Arkitektura Assembly:  Bringing together the world of Design

DESIGN IN MIND: Mario Bellini

Design in Mind is in conversation with Mario Bellini, architect, urban planner, industrial designer, furniture designer, curator, writer, editor and one of the leading voices in design of the last century. It is nearly impossible to pinpoint one thing that Bellini has done because he has done all of these things exceptionally well. His buildings include the Tokyo Design Center in Japan, The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, The Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre and the Milan Convention Center, the largest in Europe, amongst countless others. He has produced pieces for the most well respected design companies in the world including Cassina, Poltrano Frau, Kartell and Artemide. In the world of industrial design, he has worked with Fiat, Yamaha and Olivetti. In 1987, Bellini had a major retrospective of his work at the MoMA in New York which already had 25 of his pieces in their permanent collection. He loves music, art and, surprisingly was an avid camper, traveling with his family across Europe every summer to explore new places and satisfy his craving for and susceptibility to beauty which feeds all that he creates.

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Below is a transcription of the Design In Mind interview with Mario Bellini.


Arkitektura:
Thank you so much for this. After reading about you, I remember early on, since Philip and I work together, when we were putting together the text for the invite, it was like, “What are we going to focus on?” Architect; designer; furniture designer; industrial designer; editor. You’ve just done so much so this is a true honor for me.

Mario Bellini:
Yes, it’s a pleasure for myself as well. You know, it’s a long span of life already. I started being active immediately after my architectural degree at the Polytechnical Milan, which was Christmas of 1959. And so, the very first days of the 60s, I started acting. I remember, if you like to have a little bit of my starting story…

Arkitektura:
Absolutely.

Bellini:
I remember to have been asked, by chance, to design a piece of furniture to be presented in a local exhibition in that area called Brianza, which surrounds Milano at the North, where a lot of furniture, little and medium companies, are the best ones for this so-called design. That table I designed in a short time was exhibited there and it got immediately the Compasso d’Oro, which was my first important prize. Compasso d’Oro is like a golden compass. It’s a very prestigious prize about furniture design, industrial design, in Italy. I succeeded having gotten eight Compasso d’Oro. I got eight Compasso d’Oro during my career, but that first one was so important for me.

At a certain moment, Mr. Brion of Brion Brionvega, heard about that and gave me some work. Mr. Roberto Olivetti of the famous Olivetti Company. That was a prestigious company about good technology, advanced design, advanced architecture and cultural attitude towards people and so and so. He asked me to design for them as well and I got a second Compasso d’Oro immediately. The very first machine I’ve designed as a consultant for Olivetti got a Compasso d’Oro. My very first furniture, as I said before, got a Compasso d’Oro. This story has changed my life.

Arkitektura:
Absolutely. I can only imagine because it would give you the sense that, “Wow, this is something that I’m actually so good at. That I’m being acknowledged for.”

Bellini:
In a way, yes. I found to have an easy attitude in designing things: objects, furniture, spaces and designing exhibitions and waiting to prove myself for architecture as I was trained for. Beside that, if you want to know how I started to work for Cassina which was also a very famous name in those years and I was so young and unknown at the beginning of my career, it happened that my first furniture I designed, the table I mentioned before, which got the Compasso d’Oro, which was in my hands without any producer because the producer of it decided to give up its activity. So, I went through a friend to see Mr. Cassina, the famous owner and founder of this prestigious furniture company.

Arkitektura:
To actually meet him?

Bellini:
Yes. We went there with the table, with a little teacup, and we put the table in the corner and I said, “That’s it, what shall I do now?” and he said, “Don’t worry, the table is very nice. Since tomorrow morning, you can design for us as well.” That was the beginning of 1962. Then, I started the same time as a freelance designing for Olivetti, such a famous, prestigious company and Cassina, one of the most prestigious company in the furniture field. Then I started designing exhibitions, art exhibitions, design exhibitions, and on and on and on.

Arkitektura:
You know, it’s also impressive that Cassina was able to, from that one piece of furniture, be able to see the talent that you had so immediately and really give you that kind of chance and believe in you, which is very exciting.

Bellini:
Yes, you are right, but that’s why Cassina became Cassina.

Arkitektura:
It’s true.

