Mario Bellini: furniture with a sense of freedom

A pair of Camaleonda armchairs for B&B Italia made €10,000 ($11,890) + the buyer’s premium in November 2020 at Viscontea Casa d’Aste srl. Photo courtesy of Viscontea Casa d’Aste srl and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – If comfort is king, then flexibility must be queen. Since its introduction in 1970, Mario Bellini’s modular Camaleonda sofa for B&B Italia has helped transform homes by combining both those qualities. Making a strong design statement in any of a number of luxurious earthy leather hues, the Camaleonda sofa melds comfort with beauty and architecture with design. Adapting to several configurations, the sofa allows each owner to consider how it might best be utilized in a given space. Although it was retired after only eight years of production, Bellini’s Camaleonda sofa nevertheless became iconic, and B&B Italia reissued this design 50 years after its debut.

As a designer and award-winning architect, Bellini (b. 1935) envisioned this sofa – one of his many furniture lines – to be an architectural element, and its mutable nature is what makes it so timeless. He has said that the genesis for its invented name is a mashup of the Italian words for chameleon (camaleonte) and the curve of a sea or desert (onda). “Both these words describe the shape and function of this sofa. Of all the objects I have designed, Camaleonda is perhaps the best in terms of its sense of freedom,” Bellini said.

Beginning in the 1980s, Bellini worked exclusively as an architect, but 1963 he also ventured into product and furniture design. In Italy, the ’60s were a time of great change in this industry, and his hometown of Milan was becoming an important design hub. This article focuses on his furniture, even though he has been a prolific designer of other items ranging from typewriters and office equipment for Olivetti, where he served as chief design consultant from 1963 to 1991, to cameras, televisions and even jewelry.

This 1970 modular sofa from Mario Bellini’s Camaleonda series sold for €16,500 ($18,109) + the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Aste di Antiquariato Boetto. Photo courtesy of Aste di Antiquariato Boetto and LiveAuctioneers

Whereas the Bauhaus aesthetic focused on simple lines and geometry, designers in the postwar era sought alternatives to this rigidity and experimented with new techniques, materials and ideas. Growing up in the austerity of the war years, Bellini was presumably eager to usher in a new era in design, creating imaginative but highly functional pieces.

“The new design was exciting in its use of highly seductive sculptural forms, its sense of humor; and its diverse and often conflicting aesthetic approaches,” said Cara McCarty in the exhibition catalog for the Bellini retrospective for New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1987, which she curated.

This 1970 modular sofa from the designer’s Camaleonda series earned €16,500 ($18,109) + the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Aste di Antiquariato Boetto. Photo courtesy of Aste di Antiquariato Boetto and LiveAuctioneers

Designing furniture for the home for Italian makers B&B Italia and Cassina, Bellini is renowned for both his playful designs and creative adaptation of new materials and techniques to create amply padded seating that was a radical departure from previous styles. This new look was in keeping with the public’s growing taste for more informal furniture. His cushion-inspired Bambole sofas certainly fit the bill. Echoing the flexibility of his modular seating, he also designed tables that could similarly be arranged and rearranged to create a nearly endless variety of layouts. His Gli Scacchi side tables, which resemble a set of three steps, can be stacked horizontally or vertically.

A set of eight CAB chairs from 1976 earned $12,000 + the buyer’s premium in January 2021 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Perhaps owing to his skills as an architect, Bellini’s furniture designs paid particular attention to the synergy between a piece’s frame and its upholstery, which he referred to as its skin and bones. Besides Bellini’s Camaleonda series, among his most renowned furniture designs is his CAB chairs, which he designed for Cassina in the late 1970s. These are noted for not being upholstered in fabric but wrapped with a leather skin that was stretched over the simple steel frame and zipped on. This design seems somewhat anthropomorphic in nature, almost as if the chairs were living things. By marrying traditionally made leather with factory-made steel frames, the designer combined old-world techniques with new – an unusual but effective approach.

This Chiara floor lamp from 1967 in stainless steel, enameled stainless steel and rubber fetched $7,000 + the buyer’s premium in May 2018 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

In addition to seating and tables, Bellini also designed lighting, such as his sophisticated Chiara lamp made of polished steel, which debuted in the 1960s. A tireless experimenter, he designed this cylindrical lamp topped with a hood similar in appearance to a sunbonnet. Reportedly, he created this and most of his designs from drawings and paper cutouts. In his Area Curvea lamps from the mid-1970s, he played around with different materials to find the best light-diffusing qualities.

Armed with an unquenchable curiosity and endless creativity, Mario Bellini has married his architectural prowess with production techniques to create a legacy in furniture design with pieces that are timeless and highly sought after today.

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