In the 20th century, ‘Italian’ became a byword for all that was fashionable in design. Among all the designers in this period, and within Italy itself, Gio Ponti was the cornerstone. Yet so few of us know of him and his work. And when mainstream architecture and designers are becoming household names, it’s a shame that we don’t pay him more attention. So, let’s delve into the story of Gio Ponti.
Born in 1891, Ponti led a quiet life until the outbreak of the First World War and served in the Italian army until 1918 where he received distinguished service awards. After the end of the war, he went to university and graduated with a degree in architecture in 1921 – but the war did little to set back his career. By 1923, the young Ponti had become Art Director for the ceramic’s manufacturer Richard Ginori, and by 1925 he was designing and building his “domuses“, or “typical houses”, in Milan with Mino Fiocchi and Emilio Lancia.
These “typical houses” were simplistic and simply adorned from the outside, but inside, Ponti used radical ideas such as modular furniture and sliding partitions to make flexible living spaces. Ponti was one of the very first designers to advocate real decoration in design during the age of modernism, paving the way for the – now staple – Italian design brands like Alessi and Capellini.
At Ginori, Ponti also fused the old and the new with his designs for modern plates with classical motifs, introducing high standards of quality control; for him, there was no contradiction between the craft of the artisan and the industrial process. “Industry is the style of the 20th century, its mode of creation” he wrote – an idea that would define Italian design of the post–war period.
In 1925, while working with Richard Ginori, he participated in the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris and met Tony Bouihet. Bouihet was, at that time, the director of the silversmith company Christofle, and it was this friendship that led Ponti to his first architectural project abroad. He teamed up with this architectural colleagues Fiocchi and Lancia to create Ange Volant, a small country house on the edge of Paris.
But Ponti wasn’t just famous for his architecture, he was a jack of all trades, and a master of all of them.
The sheer volume of his work is immense. In a career that spanned 50 years he tried his hand at everything from ceramics to cathedrals, costumes, chairs, fabrics, and cutlery. Where most architects are remembered for a few buildings, Ponti is remembered by spectacular forays into different sectors of design.
But why the low profile? It could be because Ponti was mainly influenced by two seemingly incompatible styles, the first being Novecento Italiano – a Milanese conservative neoclassical movement founded in the 1920s – and, the second, 1930s modernism. This makes him difficult to place in one design movement and his work doesn’t really fit into any style, it spans so many theories and styles that no one knows where to put him.
While he generally blurred the lines of modernism, he typically chose to move away from the restrained palette and instead embrace bold, decorative effects, patterns, and exuberant colour. The clifftop hotel, Parco dei Principi, in Sorrento is still covered in ultramarine and pearlescent blue ceramic tiles from 1960.
A main factor of Ponti’s success must have been his work ethic. A true workaholic at heart, he arose at 5am and didn’t get back before 7 in the evening. Often, he was in his own world, thinking about his projects and their possibilities. So much so that he was once asked by his wife to pick up the children from school, and returned an hour later complaining that they weren’t there. He was so absorbed in his own world he went to the wrong school.
His ability to delve into so many different areas of design must have been helped by his constant desire to experiment with both theories and materials, and he saw his magazine, Domus, as a vehicle for bringing them into the public view. Domus was established in 1928 and Ponti edited it until his death in 1979, once again showing his insatiable appetite for work. It was within Domus’ pages that Ponti described the world as he saw it.
When the Second World War came to an end in 1945, it was time for Italy to rebuild itself. The heavily bombed northern cities of Turin, Genoa, and Milan were set to become industrial epicentres for the nation, and Ponti was a great believer in its power. He promoted the positives of a city that could harness its industrial power, asking the cities’ innovators to produce more and more Italian design, but to never forget their rich artisan heritage. The 20th Century was dominated by Modernism, but it was Ponti’s vision that careful decoration and modernist ideas could coexist and become compatible.
It was this fervent support of artisanal industrialisation that laid the pathway for high quality firms such as Flos and Driade to come to fruition and even inspiring Italy’s now famous fashion scene with the birth of Dolce and Gabbana.
Ponti’s vision of a compatible decoration in modernism was born with his La Pavoni coffee machine that he released in 1948 – the beautiful sleek and sexy chrome mixed with an aggressive, masculine shape. After a hesitant start, it became an Italian coffee staple and was exported globally.
In 1957, Ponti produced his best-known work (at least to furniture designers), the “super-light” or Superleggera chair for Cassina. Ponti realised that, after the war, design was heading in one direction, from heavy to light. It was ‘lightness’ that was the key behind the Superleggera chair, so much so that they took images of a child holding it with one finger (an image I keep in my office).
The chair is crafted from the light and stable ash timber with a natural, woven Indian cane seat. Ponti wanted it to be light, yet not compromise on its durability. Not satisfied with the theory of its durability, he wouldn’t let it be sent into production without proof, and each prototype was thrown off of a 4-storey building until it landed intact. Thankfully it worked and we now have one of my favourite chairs of all time.
‘Lightness’ was an idea that Ponti would regularly return to; the Taranto Cathedral, sitting on the ‘heel’ of Italy, has a perforated facade, and is known locally as “the sail”. The Villa Planchart, in Caracas, was designed with the walls to have gaps both above and below that were illuminated from behind. This gave the effect of the walls and ceiling floating, an idea that would be copied over and over for decades.
His crowning achievement (for architects), the Pirelli Tower, has this same “lightness” effect. At completion in 1957, it was the tallest building in Europe, standing at 127 metres. The shimmering glass structure that marks the centre of the fashion, furniture, and product city is still as remarkable as it was when it was built. Although it is a huge building, the materials and its 6-sided diamond shape gives the building a lighter, and more delicate, appearance.
It was a shape that he went back to time and time again, and we’re lucky he did. Ponti’s career was a seemingly endless story of ingenious forays into materiality, form, and different design sectors. When writing this, I honestly wondered how I was going to end this article, there was just so much information and achievements to fit in!!!! Perhaps we will return to this great designer again in the future.
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