Bellini:
All those well-known company, Italian well-known company, producing what we call design furniture, they all have got a special eye, a special obsession for quality, for nice, new things, meaningful things, which is what the designer himself should have as well.

Arkitektura:
Like Giulio Cappellini.

Bellini:
Like Giulio Cappellini, like many other. Like Kartell or Luti for Kartell or the B&B company founded by the famous Busnelli. And so on.

Arkitektura:
You were in your 20s. Where had you grown up? Where were your parents at that point?

Bellini:
We lived in Milano, always lived in Milano. I was born in Milano, my parents … My father was born in Milano, my mother was born nearby in a place called Gallarate near Varese where a lake is, a very nice place. Then, because of the war, when I was five, we moved all to a countryside where my grandfather and grandmother used to live. Such a beautiful place in the hills, it was two villas, and we stayed there until the war was over, for about four or five years which has been so … It really made me become more adult and always drawing and designing and doing it because since I was a child, I got this kind of attitude or inclination or talent, if you like, for all what is art. I remember saying things in those years, during the war, I had the idea to build up a little house under a big tree, so pine trees, stealing bricks from outside, around, because an uncle of mine got a brick factory. We brought them inside in our gardens, I built a little house with doors and and everything. I remember that.

Arkitektura: 
Wow, so your first architectural project?

Bellini: 
Yeah. It was my very first architectural project, exactly.

Arkitektura: 
You were inspired by the beauty of the countryside, I imagine.

Bellini: 
Of course. Living in Italy … We all care about which school you take, what you read and what you’re inclined for, but just living in Italy is such a apprentice school because every single town around you, they got their so-called historical center with a lot of medieval, gothic building and towers and cathedrals and then renaissance and baroque, and so and so. The town themselves, they are a masterpiece. They got walls surround the gardens and they are designed in such a way to express meaning and values and you absorb them without …

Arkitektura:
Even being conscious.

Bellini: 
Even being conscious of it. If you got the talent for that, then that is your propeller. This kind of continuous exposure to nice things and to well-designed things, things full of history on the back and looking for worth.

Arkitektura: 
Last week, Arkitectura had a presentation of four designers speaking about how they see the world, what inspires them. Every single one of them brought up Italy and its land and its buildings. Every single one, without knowing what the other one was going to speak about. It was fascinating to see how this little country is so fundamental to the way in which creatives see the world. It’s very special.

Bellini: 
Yes. In fact, it is. It is said, I think it is true, that in Italy, we have about a half of all the art treasures around the world. It happened by chance. It may be because of Greek coming in and Magna Grecia was a part of Greeks expanding around with all their culture, their architecture and their philosophy. A lot of very deep … The language itself is the root of our language, the European languages. Then the Romans started building Rome itself. Because of that, all our cities are kind of little masterpiece. We have hundreds of cities with their historical center, with perspective porticos, fountains, piazzas and towers, churches and so on. It’s kind of an environmental school, or environmental universities, a continuous in learning. If you absorb that, you need to be open to it.

Arkitektura:
And receptive.

Bellini:
In a way, receptive.

Arkitektura:
It made me think how I wanted to spend a few months there, just living there and taking it all in, and then there’s so much incredible design that comes out of there as well. One of the quotes that I read by you that I really loved was about how design needs to or should embrace all your senses; not just that of sight but of smell, of touch, of taste even.

Bellini:   
Of course.

Arkitektura: 
Can you talk about that a little bit?

Bellini:
Of course. Not only design. For example, when it’s about an important architecture or something, okay you can study it on books, large photographs, films but that’s nothing compared with the fact to go there, to feel the proportional relationship between your size and the architectural size, enter it and hear the noise of your steps and through the acoustics, echo, you understand the vastness and the shape of the space, of the air volume you are entering. Then you raise your eyes and you get natural daylight coming in like that and touching somewhere. All that is an experience which cannot be substituted with reading a book or looking at a film. This is very important.

Arkitektura: 
It’s the same for furniture?

Bellini: 
The same is for furniture, of course. I always consider as a very fundamental departing point or point of view, is to consider furniture and the interior of your house and the house itself with other houses. There’s forming another citizen living room which is the plaza and then moving from there, looking at views and perspective and very beautiful targets. All this experience is kind of a habitative continuum which I don’t like to be broken into disciplines like say, furniture, machines, interiors, housing, master planning. It’s a continuum, culturally speaking. Which is for me, the reference point of view to act as a designer, as an architect, as an interior designer, as a furniture designer, as an urban designer, so and so.

