Italian designer Mario Bellini is a master of many mediums: architecture, furniture, photography, and language. He was the editor of Domus in the 1980s and designed buildings all over the world, including the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre in Paris. At 80, he’s intensely productive as ever. Recently, Humboldt Books published U.S.A. 1972, a book photographs he shot with his Hasselblad in the early seventies.
Bellini’s collaborative relationship with Cassina goes back decades and he’s created some of the furniture company’s most iconic designs. Cassina released several new pieces—a bed, a lounge—in the Cab family, the now-classic line he first began with a chair in 1977. To celebrate, Bellini embarked on a multi-city speaking tour. AN caught up with him at the Cassina showroom in Los Angeles.
The Architect’s Newspaper: The title of your talk is “A Passion Called Project.” Why passion?
Mario Bellini: I will try to be short: if you don’t perform your project with a lot of passion, if you are not compelled to do it with a lot of passion, don’t do it at all. That’s the answer.
I think about projects that you have completed that are not only playful, but have certain passions built into them, like the Kar-A-Sutra…
I think [the Kar-A-Sutra] changed the auto industry in a way. It was the first MPV [or multi-purpose vehicle]. It broke the tradition of the sedan or limousine—boring. And it wasn’t like trucks with little houses on top, with a kitchen and the toilet, which are also a problem. The car was a space mobile and it could be rearranged in any way that you like. This was something free, which would let you explore life.
I’m a traveler. I like it very much. I’ve been around the world. I used to go one month a year to those places that today would be not recommended. All around the Mediterranean, all round North Africa: Morocco, Algeria, and then Middle East: Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and up to Turkey and Greece. Every time was a journey through the cultural way life—a place’s food, archeology, history. And so the car expresses those passions.
And why is the Kar-A-Sutra green?
It was designed in 1972 and the early seventies were crazy years. I decided that by myself. I wanted a color that was bold, that was springing out. And green apple green was my favorite.
Your new book U.S.A. 1972 was published in June. Are the book and the Kar-a-Sutra tied together?
When the exhibition Italy, the New Domestic Landscape opened at MoMA in 1972, I arrived prepared to start a long journey coast-to-coast in the United States to study the American way of life. Emilio Ambasz, who was the curator, gave me a letter of introduction, which saved us a lot of troubles. We were going around and trying to enter everywhere. Sometimes police came and we’d show the letter and they would let us go on.
We entered the famous house of Andy Warhol—the Factory—and we had a strange impression because it was full of Deco furniture, Deco tapestries. We were surprised to see an artist looking at the world so formally. And then we entered Hugh Heffner’s mansion in Chicago. We happened to come here, to Los Angeles, to a restaurant called The Source up on the Sunset Strip. And we found the hippie community living in a former Hollywood star’s villa. In the living room there was a tent and a holy man living in it. I can’t remember his name…
Yes! Father Yod. I have taken lots of photos and documented everything. But you don’t know when you’re photographing that it will become historical.
This brings up a question: What is your relationship with the past?
Without past, we would be insects. Going back, back, back to the origin of human beings living on the earth, those ideas supports us still. Our houses today are so similar to ancient Pompeii. There are courtyards, windows, and second floors. These are not machines. I will show an image of a famous Le Corbusier house, which he wanted to photograph together with a modern automobile. Today, the car looks like a rusted, bad nothing and the house still looks modern.
Everything that is linked to our lives as human beings is so persistently linked to the past. Our future proceeds based on our understanding of the past. Not as imitating the past, but as nourishing ourselves with that past. We have on our shoulders all that history.
But what about your architectural projects, such as the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre, which are very technological?
I’m not a technophile. I use technology—from the origin of the word: tekhno, or the study of the technique. I use techniques, not technology. Which means materiality and a way of working and processing to reach the goal, which is nothing to do with a techno attitude. I am using it to reach the result: emotion, feeling. For that I’m ready to use any material, advanced technology, or new thing. Our office is very up to date with the latest technology, but we remain attached with very, very long ropes to the beginning of the world, and build from there.