THE ELLIPSE OF THE TABLE TOP RECALLS THE SHAPE AND THE PROPORTION OF ANCIENT GRAVES; ITS TWO SUPPORTING COLUMNS EVOKE THE PILLARS OF HERCULES THAT MARK THE PASSAGE TO THE AFTERLIFE.
n a 19th century villa by the river Po in Turin is an apartment where time stands still. Curated by Fulvio Ferrari, who with his son, Napoleone, has been its self-appointed custodian since 1999, Casa Mollino was one of the last projects of the Italian architect and designer Carlo Mollino. It is believed that he did not spent a single night at the apartment, which he kept shrouded in secrecy even as he redesigned it throughout the last decade of his life. According to Ferrari, it was expressly created to prepare its owner for his transition to the afterlife upon his death.
Considered by some to be a genius, Mollino was born in Turin in 1905, the son of an engineer. The rationalist imprinting of his father, combined with time spent studying in the family library – which included more than 17 boxes of books on aeronautics – made a powerful impression on him, and he went on to develop a strong technical bent and a fervid imagination. He became a furniture designer, interior designer and architect by profession, and threw himself into fast-paced pursuits including skiing, car racing and flying. He also left behind stacks of polaroids of naked and costumed women, for which he is perhaps most well-known today; although, much like the eponymous apartment, he was secretive about them during his lifetime.
Casa Mollino remained a mystery until after the death of the designer in 1973. From that year it became the studio of an engineer, and parts of the original furniture were sold or dismantled. Only in 1999 did it pass into the hands of Ferrari, who has a similarly diverse background to Mollino, having been a chemist, restaurateur and design dealer. With the help of the meticulous inventory of the property made by Mollino’s lawyers, he was able to recreate the original appearance of the apartment and open it to the public by appointment. While renovating the interiors, Ferrari discovered the cover of a book by Mollino, titled Il Messaggio Dalla Camera Oscura (‘The Message from the Dark Room’), depicting the head of an Egyptian queen. This reference to Egyptian funerary art became the key to decoding a series of symbols, which suggest Mollino’s project was conceived in the manner of a Pharaoh’s pyramid, as an intended final resting place. The late Egyptologist Silvio Curto seconded Ferrari’s intuition when he visited the property, identifying various items that allude to ancient Egyptian culture.
The apartment’s living room has three adjoining spaces, all immersed in nature – whether by virtue of the wallpaper, decorated with forest imagery taken from a German engraving, or the mirrors that reflect the natural landscape outside. The first space was devoted to music, and still has an original 1950s couch by Borsani, redesigned by Mollino, with capitonné upholstery. Ferrari interprets a number of pieces in the dining room in particular as symbolically significant: the ellipse of the table top recalls the shape and the proportion of ancient graves; its two supporting columns evoke the Pillars of Hercules that mark the passage to the afterlife; and the eight Tulip chairs call to mind the corolla of the Lotus flower, which closes at night and reopens in the morning. The Egyptian notion of an immortal soul appears again in the second bedroom, where the walls are hung with numerous book pages of butterfly illustrations. Finally, and most explicitly, the bed, surrounded by a ‘river’ of blue carpet, resembles a boat, a traditional ancient Egyptian tomb offering, which denoted the passage of the soul to the afterlife.
In his painstaking reconstruction of Mollino’s secret Turin apartment, Ferrari has revived the enigma of one of the 20th century’s most curious aesthetes. A tribute by one polymath in remembrance of another, Casa Mollino is a shrine within a shrine; a lavish, richly encoded mausoleum that, despite the light Ferrari’s research has shed on its meaning, continues to baffle and fascinate in equal measure.