In the 1940s and 50s an explosion of design in Milan established the sleek, fashionable and modern image of Italian furniture from this era. On the other side of that movement, coming out of Turin, was Carlo Mollino (1905-1973), working from natural and animal shapes– tree branches, animal horns, the curve of the human body– to establish the "streamlined surreal" series of furniture designs. These pieces, evolved in part from an appreciation for the shapes of Art Nouveau and the architect Antoni Gaudi, were more expressive, and often more sculptural, than those being produced in Milan at the same time. The changes in his style over the years responded to the evolving technology of bending and working with wood.
Mollino was the son of Eugenio Mollino, a prominent engineer and architect in Turin, and, after receiving his degree in architecture in 1931 he went to work with his father. By 1937, however, he had moved out on his own with his commission to build an equestrian center. He began producing furniture, like his 1937 "Milo" mirror, shaped like the Venus de Milo, and designing interiors, like the Miller House (1937). His interiors during this period were characterized by their use of draped fabric to divide a room and by the use of sensuous upholstery like padded velvet. The Miller house also had an innovative lighting system, a mounted fixture on a track, which curved around the ceiling. The furniture that he designed was often short run or one-off pieces produced specifically for the client whose house he was decorating, so many of his pieces are very rare today. The factory that produced the bulk of his work was the Apelli & Varesio joinery in Milan. His other well-known interior was for the Minola house in 1944. The pieces he created for them included a radio-gramophone and a small glass table.
Several of his most famous production pieces were designed for Zanotta in the 1940s and 50s. His "Ardea" armchair (1944) had a wood base and a shapely upholstered seat with a removable cover, produced in bright colors. He also created several plate glass tables, the 1946 "Reale" table for Zanotta and the 1950 "Arabesque" table for the interior of the Singer store in Turin. The "Arabesque" has an upper and a lower glass surface, supported by a cascading piece of molded plywood, which is bent to form a magazine rack. He included similar plate glass tables in the Italian Design of the 1950s exhibit put together by Kartell's research center, Centrokappa, as well as several chairs in beech wood with subtly bent backrests and pointy, carved legs. Zanotta manufactured Mollino's simple and lovely "Gilda" armchair, made in ash with an adjustable wood frame, in 1954.
The list of his hobbies, and the persona they enabled, characterized Mollino almost as much as his furniture designs. He was an avid photographer, student of the occult, and a stunt flyer and racecar and plane enthusiast. Mollino even designed several cars and planes, and his racecar, "Osca 1100" won for its class at the Leman's 24 hour race in 1954. He also worked as a designer of fashion, theater and film sets, and his extensive collection of Polaroid portraits has been posthumously published and internationally lauded.