Mollino's Casa Miller

An interior design by Carlo Mollino from 1938 was defined at the time as largely decorative and elegantly self-indulgent.

Originally published in Domus 129/September 1938

A shell is formed over time in infinite layers that are the negative and petrified image of the animal living within: it is the practical expression of a feeling. The same is true for our faces and our homes. They grow around us and anchor, in new or discolored curtains and in clean or peeling walls, fathers' and children's events, habits, passions and boredom. We read the interiors divided by demolitions, and their flowery wallpapers, like photographs that narrate monotonous needs like just-removed clothes that still retain body heat. We live within these sentimental shells; but because they, like Diderot's dressing gown, have our form and speak; they can become objects of art but not art. And those other houses—all new, which fill the magazines and in which problems of "modern taste" are resolved according to the needs of a hypothetical functional man or the idea of an abstract Beauty implied, for mysterious reasons, in certain relationships, forms and fashions (the idea, so to speak, of eternal ideal furnishings)—have even less to do with art:
The oyster made its shell in every part, rounded, with dutiful Matisselike-orthodox-Masacciolike frescoes and a short tower in the taste of Picasso (but a bit more neoclassical). Then, blessed, it rose to the heavens of art.
Coffee table with safety glass top.
Coffee table with safety glass top.
And those other houses and churches and palaces and lavish buildings—those left to us by the past, numerous, rich and beautiful, and those that the moderns are building and furnishing—often have nothing to do with art; in them, the author demonstrates his skills and the client his power and wealth in works whose purpose is celebration, ornament, rhetoric—all oratory expressions which bear greater relationships to the art of government and self-satisfaction than to poetry. But numerous interiors of historic and modern homes exist; they are, at least intentionally or partially, works of art, free expressions of the author's poetic world; either that the need for expression opens up almost due to an involuntary necessity that predominates over the other reasons from which the project is born, or that is, from the very beginning, aware and unique. A thousand houses and buildings come to mind that have allowed, and allow—perfectly—generations to be born, live and die in their interiors and which have for centuries performed as very good machines à habiter without ever losing their first and unique function as an original poetic world.
The 'Venus' mirror,  lounge chair and window.
The 'Venus' mirror, lounge chair and window.
Italy is full of them. To cite a work from the past that everyone knows, if we take the Stupinigi Palace as an example, we find the expression of sensual Juvarian harmony; which the taste of the time and wealth turn into docile instruments, rather than goals, and this makes it real architecture. Walls, spaces, furniture, paintings speak indeed in the language of their time; they are works of good taste but taste is always resolved in expression. For this reason, therefore, the work remains, without loss, after the end of the Baroque era, with its mannerisms and royal hunts. However, it was always difficult, even in the flourishing and glorious times of art, for the architect to be totally free from the practical needs of feeling, taste, and oratory in works of this kind. Judging from the results, today, it seems that this difficulty is rarely fully overcome even by the good and the best.
The colors of those curtains, the carpet, the chairs are exquisite: it is impossible, decoratively, to find a better and more hedonistically enjoyable relationship. But, in terms of Mollino's artistic personality, this hedonism is an alien element.
It is not just a problem of material difficulties, or the imperious obligation to satisfy certain needs that must be satisfied. The essential difficulty comes from within, and lies in having to overcome the moment of pure culture, of "technique" and of satisfaction with technique that is abstractly considered to be the work's end (and therefore non-existent or barely dominated as technique); in overcoming the moment of the standard and classical imitation and in general the moment of avoiding exchange between practical expression and poetry in works which, due to the practical purposes to which they are inextricably linked, can easily lead to this error. I believe that we could count the contemporary interiors that we know to be purely expressive works without contamination (Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier) on our fingers. But those in which the expression of a poetic world is only partially achieved, or at least attempted, are also not frequently encountered. And so, in these interiors we should distinguish, and choose, the original from the generic, style from fashion.
