Posted in Interviews
Interview with Mario Bellini
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.
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.
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.