“Architecture has always been in the forefront of my thoughts. You cannot shift from architecture to design, and it is even less likely that one can do the opposite. They are tangential talents, but different, not necessarily interchangeable, attitudes that have to be cultivated in different ways. So-called ‘design’ refers above all to the scale of the personal sphere, the body in space. Architecture inevitably involves our dimension as inhabitants on the large public and urban scale, and implies a different notion of duration and permanence”.
Mario Bellini, Milanese, born in 1935, took a degree in Architecture in 1959 under the guidance of Ernesto Nathan Rogers, and has a resumé of great depths, ranging from architecture to design, planning to exhibition design. Though he is still convinced that “it can be harder to design a chair – which has remained practically unchanged for thousands of years – than a skyscraper or a car, because it has to do not just with the banal act of sitting, but also with our relationship with the world, with its anthropological cultures. With our private and public behaviors, the roots of our rituals of habitation” (Corriere della Sera, September 1979).
These are the words of a designer who for over 25 years has focused above all on his first passion, architecture, but made a name for himself on the Italian design scene at the age of 27, winning the first Compasso d’Oro award in 1962 for a table, practically his first. Over the years, among the many honors and prizes he has received, there are eight Compasso d’Oro awards. The second came in 1964 for his first machine (the CMC7 magnetic marker in Skinplate by Olivetti). Right from the start it was clear that Bellini was no flash in the pan, but a genuine talent. He met with early, surprising success. Of course the lucky encounters of life can help. But they cannot suffice to construct such a dense, authoritative career. The encounters were two in number: Augusto Morello, director of the Development Division of La Rinascente, offered him right after college, in 1960, the chance to work on the design of a line of furnishings to be sold exclusively at the Milanese department store. Shortly thereafter, Roberto Olivetti invited him, in 1963, to ‘consult’ in the nascent sector of electronic machinery. An intense professional relationship that continued until 1991, during which Bellini designed over 100 machines, many of which represented innovative typologies, introducing new aesthetic parameters.
Emblematic works, like the Programma 101, a desktop electronic calculator from 1965, actually the world’s first personal computer, with surfaces treated as an ‘organic skin’ to stimulate an innovative manmachine relationship, something friendlier, less traumatic. Then came the Divisumma 18, an electronic machine from 1973, again focusing on the theme of the skin and the almost sensual man-object physical contact, with nipple-like buttons integrated in the overall surface of the object, an extension, a totem of the hand, becoming “like a continuous membraneobject in yellow rubber”. The Quaderno Laptop in 1992 was a forerunner of every modern portable computer.
“Electronics, with its intrinsic revolutionary ‘open’ character, permitted me to ‘invent’ typologies that had no precedents: the machines of the post-mechanical era that would mark the passage to the new info-digital world”. In this context, he also designed the colorful portable GA 45 Pop record player for Grundig/ Minerva, a slim “pochette” in brightly colored ABS with a steel ribbon handle, which was the iPod of 1968; a few years later, in 1971, he did a revolutionary hi-fi system for Brionvega: a compact, minimal three-part cube that opened to reveal the speakers, the control panel and the turntable. “What emerges here – writes Matteo Vercelloni – is Bellini’s idea of thinking of design not in an ideological way, underlining instead the need for continuous invention and rejection of conventional typologies, with important results and models of reference for Italian industrial design. His design method is closely intertwined with the logic of industrial production”.
Bellini believes that “the designer is someone who, by acting in a given fabric of industrial culture, should become a catalyst for its potential and push it to the next stage in an ongoing process of collective design. The designer is just one part of design; design is simply a part of the industrial project; the industrial project is a moment of historical flux of the collective project”. In the meantime, Bellini continued his work with firms like Cassina, B&B Italia, Vitra (consultant since 1980) and other major players (from Artemide to Flou), generating a series of products that have become icons of design history and are still very timely today. Like the Cab 412 seat designed for Cassina in 1977: a body integrated with a ‘skin’ and a skeleton. For the first time, the synthesis of an elementary steel frame with a cowhide cover closed by four zippers (over 600,000 units have already been sold). Or the Le Bambole family of upholstered furniture, designed in 1972 for C&B and then reworked in 2007 by B&B Italia, winner of the Compasso d’Oro 1979: the interpretation of a dynamic, flexible domestic landscape that condenses the image of the divan in the figure-archetype of the cushion. “There are as many designs as there are changes of the times and different parallel cultures”, Bellini wrote in 1984 in the magazine MODO.
An independent position, defined by Enrico Morteo as “just as far from the champions of good design with a rationalist matrix as it is from the most ideological exponents of radical design or anti-design […] Without using concept-slogans, Bellini immediately inserts in the notion of function the entire depth of an environmental approach that combines the physical nature of the body, the legacy of history and the options of technique, make design into a place of experimentation that combines invention with figurative suggestion, challenges with established habits, new individual and collective forms of behavior”. (Mario Bellini, I maestri del design, 24ore Cultura, Milano, 2011).
It can all be summed up in three key terms – applied to design or architecture – linked in three dimensions: instinct, body and rational synthesis. Instinct as exploration of the given theme, in a Darwinian sense, free of pre-set schemes and dogmas, “guided by the need to adapt to the challenges of habitational culture (permanence and innovation)”. Body as pursuit of sensorial/emotional stimuli that restore the physical manobject relationship and archetypal architectural values in relation to paradigms of volume, space, material, light, transparency, color. Rational synthesis as a personal innovative response with respect to the ‘conventional’ use of things and spaces. In 1987 MoMA New York held a solo show, a tribute to his first 25 years of work, including 25 pieces held in the museum’s permanent collection. Starting with Kar-a-sutra, an automobile prototype conceived as a flexible living space, which Bellini designed in 1972 precisely for the legendary exhibition “Italy: the New Domestic Landscape” at MoMA. Today historians recognize this car as the forerunner of contemporary people movers.