<i> to frame a Japanese print...</i> to frame a Japanese print...
Let us look together at this Miller House by architect Carlo Mollino. It is useless to linger on its description. The photographs are very clear, with that bit of falsification to which the reader is so accustomed and which he/she cannot do without. But it would not be easy, from these illustrations alone, to understand the meaning that links the set of objects, walls, mirrors, colours, spaces, and to identify in them the practical solutions to practical problems, works of pure taste and what they want to express.
<i>...or how to hide ugly radiators...</i>
...or how to hide ugly radiators...
And since we are interested in investigating their expressive values, we must try to distinguish them from the others even if they are non-values; however they do not interest us here. I do not want to focus on pure material limitations: the form of the house, existing and difficult to entirely forget, budgetary limits so that, for example, the flat curtains should have been curved and protruding, or the round mirror that should have been, in a different form, better related to the meaning of the objects surrounding it. These are specific flaws, indicated to me by the designer himself, and which, for their correctable evidence, do not touch the essence of the project. Those that I must indicate here as discordant, and therefore harmful, are elements which—for those who observe this house from point of view of practical setting or decoration—would be considered merits (and they are, but in that field): "good taste" and ingenuity.
Detail with mirror and shell.
Detail with mirror and shell.
Those who, when looking at these photos or visiting the Miller House, seek new solutions to problems of constructing furniture, locating objects in a space to be inhabited, decorative detail (such as how to frame a Japanese print or how to hide ugly radiators, or a commercially sold radio, etc.) will find some brilliant and useful answers that only a few of the best Italian designers can provide. And I do not mean to deny the interest and value of these studies. The shape of these tables, of these shelves, is extremely elegant, even considered outside the dwelling; and these furnishings could be effectively reused and adapted to many other homes. But Mollino's purpose (and the reason why we talk about the Miller House here) is another one: to express himself through these means and not to create industrial objects however elegant they may be. And then we must recognize that, in light of such necessary ambition and good taste, the decorative ability considered an end in itself is, rather, a limitation.
Furniture detail.
Furniture detail.
The colors of those curtains, the carpet, the chairs are exquisite: it is impossible, decoratively, to find a better and more hedonistically enjoyable relationship. But, in terms of Mollino's artistic personality, which we will try to define later, this hedonism is an alien element. The curved form of the raised upholstered bed is precious and tempting but preciousness beloved for itself hides more than reveals—and in a sense betrays—the meaning of the home. Proper and elegant speech, polished phrases, Tuscanizing (all valuable in and of themselves) are not enough to make a good writer and can thwart, like a vice, his expression. So this Miller House is also not yet entirely free from the defect of our current architecture that so willingly exchanges a dictionary for a book of poetry making it most proud. Another limitation to freedom of expression can be found in the satisfaction in overcoming difficulty. This has a practical purpose of self-congratulation, of oratory, which, introduced within expression, can lead to errors; like the insistence on successful images or their repetition. But this defect, already complementing the corresponding virtue, is hard to separate form those that we will now analyze.
View of living room.
View of living room.
What does the Miller House say or try to say? What is its world for which we are led to consider the merits of such taste and skill as errors? Mollino's architecture (and the discussion requires, henceforth, greater documentation, as it refers not only to the Miller House but through it, as a first draft and attempt, also to those other works that he has built or are underway), the architecture of Mollino, if you will allow these distinctions, tends towards the novel, towards the creation and description of characters rather than towards lyrical outpouring. Addressed to man, he is not satisfied in general with revealing the human in absolute forms that are self- sufficient in themselves and formally determined (even if, in the work we are concerned with here, there are objects made without the need for relationships such as, for example, the recurring curves of the small glass coffee table, beloved like a resolved theorem).

