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Posted in Design Stories

Mario Bellini: A Life­time of Design

Tokyo Design Center in Japan
Tokyo Design Center in Japan

It sounds like an undream­able luxury, but for Mario Bellini, a life­time of design is the most natural thing of all. Over a career that now spans six decades, Bellini has dreamt, sketched and sculpted furni­ture, objects, machines, build­ings and places. His hand has traced almost every aspect of mate­r­ial human life, from suites of house­hold uten­sils and furnish­ings to machines and inno­v­a­tive tech­nolo­gies, office spaces and civic buildings.

Tokyo Design Center in Japan, copyright Mario Bellini via MoMA
Cab Chair and Armchair, Photo by DEPASQUALE+MAFFINI via Dezeen

It’s a volume and breadth of work that, at the outset, would have been diffi­cult to fathom. The tale begins in Milan, 1963, when a young man who had recently his archi­tec­tural educa­tion at the local poly­tech­nic accepted an invi­ta­tion from Olivetti – the now famous Italian manu­fac­tur­ers of machines – to develop design concepts for their revo­lu­tion­ary machines. Almost overnight, the young Bellini blos­somed into chief design consul­tant, a role he would hold for almost 30 years, until 1991. Proving his value was not limited to build­ings, Bellini seemed to trans­late his archi­tec­tural educa­tion into these often strange, smaller scale objects with ease. Perhaps enlight­ened by the ability to work intently on some­thing of an every­day scale, the poly­math exposed a deft­ness for quickly turning his mind to new prob­lems, forms and styles.

With his work in indus­trial design, Bellini captures the joy of objects and of creat­ing a life for your­self with special, well-crafted things around you. His design process starts from a seem­ingly innate under­stand­ing of how the quality and form of the envi­ron­ment can influ­ence not just how we move, but also our moods and habits. As a result, his work speaks gener­ously of the places we eat in, how we sit, and how we arrange objects around ourselves to create a place that makes sense to us.

1970 teneride
1970 Tener­ide by Mario Bellini, proto­type of office chair. 

Even when looking at the many machines and tech­no­log­i­cal pieces Bellini has worked on, you get the sense that he’s less concerned with the tech­nol­ogy, and more with the mech­a­nisms of living that each partic­u­lar object will relate to or enable. Tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments and misad­ven­tures become the mate­r­ial for his inves­ti­ga­tions, result­ing in unex­pected outcomes and a playful aesthetic. And always, ratio­nale, func­tion­al­ity and livabil­ity are sprin­kled with a certain, hard-to-resist delight.

Mario Bellini ” Gold Jewelry” designed in 1986

Even now, past 80 years of age, Bellini contin­ues to approach each moment with a child-like fasci­na­tion, closely exam­in­ing the world through touch, feel, and even smell. He is keenly aware of wonder all around him, and revels in discov­er­ing how things work, seeing how two disparate ways of think­ing might come together to create a kind of magic. As with any design driven by curios­ity, the result­ing creations possess a sense of stand­ing outside time. These are chairs, machines, and desks that respond very clearly to the prob­lems or ques­tions presented to them, but which, through the design process, develop an inter­nal logic that stands up strongly years later. This contin­u­ous pushing and pulling of the complex and the simple results in a unique elegance that is distinctively Bellini.

When design­ing furni­ture, Bellini’s curios­ity often seems to focus on how things press up against one another: bodies, seats, cloth, light and time. At quite a basic, human level, we can relate to Bellini’s La Bambole as a popu­la­tion of living bodies – singu­lar, but also a collec­tive. The grouped leather forms make sense to us in a bodily, phys­i­cal way, calling on all the senses. Almost over­sized, they are remi­nis­cent of the early clay models made to under­stand the formal qual­i­ties. There’s a certain under­stated luxury in the way the sofa takes in our form as we lower ourselves into it, and retains a soft impres­sion of our bodies after we rise. As the richly colored leather ages, it adapts and relaxes, slowly devel­op­ing a deep, unique patina.

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

Bellini’s approach is not limited to a specific scale, typol­ogy or client base – in fact, the variety of oppor­tu­ni­ties seems to gener­ate new energy and design poten­tial. The task of design here is to create objects or spaces which func­tion effort­lessly, and which have a grace and beauty that belies their prac­ti­cal use. The result­ing sculp­tural objects might uniquely demand or enhance a certain way of living, or seeing.

Le Bambole07 chair BB Italia Inspiration
Le Bambole for B&B Italia, c 2021

It’s fitting that Bellini insisted on refer­ring to the recent retro­spec­tive exhi­bi­tion, Italian Beauty’, in his home­town of Milan, as a prospec­tive’, because that’s exactly how he seems to approach the world: always project­ing, always wonder­ing what’s next. He engages with design as a signif­i­cant act of placing your­self in the world, and of real­iz­ing the world around you. His offer­ing to the design world is profound, and demon­strates his insa­tiable curios­ity. It is a port­fo­lio that accounts for almost every object, mate­r­ial, and color. But you also get the feeling that Bellini will always find some­thing else to explore, some­thing new to create. As he himself has said, a life­time of design is just a case of dream­ing and doing”.

Camaleonda 11
Cama­le­onda Sofa designed by Mario Bellini, 1970/2020