Mario Bellini (1935 – ) Italy’s most versatile designer

Mario Bellini Yellow Calculator

Mario Bellini (1935 – ) is one of Italy’s most versatile designers. Trained as an architect, he is known for his furniture and industrial design work. The new forms he developed for contemporary technology and furniture objects inspired designers internationally.

Bellini, who lives and works in Milan, where he was born in 1935, was part of Italy’s remarkable emergence in the 1960s — and especially Milan — as a major design centre. The 1950s, a reconstruction period and dramatic industrial growth, marked the beginning of a new phase in Italian design. Unlike many countries, Italy was relatively free of a strong manufacturing tradition and became receptive to new, experimental furniture and industrial design approaches. It was a time of great optimism and energy. Postwar Italian design represented an alternative to the Bauhaus emphasis on function and simple geometric shapes, which had taken hold in Italy in the 1930s primarily in terms of its aesthetic ideas rather than those of its ethical programmes, as elsewhere in Europe. Thus, Italian designers of the 1960s were relatively free from the limited aspects of modernist dogma. The new design was exciting in its use of highly seductive sculptural shapes, its sense of humour and its varied and often conflicting aesthetics.

Set of four "Cab Chair" Mario Bellini
Set of four “Cab Chair” Mario Bellini

Italian design today’s international prominence derives from several factors:

  • Talented and creative designers.
  • A tradition of craftsmanship.
  • Open-minded and enthusiastic manufacturers of both small and large companies willing to experiment and take economic risks with new products.

Manufacturers of furniture such as Cassina and B&B Italia were not merely producers, but formed close alliances with designers and were actively involved in researching and developing new materials and techniques. In most Italian firms, the strong commitment to producing a well-designed object, combined with this collaborative approach, encouraged the development of the designer’s expression and helped ensure the final product’s quality. Bellini’s work exemplifies the level of excellence associated with Italian design.

Mario Bellini Pianura lounge chair Cassina Italy 1971
Mario Bellini Pianura lounge chair Cassina Italy 1971

At a decisive moment in twentieth-century design history, Bellini began his career: the transition from mechanical to microelectronic. During the 1960s, extraordinary steps were made in the development of microelectronics; these reduced previously bulky and heavy mechanical parts to miniaturised circuitry, replacing what was large enough in the 1950s to fill a room with components small enough to fit into the hand. With no specific shape and free from the rigorous restraints of mechanical interdependence, microcomponents could be combined in many ways, giving designers a unique opportunity to create new industrial forms. Bellini’s work takes full advantage of the latest technology’s formal freedom.

Programma 101 Electronic Desktop Computer 1965
Programma 101 Electronic Desktop Computer 1965

His inventive forms established vibrant and metaphor range. Anthropomorphic references penetrate his work. One example is the “stretched membrane,” used in the 1960s. This single enveloping material, usually of plastic or leather, resembles skin when “stretched” over the prominent structural parts of furniture or machines, creating sensual curves. A recurring theme, the elastic membrane gives its furniture and industrial products an expressive, sculptural character.

Brionvega TV 1980
Brionvega TV 1980

He rarely uses drawings instead of using dialogue, experimentation, and touch. His ideas are realised in full-scale models by engineers and artisans, then refined through direct physical contact. Unlike many designers working primarily on the drafting board, Bellini’s approach is intuitive and sensory; his concern about how users experience the object contributes to its tactile and sculptural quality. The technical drawing of a draughtsman is made only after his design is final.

Bellini’s earliest work is experimental, elegant, dramatic, and often poetic, with curvilinear lines and anthropomorphic characteristics. His designs became more geometric and rational since the 1970s. But his tactile Mediterranean sensitivity and respect for the materials and classical forms of traditional Italian culture have exerted profound influence throughout his work.

Olivetti ‘Divisumma 18’ portable calculator
Olivetti ‘Divisumma 18’ portable calculator

Mario Bellini graduated from Milan Polytechnic in 1959. Like many of his contemporaries, he directly designed furniture and industrial products. He won first of seven Compasso d’Oro awards in 1962. In 1963 he became the Olivetti Company’s chief industrial design consultant, forming a relationship that continues to this day, from which much of Bellini’s best work came. He also designed important furniture for Cassina, B&B Italia, and Vitra as an independent consultant; Brionvega and Yamaha electronic equipment; and Artemide, Flos, and Erco lighting.

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