Many of the big masters of the modern architecture, they all found this as a continuum. Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, and so on and so on. So, I’m against specializing things like … I heard that somebody claims to be an elevator designer, or the space when you get off of the elevator, they are specialized doing that, like oh my god. Awful. What makes us as Italians something, I don’t say special but something interesting in the so-called design world, is this attitude to be open to a wide range of scales and for myself, exactly to the continuity of this living experience.

Arkitektura: 
When you describe something like that, what I imagine is a town that is thoughtful in every step of the way. The houses, there’s a synchronicity with the other houses around it, there’s a synchronicity with the interiors, even the coffee maker and the television, let’s say, also has a consciousness to it, and then the way the whole city flows. I’ve never actually been to a place like that. It seems like an ideal.

Bellini: 
Yes. You’re right. Sometimes we don’t even, we’re not even conscious about that because we live in this condition. But I’m totally against the saying, “form follows function.” Such a stupid and reductive point of view. What’s function? Function is for the chair, function is to be 40-45 centimeters high. Of course. If you do a chair 60 centimeters high, you are stupid. You know? Even all this talking about [ergonomics]. It’s such a masking of the real matter. It’s kind of using names to consider always what you are living as a school program divided into matters. I hate that. I don’t even consider that design is something which was born, let’s say, in the 20s or 30s that you call modern time with the industrial production. Come on, what’s that? The humankind has always designed and tried to domesticate his environment, transforming it into a human space.

Arkitektura:
It’s very true. Philip did this timeline of looking at design from … It was the very first sculpture that was done of a female form, I can’t remember exactly, but it was thousands of years ago. It’s not like this is a new invention.

Bellini:    
Absolutely. I agree absolutely what you are saying. I remember once a journalist asked me a question, which I found totally impossible, let’s say stupid, actually. How can we discern or understand what is a coffee pot normal from design coffee pots. I said, “What are you saying?” That’s a stupid question. Still there are shops, which the signs saying design furniture or design kitchen. If you believe that, it’s like believing that design is a style. But the theory of design was based on the fact that you are against the styles. It is self-corroding. I don’t mind to put myself these questions.

We go on, as always, designing our tables, chairs, crockery, suits, everything. We transform mechanism into machines, we domesticate the mechanism to become machines. Machines is a mechanism which goes well in relationship with the human being.

Arkitektura:
There is a great designer whose name was Tobias Wong, he’s no longer alive, but I remember the first piece I saw by him was…you know, there are these pens called Bic pens, they’re completely disposable. He took the cap of that, which is something that you chew on, you throw out, you lose, and he dipped it in gold to highlight how everything is designed. I remember first seeing that and thinking, it kind of opened my eyes as well. If even this thing that I’ve thrown out so many times can be dipped in gold, I have to kind of revere, in some way everything, or at least look at everything as some thought has been put into it. It may not be the thought that I like, it may not appeal to me, but some thought has been put into it.

Bellini:    
Yes. You know that brings us to the previous matter we’ve been discussing. Design follows function might be true only if function is not just the banal function but is all what we need as human being. Function for me is to be moved, touched by something I have to get in relation with, than you might say, design follow function, but that has been true during Michelangelo’s time and the Brunelleschi’s times. As always, what makes you recognize that something attracts you, it’s what you feel like when being in touch with your pleasure. All what we are surrounded by in our house, in our city, in our life, should give us the pleasure of living, touching, smelling, using and so. To catch that point means you are designing something in an appropriate way, in a positive way. But there are no rules about that, that would be stupid.

Of course, if you are to set up a school, school program for teaching design to youngsters, you start thinking, “What should I give them? Mathematics, yes, Physics, yes. Construction science, okay. Static, graphics, and so, but then it’s never enough. They are tools, but you cannot transform a normal human being into a talented designer through the school if he hasn’t got that by nature. It’s no chance. The same is true for a poet or a musician. Is a school of literature enough to transform you into this wonderful poet or for a great whatever …

Arkitektura: 
Words and insights.