His interest, rather, is in a person individually determined in the coexistence of all of his time and all his space, and if he could obtain them, even all his possibilities. This aspiration to a single whole becomes explicit and objective rather than implicit and hidden; it refers, in other words, to a "character" described by Mollino through the means of architecture and set design. Here, architecture is born from autobiography and it is the effort to free himself objectively from it as a narrative; from this effort the character is born. It is an ambiguous character in the first and third person together, a trickster Ulysses in search of lost places. Rather than the house of this invented character, the Miller House wants to be the character himself (or his first attempt at existence) in whose belly, like that of the whale, the real inhabitants will live. Our character's main trait is that he tends towards totally self-sufficiency, towards turning everything into consciousness, towards rationalizing all impulses and feelings, and towards domination. If, then, he is a free character, he is very much like an Alfieri-esque tyrant. He wants to be everything. The first consequence of this is that, in its representation, space (because this, spatial, is its nature) must be false. This is a closed world; we are on stage or within a chapter. The door is locked; what is outside is totally arbitrary.
But inside, all possible spaces must coexist: those of childhood and old age, current and memory, evidence and modesty. So it is not possible to speak within the hierarchical order of perspective, because all things are equally close together and each involves countless others; and all want to be present and do not want to be forgotten. All means are useful for breaking down the hierarchy of formal and sentimental perspective including mirrors, with their illusions, alterations in size of common objects, the sudden rupture of an obvious line: all legitimate tricks of crafty set design. Sometimes the taste of deception dominates its anti-perspective role; it is the complacency of the ingenuous spell that raises a small revolving glass house on slender cables; the simple powerful pleasure of overcoming difficulty. Together with dryness and irony, that is the negative limit, the anguish of our character, who wants to be, without passion, complete, and create himself alone, piece by piece like a work of art. In the clear objectivity of this world, issues of 'taste' cannot, as we have seen, have meaning; facing the persistence of 'taste,' objects of bad taste have their liberating function—like perspective games. And they can almost always exempt themselves from the easy and timid weight of irony. After releasing architecture from received hierarchy, after having achieved the effort of liberation and self-construction, our character can let himself go and search for his form in that changing—and full of constantly branching-off—form of thought. The objects, the masses, the spaces on very different levels are juxtaposed, linked only by a constant moralistic desire for awareness that wants to see the evocations clearly, to render them tangible and explained, to create sculptural images of even simple verbal relationships and of the dark flights of reverie; while, at the same time, trying not to fall into literary symbolism or easy surrealism.
Women and shell face each other on two walls and create a single form in a mirror. The mirror evokes Venus and has the form of Venus; the mirrored objects become the mysterious members of the body of the young goddess. "The girl gives a slight push on the wing that gives flight to the bronze eagles of the chandelier and, following the celestial ship which oscillates and rotates lazily, thinks without surprise that those regal eagles know the sky and perhaps once flew for real; but the disturbing image of bronze eagles, alive and seeking to take to the real sky, has an abrupt end." In reality, the chandelier that can be carried by a hand runs on a track towards an eagle that one day had truly opened its eyes and suddenly stops at the white sky of the wall. If our character's omnipotence is that of the tyrant, if his freedom is that of the prisoner (even if a voluntary prisoner), his aridity is necessarily mortal. For this reason, a table becomes, in his eyes, a coffin, a slab—that of a tomb—and beneath the slab, Michelangelo's Prisoner is crushed. Thus the Miller House character, along with its infinite coexisting possibilities, also knows his death—and, with the death of the protagonist, the novel ends. Now we can sit at his table and write.
If the Miller House was only this story, and completely so and if the character had been born, lived and died whole in the architecture, we would be facing an entirely successful work of art. But, as we have repeated often, this house is also a work of 'taste' as elegant and useful as few other architects could make it. The two things do not coincide, or do not completely coincide, and from this derives its nature as an effort. Others will praise it, and rightly so , as an example of creating a set in practical terms. But what I am interested in instead is its tendency towards becoming poetic and disinterested architecture that shows us the possibility of a novel made of walls and objects, shapes and spaces. The suspicious reader alerted by this citation will say at this point, "Is that which is described and analyzed here is really only the Miller House, with its chairs, couches, mirrors, carpets, clothes-hooks and furniture, or is it not rather the Amante del Duca, a novel duly written in words by Carlo Mollino whose beginning we read a long time ago in a magazine and for whose ending we have always awaited in vain? We wanted art criticism and we fear that you have given us literary criticism or an essay on psychology." But I answer that the real interest in this Miller House, and the only reason that drove me to speak about it, is the very effort by the author to express himself, transcending autobiography, trying to settle himself objectively in a character that implies and characterizes all objects. That he is making the same effort (and more completely) in a novel written in ink does not take away from, but actually adds interest to, this other one, outlined here, and more fully described in other works through architectural means. It is not unimportant that this house—for those who can put aside its practical limits and read its originality—can appear to be a narrative. It would be right and pleasant if we could speak of architecture as a novel, and vice versa, without metaphor. For others, for that matter, the Miller House offers too many chairs sit on and sofas on which to sleep.
Carlo Levi

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