Born to design

SINGAPORE - After a day of exploring Singapore, Italian design maestro Mario Bellini is in awe. But it is not the new architecture or the glittering skyline that impresses him.

The 79-year-old, regarded as one of the best architect-designers of his time, is enamoured of older buildings and the preservation of green pockets in the city.

For example, he describes old shophouses in Blair Road as historical gems and marvels at how the green expanse of The Padang in St Andrew's Road has been retained.

Bellini, who has been in transit at the Changi Airport many times but saw the city for the first time two weeks ago, says: "It would have been such a crime to destroy the historical roots of this place. These same contemporary, modern buildings can be found everywhere else.

"But these historical buildings, which have survived for decades, tell how a place started. To live in a place without recognisable historical signs, it's really sad. You feel nowhere."

The Milanese was in town as part of a designer showcase by Cassina, a luxury furniture label sold at Dream Interiors in River Valley Road.

Bellini is a superstar in his own right. The multi-hyphenate maestro has had his finger in all the design industries in the last six decades of his career: architect, industrial designer, teacher, art exhibition curator, car designer and magazine editor.

At 24, he graduated from Milan Polytechnic's faculty of architecture. A young and newly married man, he needed a job but found it difficult to land a position as an architect.

So he took up the post of design director at La Rinascente, an influential chain of Italian department stores which was looking for someone to design furniture, furnishings and packaging.

Never mind that he had barely designed a building, let alone a table or a chair, at that time. But the three years he was there proved to be the start of an illustrious career.

In 1962, he won the Compasso d'oro, a prestigious and the oldest industrial design award in Europe, for a table.

The minimalist piece did not have a name then and was made after only a few initial sketches. It was one of eight Compasso d'oro awards he would go on to clinch. These include wins for Le Bambole (1979), a collection of beanbag-like sofas and chairs, and the Praxis 35 typewriter (1981) for Olivetti, an Italian manufacturer of gadgets such as computers, smartphones, printers and calculators.

He says of his early success: "I discovered that I was able to design things and they were immediately good. After getting my first prize, I went on believing in myself and I was proven right eventually.

"You have to be confident. I never lose faith. When I start something, I believe in it and I go on and on until I'm satisfied."

After his stint at La Rinascente, he was headhunted to become the chief design consultant at Olivetti, where he stayed until 1991. His iconic Programma 101 in 1964 was a desktop electronic calculator and is considered one of the early precursors to the personal computer today.

Along the way, he designed for other brands such as furniture and lighting labels Flos, Artemide, Vitra, B&B and Cassina. One of his creations was the famous Cab 412 chair, designed in 1977, of which more than 500,000 pieces have since been sold around the world.

He also made his mark in car design, having designed with Renault, Fiat and Lancia. In 1972, he collaborated with car-makers Citroen and Pirelli to design Kar-a-Sutra, a spacious car prototype for an exhibition.

The open-top car, with its apple- green shell, was designed like a living room on wheels. The concept car, regarded as an inspiration for future models of minivans, was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for an exhibition on Italian design.

In the 1980s, after a successful run with product design, Bellini went back to his first love - architecture. He started with projects such as the Technical Commercial Secondary School Rolando da Piazzola in northern Italy, which was completed in 1987, and the Tokyo Design Center in Japan in 1992.

Bellini, who has been a design professor at various institutions over the years, says the realms of product design and architecture are very different.

"The only connection between them is me. You should never mistake the human scale. A tray, a table, a room, a villa and a skyscraper are all growing in scale as you design, so you should set your brain to that scale.

"If you're designing an 800m-long building, it's absolutely forbidden to think of it as a long table," explains Bellini, who designed the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre museum in Paris, with French architect Rudy Ricciotti. It was completed two years ago.

He says he sketches only after he has formulated an image of a product or building in his mind, instead of going straight to the computer, as many young architects are wont to do these days.

"I'm able to design only if there is silence and I can imagine how the architecture will look like. In my mind, it's 3-D. If I sketch it, it's like a 2-D picture and you can't see anything," he explains.

