SENSATIONAL BY DESIGN

Carlo Mollino was a fast-living playboy who loved flying, racing and women.

Carlo Mollino, the great might-have-been of Italian architecture, is fin-de-siecle design personified. A lush, over-ripe streak running languidly through his work makes it the perfect flavour for our jaded taste-buds in a decade that is already running si-multaneous revivals of the 1950s and the 1980s. As we constantly graze on one decorating fad after another, we have put 100 years of design history through the blender to emerge with the characteristic look of the late 1990s. It is as wilfully eclectic as Australian restaurant food: a pinch of coriander garnishing the main course of minimalism; a dash or two of neo-baroque thrown in to sharpen the Art-Nouveau appetizer; and all wrapped in layer upon layer of knowingness.

Mollino, who was designing chairs as early as 1949 in tribute to Barcelona's famous perpetrator of organic architecture, Antonio Gaudi, was way ahead of all of us on this. And that's what makes him the perfect expression of the current mood. By rights, there should have been no place for Gaudi in the squeaky clean, Scandinavian-tinged world of the post-war years. Mollino's rediscovery of the Catalan master was as shocking, and as perverse in its way, as the frisson of delight enjoyed by the first public-school boy art historians who decided in the 1930s that, really, Victorian taste wasn't quite so ghastly after all. But unlike Victoriana, there was never anything the least bit whimsical about Mollino's work. His imagination was much darker than that.

Carlo Mollino was born in Turin in 1905, and died in 1973, spending most of his career teaching architecture in the city. Following in the footsteps of his engineer father, he developed one of those restless imaginations that pushed him to explore a variety of new construction techniques and materials - concrete as well as wood, aluminium and glass. But he was also a skier, a horseman and a pilot. He designed clothes, and had a passion for photography.

That he is less well-known than he might be is partly explained by this boundless range of activity, but also by the strange currents in his work with which the more puritanical of design historians have always had trouble. There is the imagination of a surrealist at work here, undercut sometimes by a flirtation with Modernism and a great deal of personal psychosexual baggage. He was interested in organic forms, even giving some of his designs the character of animal shapes. But his fascination with aircraft means you can find wing struts and aerilons in pieces of his furniture, though never in the Boy's Own Paper manner of the Meccano-obsessed English enthusiasts of High Tech. His was a vision of the modern world as if Modernism had never existed - half futurist, half poetry, always sensational.

Every decade or so, Mollino has been briefly rediscovered, to be flagged up as the next big name, and then quietly relegated to the back burner when his very particular vision failed to ignite mass recognition. At the start of the 1980s, for example, when every big furniture manufacturer was busy digging up the lost works of modern masters and putting them back into production, the Italian company Zanotta hit on Mollino as the next Le Corbusier. France's great Modern architecture was posthumously enjoying a highly profitable new lease of life at the time as a furniture designer, his boxy black leather and chrome sofas finding their way into reception areas and living rooms all over the world.

The fact that Mollino's work had never been designed for mass production but was made in tiny numbers for private clients didn't seem to worry anybody. But the time wasn't right for Mollino anyway. One of the first pieces that Zanotta put into commercial production was a mirror, which was less a re-edition than an homage to Mollino. It took the form of the Venus de Milo torso, in mirrored outline - more Magritte than conventional bathroom fitting. In the early 1980s, against a background of brightly coloured and playful Post-Modernism, there was something too uncomfortable and murkily complex about it and about Mollino himself - a dash of Blue Velvet in the sunny garden of the 1980s design boom.

Now Mollino is back again, but this time it looks as if the revival is real. Two re-editioned designs (a bar stool and a squat stool) were launched at the Milan Furniture Fair this year, always a good pointer to the way things are moving. And a group of original pieces from a private collection forms an essential part of London's Design Museum's current Erotic Design exhibition. Moreover, it is Mollino who is stimulating the imagination of designers as diverse as flamboyant English architect Nigel Coates, and the young Australian designer Marc Newson, recently responsible for the restaurant interiors of Coast in Mayfair and Mash and Air in Manchester.

"Mollino had a view of architecture that came from the pleasures he took in the world," explains Coates. "He loved skiing, flying and seduction, and you see all that in his work. Nobody else has done that so well. He sets us an example."

Mollino designed very few buildings, however: a riding stables, a ski lodge, and the Fascist party headquarters in Voghera in 1934. There is precious little left to see of them, save for a collection of extraordinary photographs, many of which he took himself, in the interests of improving on reality. They show a mysterious world of mirrors and many-layered reflections, embellished to show a glimpse of the overtly sexual nature of his imagination. Aside from these, there was a series of apartment interiors, for which he designed most of his furniture: he was for ever designing boudoirs and lingerie. He had a troubling penchant for placing Italian beauties in their underwear in his photographs, but this is not the architecture of Loaded magazine.

The bulk of his legacy is a series of exceptional pieces of furniture. There are tables, stools, chairs and desks: swooping sculptural designs that have the whiplash lines of the Alien ready to leap from the bowels of Nostrum to pounce on an unsuspecting Sigourney Weaver. Even more potent, he has left behind a myth of himself as the designer as hero. The most memorable surviving image shows him in the cockpit of an astonishing car, the Bisuloro, that he designed himself in 1955. He sits at the controls, apparently hovering just above the ground with his head turned back at the controls of what looks more like a rocket than a conventional car, even at this most flamboyant of periods in the history of automobile design. In helmet and goggles, Mollino is clearly about to roar around some fearsome circuit. The car itself looked as if should have remained a drawing-board fantasy, but it was real.

And that is precisely the point of Mollino. He was never prepared to do the predictable and was forever transgressing the boundaries of what was expected of architects. He had a genuinely original vision, one that was outside the simple certainties of modern good taste. One that the design team at IKEA are doubtless homing in on right now in order to produce the high street version.

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