th-Century villa surrounded by gardens], and luckily I think as time goes by the build­ing is increas­ingly well inte­grated with its surround­ings. Another is the new Départe­ment des Arts de l’Islam at the Louvre, invlov­ing the complex coex­is­tence of two cultures inside a famous palace and museum that’s also a symbol of western art. I worked seven years on this, with my body and soul. It was a beau­ti­ful expe­ri­ence on the creative and tech­ni­cal side. Finally I’d like to mention the Tokyo Design Center, which marked my landing in Japan: a

Some of your prod­ucts have seen a resur­gence lately, like the Le Bambole sofa and Nuvola pendant light. What do you think about this?

Mario Bellini: Le Bambole was the first fully uphol­stered sofa, like a large cushion without legs or feet, produced for C&B Italia since 1972. It was censored at the Salone del Mobile of that year because of the scan­dalous” photo with Donna Jordan, the model of Andy Wharol. I think it deserves to come back to life because it is still perfectly contem­po­rary. [Donna Jordan, a Wharhol Factory Girl” was photographed topless on a Bambole sofa in the early 70’s]. And the Nuvola, designed to illu­mi­nate the office (and why not the house) is also time­less. Today it could be consid­ered as a surre­al­ist meta­phys­i­cal gesture or as a prescient allu­sion to the clouds” of Steve Jobs.

Nuvola pendant minor lamp mario bellini nemo lighting 1
Nuvola Pendant by Mario Bellini
Bambole sofa
Le Bambole by Mario Bellini shown in our gallery. 

What were the influ­ences along the way in your career?

Mario Bellini: The history of ancient Roman archi­tec­ture. And [Amer­i­can archi­tect] Louis Kahn, who I was lucky enough to see at a lecture at the Milan Poly­tech­nic. Other influ­ences include the paint­ings of Mario Sironi, Griogio Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excel­lent Painters, Sculp­tors, and Archi­tects,” Le Corbusier’s Toward an Archi­tec­ture,” Edoardo Persico’s Oltre l’Ar­chitet­tura,” Aldo Rossi’s The Archi­tec­ture of the City”, the works of Alberto Savinio, and the writ­ings of Ernesto Nathan Rogers, who was my profes­sor along with other great artists, chief among them Gio Ponti. But after having trav­eled, seen and studied a lot, it is certainly very useful to look inside oneself.

In general, how or where do you find inspiration? 

Mario Bellini: My inspi­ra­tion comes from an anthropo‐ and zoomor­phic instinc­tive under­stand­ing, and from a deep inter­est in our mate­r­ial culture. I have a natural curios­ity for old and new tech­nolo­gies. Every­thing, really, can support our creative process, but things like nature, books or travel can never gener­ate the neces­sary design inspi­ra­tion unless we have an unfath­omable inner neces­sity, a natural talent that we can only enrich and nourish. One must also know how to suffer, how to be stub­born, and at the same time absurdly optimistic.

What are you most excited or opti­mistic about, think­ing about design and architecture?

Mario Bellini: The design and archi­tec­ture world has seen an expo­nen­tial growth in the last couple of decades, a trend that seems to continue. I myself find it quite diffi­cult to explain or read this phenom­e­non. Opti­misti­cally, one could find that this growing aware­ness of the impor­tance of archi­tec­ture and design is a posi­tive thing, a sort of self-expres­sion of our present civi­liza­tion. On the other hand, if this is some sort of bubble, it could lead to the disil­lu­sion many young students, who may be unable to achieve the profes­sional goals they have been dreaming about.

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