Lytle Shaw: The Mollino Set
Who is Carlo Mollino? In 1933, he is a twenty-eight-year-old architect who has just received a commission from Mussolini’s regime for his first building: an administrative center for a provincial agricultural federation in Piedmont. Three years later, he is devising the furnishings for a new apartment in his hometown of Turin, marking the beginning of his parallel career as a designer of furniture and interiors. In 1949, he publishes a book on photography—a lifelong passion that in the 1950s would turn in the direction of soft-core pornography—and in the following year, an idiosyncratic technical treatise on Alpine skiing. A car of his design, notable for its asymmetry, is among the entries at the 1955 Le Mans 24-Hour race, and in 1956, he acquires a pilot’s license to indulge his penchant for aerial daredevilry. Alongside all this, Mollino manages to sustain a life in academia, teaching architecture at the University of Turin until his death in 1973—the year that saw the completion of his greatest work, the Teatro Regio.
Who is Lytle Shaw? In 2017, he is a middle-aged professor at New York University and a scholar of some repute who has just received an intriguing offer from a stranger in Belgium to write a text on Mollino’s life and work. Traveling to northern Italy over the course of the next year to conduct what he calls “field research,” Shaw comes to realize that Mollino’s conflicted legacy offers a unique window on the role that postwar Italian politics and culture played in the country’s reimagining of itself as a victim, rather than a proponent, of fascism. But almost from the very beginning, his on-the-ground investigations are stymied by a series of mysterious, and increasingly perilous, incidents that suggest he is but a pawn in a larger game beyond his powers of comprehension. The skein of intrigue begins to unravel, and so does Professor Shaw as he comes to understand that the only way to survive the malicious plot hatched against him is to adopt—despite his constitutional timidity and innumerable physical shortcomings—Mollino’s swashbuckling style as he is chased down the ski slopes of the Aosta Valley and across the rooftops of Turin.