Did you know that Mario Bellini is “a very important architect”? This is how Frank Duffy described the Italian master at the opening of his London architectural show last month. Yet to the international design community he is a designer of chairs, products and artefacts – and a man of considerable standing.
Classic chairs and desking systems for Vitra and Cassina; adding machines and computers for Olivetti; a host of exhibition designs – including elements of the Milan Triennial 1986/88 (for which he co-ordinated cultural activities) – all created over a career of 30 years: here is one of design’s most fÃªted stars.
So fÃªted that in 1987 his designs merited a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – a rare honour for a designer, previously reserved for US greats Charles and Ray Eames.
He holds the coveted British title Royal Designer for Industry and counts seven Compasso d’Oro wins among his many prizes.
Duffy’s comments related only to the ten years of “real” architecture to come out of Bellini’s Milan office since 1984 on which the London exhibition is based. And the sheer scale of the models that comprise his Urban Islands – the title of the show – suggests that he is, indeed, important.
British architects would give their eye teeth to have won any job the size of the numerous Milanese office projects Bellini has handled, not to mention his extensive work in Japan and now his first building in Moscow – a complex housing the presidential office.
Brand new buildings such as the Tokyo Design Centre, completed in 1992, the ongoing DM9.5m (4.3m) Schmidtbank at Limbach-Oberfrohna in Germany, and the massive Milan fairground extension due for completion this autumn make a mockery of some of the smaller refurb tenders squabbled over here.
Comparisons with Terry Farrell spring to mind for the sheer scope of international projects, ranging from housing to civic buildings and offices. How many ten-year-old architectural practices can boast such a portfolio?
Further comparisons with Farrell centre on the show itself. Farrell’s retrospective was one of the big events of 1995 at the RIBA Architecture Centre, with oppressively huge models bearing down on visitors, witnesses to the developer’s might. Bellini’s collection of finely detailed models and continuous slide projections of his schemes wins in terms of sensitivity and style, for all its dim lighting. Many people who’ve seen it rate it as one of the RIBA’s best.
For Bellini, the shift to architecture was a logical step. “Mostly it involves a different team,” he says. “In Italy the shift from architecture to design is normal… to jump from product design to architecture is impossible.”
In true Italian style, he studied architecture before turning his hand to design. “I always thought of myself as an architect, but when I graduated I got married and I needed money,” he says. “I started to design products and furniture through a series of fortunate coincidences and very quickly became famous. That prevented me from doing anything else. When I do something, I like to put myself into it very deeply.
“After 20 years I felt the design magic was failing. Instinctively, I felt the need to prove myself and start with the second part of my life.”
He did not, however, have to prove himself to the design community. His years from the early Sixties as design consultant to Olivetti have given us office icons such as the Divisumma 18 calculator and the Lettera 35 typewriter.
His alliance with Rolf Fehlbaum at Vitra has likewise resulted in classic designs such as the Figura office chair and more recently the human-scale Metropol office system, heralded as a break with the idea of offices as bland spaces, devoid of personality. And then there’s furniture for the likes of Cassina and MarcatrÃ©.
“To be a good furniture designer, you have to be an architect,” Bellini maintains. “Everything meaningful that’s been designed has been by meaningful architects,” he poses, citing Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier.
The difference for him is that designers are fanatical, caught up with detail, while architects are passionate. “I hate to be fanatical,” he says.
Bellini can lay claim to a passion in his speech and in his writing, notably for Italian design bible Domus, of which he was editor for six years until 1991. But is there passion in the architecture?
The models in the exhibition suggest not to the British eye. People at the opening talked of the monumentalism of it all; others saw objects represented rather than buildings. Still others probably identified the “Milanese tradition of grand urban islands” of which US architectural historian Kurt Forster speaks in his introduction to the book accompanying the show.
But this is Italian urbanism at its grandest, not the ad hoc, quasi-domestic scale of much UK architecture. The thrust of the structure, the neo-classical features of buildings such as the Milan fairground are not as familiar in the UK.
Bellini’s passion lies in the power of it all, the gesture, and in a near-academic obsession with its meaning, with the place of architecture alongside design, the place of buildings in the city. The city, in fact, is where the dialogue lies. “A building always relates to the city it is in,” says Bellini, speaking of what he perceives as a lack of housestyle among his buildings.
He says only Kurt Forster can tell you how to recognise a Bellini building. The clues Forster throws out? The animal “spine” of the bigger complexes, the “triumphal gateway” – most prominent in the Milan fairground scheme – and the use of “the best” materials for starters. But more importantly, “Bellini’s architecture is always tied to the invention of sites: his buildings… hold within themselves a multiplicity of parts and a potential plurality of references. They create islands…”
“Buildings are not objects,” Bellini contends, “but spaces and cavities where you surround architecture with a magic concept.” He says you see “curiosity about materials in the details” of his architecture. Less kindly souls at the show read references to Jim Stirling into the snaking glazing of one scheme and elements of Bellini’s compatriot Aldo Rossi in the pink and grey banded brickwork of another. Bellini merely feels “many points of contact” with the likes of Stirling, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, and remains “very curious” about design.
He designs with a pen, preferring to “ping pong” ideas around with the fiftyish people in his Milan office rather than hide himself away. “When I start a design I don’t know where it will end,” he says. “It’s very experimental. I like to be nourished by the process.”
Whatever your view of the result, you’ll be nourished by the show, even if it does present only one face of this eminently rounded designer. It’s worth a visit.