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Beginning his career in the 60s as Milan grew into a thriving design centre, Mario Bellini rose to prominence as a furniture and product designer, architect and exhibition designer. Described by the New York Times as “one of the last great protagonists of Italian design,” his designs definitively shaped the context in which he created, but were also reflections of this context – an era of technological innovation, and the rise of counterculture and pop art.
Mario Bellini was born in 1935 in Milan, where he grew up and studied architecture at the Milan Polytechnic. Bellini’s career beginnings coincided with a period of great changes in design that would greatly influence his approach. The sixties were marked by great technological advancement – the development of microelectronic technology meant smaller internal components, and greater freedom in designing external form than the traditional encasement of bulky machinery. Now, function could follow form, and it was the designer’s job to conceive it in the face of endless possibilities.
His career as a product and furniture designer began in 1963 at Olivetti, where he would work as chief consultant for design for almost thirty years. Among his first designs for the company were machines that were the first of their kind, like Programma 101, the first desktop computer. The design of the body was meant to counter the complexity of the interior workings with a simple and accessible look suitable for personal everyday use. The end result was an elegant, curvilinear device barely bigger than a typewriter, replacing the gigantic machines inaccessible to most people only a decade earlier. The tactile experience was emphasized in the sculptural form and smoothness of the shell, and in special details like the design of the keys. Special attention was paid to making the shape and surface of the keys pleasing to the touch, as the dominant points of contact between user and machine, reflecting a human-centric approach to design. To this aim, soft materials like rubber skins and stretched plastic membranes became a recurring feature of Bellini’s designs.
After the Programma 101, designs for numerous innovative devices for various manufacturers followed – from stereo systems to multiple iterations of portable typewriters, printing calculators and televisions. Throughout the seventies, he also worked with automobile companies Renault, Fiat and Lancia. His approach to car interiors entailed the integration of elements into a work of total design, a concept quite innovative for that period, and most notably reflected in his interior of the 1980 Lancia Trevi. Bellini’s reputation as an industrial and product designer was built on his aim of countering increasing levels of detachment of the technological society through an approach that plays to emotions and senses.
In addition to global technological progress, the post-war period in Italy was marked by rapid industrial growth, which, in absence of an established manufacturing tradition, propelled Italian design in various experimental directions in the 60s. At this time, Italy became a major centre of influence for the rest of Europe and the US, providing an alternative approach to the limitations of modernism – overemphasis on functionality and the autonomous process of designing an aesthetic object. Instead, Italian designers began increasingly viewing objects in relation to their context, expressing the necessity of design’s involvement in a wider social and political environment. Two opposing approaches gained traction – one prioritising creating solutions to wider problems through design, the other turned to humour and irony as an expression of certain philosophical and political views. Thus, design became postulation, commentary, counterdesign, etc., which were the main themes of the seminal 1972 MoMA exhibition “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape”, dedicated to the achievements of pioneering names of experimental currents in Italian design in the sixties and seventies – Gaetano Pesce, Ettore Sottsass Jr., Enzo Mari, Archizoom and Superstudio, to name a few.
Mario Bellini’s iconic contribution to this exhibition represented his positive, problem-solving approach to the wider issues of society at the time through product design. The project ‘Kar-a-Sutra’, created in conjunction with Citroën and Pirelli, presented an alternative vision of the car as a space in which humans spend increasing amounts of time daily. In response to the limiting, disconnecting and uncomfortable experience of existing automobiles, Bellini’s vision was that of a mobile human space built for variety of additional activities like relaxation, sleep, socialising, and connecting with the environment by removable barriers. The sustainability of the project isn’t reflected in technological advancements of the machine, but in adapting the machine to human rites − making time spent in cars more meaningful as a means of redeeming the negative and polluting effects. In elevating the experience of this mode of transport, the ambition was to make cars less of a disposable vehicle for transport, and more of a central space for the creation of experiences and memories. As both social commentary and vision for the future, the design demonstrates Bellini’s experimental philosophy based not on a functionalist approach, but instead one of playful investigation, incorporating affective and aesthetic qualities into a functional object.
In the aftermath of World War Two, furniture design was conditioned by an economic use of materials, which resulted in simple, minimalist pieces. Italian designers of the fifties worked within this frame of thinking, particularly inspired by Scandinavian and American furniture. However, the counterculture of the sixties influenced a change in direction – towards leisure, comfort, informality. Shapeless, or soft, padded furniture created in new materials like polyurethane foam reflected these lifestyle changes. Informality also presupposed flexibility, giving preference to easily movable and reconfigurable furniture.
Bellini began designing furniture straight out of architecture school, inspired by, but also helping shape the new expressions of casual living of the time. His “Bambole” armchair and sofa, designed for B&B Italia in 1972, was meant to look like a structureless overstuffed pillow. The design rose to prominence, winning several awards including the Compasso d’Oro prize – the most prestigious Italian industrial design award. This was one of eight that Bellini has been awarded during his long and fruitful career. Another iconic design was the voluptuous Camaelonda, which made its debut at the 1972 MoMA exhibition, before going into production for B&B Italia. The sofa, whose name is an amalgam of the Italian words for chameleon and wave, was designed to be adaptable to the dynamic needs of contemporary living. Made up of individual seat modules connected by tie-rods and rings, it enables a multitude of combinations. Though it was only in production for five years, it became one of Bellini’s better known furniture designs, and, after a resurgence in the sofa’s popularity, B&B Italia reissued the Camaleonda in 2020.
While Bellini’s international success is predominantly linked to product and furniture design, he has attained notable success in the field of architecture, running his own office since the eighties. He was the editor of Domus magazine for over a decade, and has also designed numerous exhibitions in architecture, art and design. Bellini’s approach to design has been characterized by a preoccupation for the tactile experience since the beginning, initially emphasizing expressive, sculptural forms and smooth materials that stimulate connection between product and user. While his designs became more rectilinear and rational as his career progressed, and the scale of his designs shifted from handheld devices to buildings, his process remained childlike in his experimentation through touch and modelmaking, playing with different materials and formal possibilities. A testament to his success are the twenty five works in the permanent design collection at the MoMA, and the countless objects embedded into homes and offices around the world, injecting playful sophistication into the everyday operations of a fast-paced, disconnected society.
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