He does not disdain technology though, and gets his younger architects in his Milan office to help turn his designs into virtual reality.

He jokes that he "torments" them, as he is precise about what he wants. He sits with them and tells them exactly how, for example, the light should shine and what materials to pick.

"I work with the best architects and I sit by their side, tormenting them, until the final rendering is what I want. They couldn't have done that on their own. I'm absolutely tormenting them to the end, but they're happy because they learn."

It is a method that works - often, the renderings are carbon copies of the actual product, which confuses clients looking at photographs of the real thing and mock-ups of the project.

He will hit 80 next year but the father of four - his son Claudio, 51, is also a celebrated architect and designer - is not slowing down. His first wife died about 12 years ago, and he has since remarried Elena, a 46-year-old journalist.

"Normally, architects die on the construction site... If you retire, you die immediately because you get lost. It's rewarding work. As soon as you create, you're alive."

So he is very much involved in designing new projects and getting new business.

You ask how he keeps coming up with new things. "First of all, I have a bad memory... which helps me," he deadpans.

"I never like to go back to things, unless it's to change the original product. Or there are some projects which never go to production, so 20 years later, when a client asks for something, I open my drawer and there are ideas from before which could be perfect for that job. We redevelop and update those. Good ideas are always good."

So good, in fact, that his products are often copied. But Bellini sees this as a compliment.

"Of course I get angry sometimes because they create so many different versions of my one product. But if they are copying it, it means that it's successful and they can get money out of it."

Bellini, who has 25 of his works in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, ends the interview with a word for aspiring architects.

"To be an architect or designer, you need a visual art attitude, where you have to be able to draw and be interested in things such as music, art and literature. If you don't have it, don't enter the profession. You have to be born with it."

Bellini's milestones

1935:Born in Milan on Feb 1. 1959: Graduates from the Milan Polytechnic's Faculty of Architecture and starts working as an architect. 1961: Department store chain La Rinascente makes him design director. 1962: At 26, wins the Compasso d'oro, a prestigious industrial design award for a minimalist table. It is re-issued by Spanish design company Andreu World in 2004 and named Cartesius, with an upated look. 1963: Becomes chief design consultant for Olivetti, an Italian manufacturer of computers, tablets, smartphones, printers, calculators and fax machines. Stays on until 1991. 1972: Designs Divisumma 18, an electronic printing business calculator manufactured by Olivetti. It is considered revolutionary because it is a compact, portable device and uses plastic, a new material at the time. 1973: Starts his own architectural and design firm, Studio Bellini, in Milan. 1986: Becomes editor of Domus, a prestigious monthly magazine on architecture, design and art. It is a post he holds until 1991. At the same time, he begins to branch out globally, handling numerous architectural projects worldwide. One of his major works is the Tokyo Design Center, which took about four years to build and is completed in 1992. 1987: The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York organises a retrospective, Mario Bellini: Designer, the first retrospective on a living artist. Today, 25 of Bellini's works are in the museum's collection. 1990s: He completes many projects in Japan, such as the Yokohama Business Park (1991) and the Risonare Vivre Club Complex in Kobuchizawa (1992). He also branches out to projects in other countries, such as the extension and redevelopment of the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia, where the design phase started in 1996. 2001: Wins his eighth Compasso d'oro for the Bellini Chair, which he designed in 1998. The chair was bought by MoMA for its cafe as well as by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, also in New York. Since its launch, the chair has won numerous awards, including the 1999 Bronze Idea Industrial Design Excellence Award from the Industrial Designers Society of America. 2011: Receives the Ambrogino d'oro, a prize conferred on the most prestigious citizens of the Municipality of Milan. 2012: Work on the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre museum, which he designed, is completed. The museum in the Visconti courtyard, at the heart of the Louvre, took him and French architect Rudy Ricciotti seven years to design and build. 2014: Designing a new eco-city in Zhenjiang, China. The project, near the Yangtze river, will house one million people.

This article was first published on July 19, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.