The opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey is so emblematic that it has become part of the collective imagination of modern society. In Africa four million years ago a large black parallelepiped monolith mysteriously appears in front of the cave where a group of great apes live. At first intimidated, the apes come into contact with the object and from this contact instinctively learn how to handle objects and use them as tools and weapons.
It is hard not to think of Bellini’s masterpiece. Of his Totem, to be more specific: conceived in 1971, it represents the Milanese designer’s adoption of a formal regularity at the end of a long study of form and function.
1971: Bellini’s Totem
The ethnographic dictionary defines a totem as a simulacrum symbolic of an object of worship. The totem is therefore always something to be venerated in place of something else that is not visible: a spirit or a deity in tribal communities, technology in our case. In fact, the highly sophisticated technology contained within is not visible until the Totem opens up, until it reveals its true essence.
Bellini’s Totem is certainly a design object that elicits reverence and veneration, and it does so on several levels: on a visual level for the complete lack of uncertainty that it communicates through its hermetic and rigorous lines; on a utilitarian level for the highly sophisticated Hi-Fi listening machine that it conceals within its cuboid shell.
A legendary object in which the simplicity of the external form is harmoniously articulated with the sophisticated content, the Totem, within the continuum of the home, it represents an unexpected and sublime order, cloaked in an essential rigour that cries out to be contemplated and listened to.
Fulfilling the destiny expressed by its name, Bellini’s Totem is closely connected with the mythical dimension that surrounds it, starting with its creator’s meeting with the top dog of Brionvega, Ennio Brion.
In the words of the designer, I met Ennio Brion in 1962 when we were both still very young. That year I was awarded the Compasso d’Oro prize for a dining, games and study table. Brionvega was awarded the prize for Doney, by Zanuso and Sapper. Ennio told me that he followed my work with interest and had long considered inviting me to collaborate with the family business. The opportunity presented itself six years later…
Mario Bellini began his career in 1963 as head of industrial design at Olivetti. He later collaborated with Cassina, Flos, Artemide and, of course, Brionvega, among others. During his career, he was awarded the Compasso d’Oro several times.
Bellini had this to say about his Totem: With Totem I did not want to appeal to the individual connoisseur, the passionate experimenter; rather, I gave the device a suitable form so it could be used more easily in a domestic context, not necessarily in a room where professional equipment is used.
The new domestic landscape
The urgency Bellini felt to redesign the domestic space beginning with furniture and interior design led him to participate in a major exhibition organised by Moma in New York in 1972.
The New Domestic Landscapes exhibition also redesigned the home, beginning with Brionvega objects.
Bellini understood that by working on the cabinet which contained the radio device the designer was able to rethink and reshape the entire domestic space. The radio, and later the TV, were catalysers of family life, all members of the family coming together to listen to radio broadcasts and share the domestic space.
As a central part of family life, the radio could now also be given central importance in the home and interior design.
The efforts of the designers who actively engaged in this formal research were made in the interest of the social metamorphosis that was beginning to take place within the traditional family in those years.
These designers rethought spatiality in relational terms by applying a structuralist approach to design.
In this sense, Bellini performed a little magic trick with Totem. Restoring the radio cabinet, and more generally the stereo, to its most elementary and archaic form, the cube. In doing so, he brought the vintage back into the everyday, but with a modern touch. Due to its material characteristics, the object avoids the harmonious camouflage of traditional interiors and, like a rock within the living space, inevitably alters its flow and internal circulation.
Design to worship… again
Exhibited at MoMA, the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art and many other museums around the world, the Totem is given a new lease of life today.
Bellini’s legendary cube stereo system achieves acoustic precision and excellence thanks to the choices and expert craftmanship of sound professionals who have taken care of every production aspect.
The production of the shell, the top-quality electronic components and high-fidelity loudspeakers ensure the unparalleled listening quality and definition of Bellini’s Totem.
When closed, the Totem looks like a cube: a geometric icon of eternal, timeless perfection. When opened it reveals a modern and cutting-edge technological core.
In the words of Mario Bellini.
“In the perfect purity of a cube, Totem conceals and encloses its “musical vocation”, which is revealed and shared with a touch of our hands, which open it up and release its full potential for reproducing sound. All the potential possible today.”
The act of opening the cube, putting a record on and playing music becomes a ritual in which the user is called upon to participate.
Bellini’s Totem is truly more than just a stereo system, it is a classic collector’s item that sculpts sound and turns it into art.