Bellini:  
No. School is to acquire instruments and tools and disciplines and knowledge which is normally needed to perform what you have to, and it’s also a way to grow and to become mature just by existing. Of course if you take a school, design school in Milano, it would be better than in Minneapolis, just to say, a city. Because by living there, the people you got to relation with, the atmosphere, what you smell around, the shops and friends’ houses and so, they are enough eventually to give you more than just reading books or studying texts and so.

Arkitektura:
That’s why we move to certain cities like New York or London just to be really inspired and driven by the people that are around us.

Bellini: 
Absolutely true. Those cities are on itself such a deep and profound living experience that transforms you, if you are open to be transformed. If you are a piece of wood, there’s no hope.

Arkitektura:
You did have that instinct at such a young age. Now had you grown up around design or did you have an influence, a creative influence or an artistic influence in your life, or were your parents kind of like, “Wow, what happened to our son Mario? How did he turn out this way?”

Bellini:  
Not really. What I knew, my father was bringing in my family a kind of artistic attitude through his mother and so and so. Then, I like to think, there are famous painters called Bellini. There are three Bellinis, Giovanni was the father, the major. They were called Giambellino. It might be since my father comes from Veneto, that through transmitting DNA, something happened. There is also a musician called Bellini, which was living in Catania. Vincenzo Bellini. By chance, I like very much music as well.

In my house, sometimes we have a high level chamber music because I have a grand concert piano and my wife is also, she went to the music school, beside the literary school and so. We both, we like music very much. Sometimes, we give our house to make rehearsal to top level performers. We invite people. My house is also a place where you can see Aalto furniture and a lot of interesting design things. Paintings. It’s an old house facing a garden which is behind Brera in the real heart of historical Milano.

Arkitektura: 
How old is the house itself? What century was the house built in?

Bellini:   
The house I think comes from neoclassic times and then it has been restored and partially changed during the 30s and I’ve redone it in the 60s, early 60s. Not redone but reformed it. It’s full of signs of 30s and 60s. I’m also a collector, I have a relevant collection of paintings of the realism between the two wars.

Arkitektura: 
Interesting.

Bellini:
1918 and 1930 and something, which has been a core exhibition for the Bourbourg exhibition about this same subject, Le Realismes Entre Revolucion et Reaction. And so it’s a house …

Arkitektura: 
Rich with history.

Bellini:  
Rich with history. And I’m bringing in furniture from New York from the 50s, and Aalto Originals and then Fontana, Lucio Fontana.

Arkitektura: 
You’ve lived there your whole life, pretty much.

Bellini:
Yes, I started living there 35 years ago, in this house. This house is open to a garden which is my pleasure, this historical garden with some statues and plants. I’m also liking very much greens and flowers. I know all the names…

Arkitektura: 
Really? Gosh, you have so many interests. You are so open to the world.

Bellini:  
Yeah, and I’ve been traveling so much in my life.

Arkitektura:
Yes, I read that you like to go to exotic places and really live in that place and eat that food.

Bellini:   
Yeah, all that food. I stayed one month every year in a special place, going around all the Mediterranean countries from North Africa to Middle East to Turkey, Italy and Spain, France, all that. Every time, one place and just going around, the very simple way with a little Canadian tent, avoiding camping [grounds] which are noisy and unpleasant places, making wild camping.

Arkitektura:
No way. Not even going in a hotel or at home? Camping?

Bellini:  
Camping.

Arkitektura: 
Amazing.

Bellini:          
Just a small Canadian tent. Very simple and avoiding campings because campers are giving you easy things. We didn’t like it.

Arkitektura: 
You want it rough?

Bellini:          
Yeah. Rough and local. I remember when opening our tent in the morning, when sun started eating it, we always found outside a girl or a boy offering something like a vegetable or milk or yogurt. It was such a beautiful time. Now…

Arkitektura: 
It doesn’t happen?

Bellini:          
It wouldn’t be advisable to go to any of those countries, living this way but it was such a rich experience. It was another school.

Arkitektura: 
I imagine over the years you’ve received advice from people or you’ve maybe, possibly looked up to people. What are some of the more important things that you learned from? What are the things that you felt guided you?