Bellini himself has narrated the roots and meaning of his own work in architecture and design, through prolific activities in publishing and education, including a stint as editor of the magazine Domus from 1986 to 1991. Today we know a lot about him. We know that the evocative images he uses to specify a concept or an idea “are figures that come from the widest range of contexts, memories of travels, the history of art, the immense archive of natural forms”.
Then, in this specific X-ray of his personality, we know about his passions: “Lots of music: classical, opera, jazz, Bach, Schubert, Stravinsky, Shostakovic. and also Le Corbusier, Kahn, the Italian Novecento, Tadao Ando, cooking, photography, travel, Japan (a country I have already visited 130 times)”. His favorite artists? “Picasso, De Chirico, Francis Bacon, Piero della Francesca and Tintoretto, who painted with his hands”. Authors? “Italo Calvino, Georges Simenon, Stendhal”. Flowers? “Locust blossoms, the fragrant flowers of childhood, in the park of my grandparents’ house in Gallarate, during the war”.
His recent design work reveals a new, explicit focus on ecology. Just consider the family of upholstered pieces (Stardust, Via Lattea, Piccola Via Lattea) created for Meritalia in 2007-09: a creative mixture of ‘humble’ materials –steel screen, translucent fabric in recycled fibers, inflated packing materials, low-consumption LEDs – to generate simple, very light volumes, ethereal and luminous, made without moulds. We can grasp the fact that the lightness of metal screens, the fluid dynamism of undulated surfaces, are favorite effects, both deployed in the project for the Department of Islamic Arts of the Louvre, and for the competition project for the StadtMuseum of Berlin in 2008. The same linguistic nucleus is also related to the Dune trays and the large Moon cups (2009-2010) designed for Kartell in transparent colored plexiglass, exploiting that material’s extraordinary properties of light refraction.
The latest works, presented this year during the FuoriSalone in Milan, explore two precise, distant areas of research. On the one hand, accessories: almost one-of-akind pieces like the family of Chimera vases, plates and cups created in blown glass for Venini, where the reinterpretation of classic forms is combined with the application of colored chips and shards of glass (scrap from flawed pieces), as a provocative challenge to the conventional pleasures of decoration. Or, again for Kartell, there are the industrial products like the Shanghai vases in plexiglass, that seem to release light from the prismatic faces of crystallized minerals. On the other hand, he has focused on furniture, revealing great faith in the endless reservoir of creative energy contained in the 1960s-1970s, the years of Italian Bel Design. Like the Pantheon table by Cassina, which reinterprets the La Rotonda table-icon designed by Bellini in 1977: an architectural archetype with crossed wooden legs and a round glass top, a constantly growing success, now available entirely in wood, with vanishing interlocks and a central porthole: a rotating glass surface that spins with a slight touch, inspired by oriental socializing.
A mixture of ancient and contemporary gestures, traditional oriental customs and the modern tactile interface of tablets. Or the Nuvola hanging lamp designed for Nemo Cassina: entirely in plastic, it is an industrial update of a lamp created by Bellini in 1974 for the presentation of his Pianeta Ufficio for Marcatrè, the furnishings system for work, with innovative round appendices for meetings, a feature that was soon to become universal. It offers the same reply to the recurring question formulated about forty years ago: “how should a lamp offer light? In a way that does not invade the environment”. Ebb and flow. But this also means that for Bellini roots have a precise value. To be cultivated, over time.
It is no coincidence that he has lived in Milan for the last thirty years in a 1930s building by Piero Portaluppi, in the same home/selfportrait recently ‘updated’ thanks to an intervention by the London-based artist David Tremlett, and worked for twenty years (after moving from the 16th-century courtyard of the Seminario Arcivescovile) in the same studio in the city’s canal zone; a former factory, 2000 sq meters with galvanized steel walkways, roof trusses, large windows, lots of light. This is where his many projects take form, for a worldwide clientele, from Australia to Japan, the Arab Emirates to China, the United States to Moscow, Frankfurt, Paris. What we don’t know is what Bellini has not yet designed, what challenges he looks forward to facing, and what advice he would give to young designers all over the world today. But maybe his works can tell the story. They are many, and well documented, like the projects of exhibit design for shows and museums all over the world (like the major exhibition on Italian Renaissance architecture held in 1993 at Palazzo Grassi, Venice, then in Paris and Berlin).
Other projects are still in progress, including the Erzelli Science-Technology Park in Genoa; the expansion and restructuring of the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan; the Cultural Center of Turin; the MIC, Milano Convention Center, at the Milan Fair (Portello), destined to become the biggest in Europe. For his latest projects like the Museum of History of Bologna (2004-2012), the Department of Islamic Arts of the Louvre in Paris (2005-2012) with Rudy Ricciotti, the Green Towers of Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt (2007-2011), this issue includes separate articles. Because, in the end, the place of design can only be architecture. With the paradigms of reference of its rigorous, complex methodology. Which insists, first of all, on the project as a responsible social act, not limited to the walls and rooms of a studio. And then on a strong link to the context, the direct experience of the quality of materials, the effects of light. And then on technique, the bridge with which to make ideas become concrete reality. “The hardest task for the architect is to generate emotion, concealing the immense effort of design and construction that lies behind the work”, Bellini has said. Maybe with design the job is easier.
The complexity of research: in a selective itinerary, architecture, iconic design products, installations, the key words of design and some references to the figures of inspiration (paintings, photographs, archetypal forms) of a great master, yesterday and today, of our history. Who never ceases to amaze us with fresh thinking, curiosity and depth.