Bellini:          
I really don’t know. I really don’t know because my life went on with a lot of happy coincidences by themselves in the sense that what I have been taught, by what happened to me, is that if you have to do something, do it well. Something better will happen then. That has been terribly true.

For example, when I was invited for a competition in Melbourne, it was because Timothy Potts, who was director of that important gallery which was the largest in the southern hemisphere [National Gallery of Victoria], used to hear me giving a lecture in Australia, not in Melbourne but in Sydney. When he became director of the Melbourne gallery, he wrote me a letter saying, “Hi, I know you’re Mario Bellini. Why don’t you participate, we are launching a new competition. I would be happy if you participate in this competition.” And I participated to that competition, and there was a gradual selection until the last four. I was among the four, I went there and stayed there during my summer vacation, their winter, awful, very cold.

Arkitektura: 
Yeah, you don’t like cold.

Bellini:          
And I prepared the competition entry and I won it. Then, what happened … Again, because of that, the French PDG of the Le Louvre, Javier Laureate, by chance was there when that gallery I’ve designed in Melbourne was opened. He declared to the local press that it was the most interesting new museum he ever saw in his last years. When he decided as PDG of Le Louvre to launch another competition to design what would have then become the Islamic Art Museum into the last free courtyard of La Louvre Palais, he wrote me, Javier Laureate, and said, “I saw your museum in Melbourne. It was very interesting. Why don’t you participate to this competition? No any favor for you, but please participate because I think you might be interested and I might be interested in your ideas.”

I participated in this competition and we won it. I remember we defeated Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelblau and all those famous names. We were the last four selected. We got that commission to design the new Department des Arts de Islam for Le Louvre which has been opened since 1912. And so, I learned that if you do something well, at whatever level you have to, a small or important or something you like or something you wouldn’t possibly do it but you have to do it, you do it well then it would only bring you good luck and good new things. That is what I learned. Nobody told me that, but it’s the kind of … somebody told me that.

Arkitektura: 
And I think it’s so true and I think sometimes we … You get a small project and you think, “I don’t need to pay much attention to this,” and in fact it’s a bad decision because you never know what it can lead to.

Bellini:          
In that case, I wouldn’t do that. If it’s a project that doesn’t attract me at all or something which I feel wouldn’t be interesting for me. Not because it’s little money or because it’s small, but because it’s not worth. There is a mediocre client. That’s another thing that’s important, I learned since the beginning. You work only with clever and meaningful clients. Otherwise you would lose your time. Because the client is the father and the architect is the mother of any final, good result.

Arkitektura: 
So, you’ve really done it all and now I find out that you’re also interested in music. Is there anything that you still long to do?

Bellini:          
What I haven’t done yet as an architect is a church and a wine canteen. That I would love to do. Both. I have designed a couple of churches but it didn’t happen. About winery, nobody asked me yet but I would love it.

Arkitektura:
Why the church? What’s important about a church?

Bellini:
Because it’s so rich of symbolic values which is different from a house and different from a shopping mall or something. On itself, it’s a place where you have to be able to provide the right context to let this communication between you and your godness to happen.

Arkitektura:
It is a pretty powerful thing to design. This is my last question: I read somewhere that you described yourself as moody and unpredictable.

Bellini:
I didn’t know that.

Arkitektura:
I knew you’d be surprised. I was thinking, what else is Mario Bellini? How else would you describe yourself? What are your … Not your key values, but who are you, exactly? If you were just to use some adjectives about who you are.

Bellini:
You know, it’s the most difficult question you can put to anybody. My first reaction is, I don’t know who I am. I’m possibly the sum of all my days, all my dreams, all my successful attempts, all my little failures, big failures. That would be me. I’m somebody who takes this design, be it architecture or town or small objects of furniture, as exciting journey, not as a duty nor as a profession. It’s an exciting journey. I like everyday to be challenged, to get my something on my back and to start a journey, or search for the sacred ground which is the beauty or the accomplished result.

I am sure, I don’t know when it will happen, and I’m not sure how to get there, but I’m continuously trying and we select one way or the other: Climb a tree, come down and select another tree and then change the branch. This search makes me excited and I think I’m a continuous traveler.

Arkitektura:
Beautiful. Perfect. Thank you.

Bellini:
You’re welcome.