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Architect, designer, writer, editor – Gio Ponti has been called the “Godfather” of Italian design. With his prolific and extraordinarily diverse oeuvre he left a lasting mark on the development of twentieth century architecture and design. Primarily in his homeland and later, the world.
Gio Ponti was born in 1891 in Milan, the city in which he lived and built his entire career. Upon finishing his architectural studies at the prestigious Politecnico di Milano in 1921, he set up a studio with two of his colleagues. Within his practice in the following years, he focused mainly on residential architecture in the Novecento Italiano style, an artistic movement closely associated with Fascism. The aftermath of the First World War had fueled a return to order in both politics and the arts, calling for a modern interpretation of traditional art, namely classicism.
His first building – a house in Via Randaccio, Milan strongly reflected these newly revived classical values. For Ponti these were inspired by Palladian villas he saw during his service in the war. While his focus would later shift towards a more austere, rational Modernism, erasing the ornamental from his designs, his infatuation with classicism was the driving force of the beginning of his career in the twenties and a lasting element in his work.
However, despite being an architect by profession, it was not his architectural work that marked this decade of his career. It was his indispensable contribution as artistic director for Richard Ginori which transformed the porcelain manufacturer’s direction and fortune. Drawing inspiration from traditional forms and motifs, he designed many pieces during his involvement with the company, winning the Grand Prix at the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. It was his approach in incorporating tradition into innovation and merging craftsmanship with mass production which ultimately earned him critical acclaim.
Not long after, in 1927, Ponti and his collaborators exhibited two vastly different collections at the Third Monza Biennale – Il Labirinto and Domus nova. While the former included furnishings targeted towards a more exclusive clientele, Domus nova, designed for La Rinascente department store, attempted to make modern living affordable. Compared to avant-garde designs launched in Europe at the same time, the collections were hardly revolutionary, nor were they particularly accessible to the masses. Instead, they were a representation of the cultural climate of Italy in a period of transition from traditional to modern; another example of Ponti’s attempt to deliver handcrafted quality by industrial means.
In 1928, Ponti founded Domus Magazine. He used it as a platform for expressing his ideas and views on all things design. Named after the Latin word for house, Domus aimed to define the qualities of modern living and provide an insight into new trends, exploring the characteristics of the Italian style. The first editorial dealt with the topic of the Italian House (La casa all’Italiana). In it, Ponti expressed a contrasting viewpoint to Le Corbusier’s “machine for living in”, a point of interest of the 1925 exhibition both architects attended. Ponti emphasized the importance of comfort in a home, stemming not from the fulfillment of functional needs, but from a more abstract place. “Its ‘comfort’ lies in something superior that gives us, through architecture, a measure for our very thoughts. It lies in safeguarding our customs through its simplicity, in giving us with its generous welcome the sense of a confident and rich life, and finally in its easy, cheerful and ornate opening outward to communicate with nature, the invitation the house offers to our spirit to re-create itself in restful visions of peace: herein lies the full meaning of that fine Italian word CONFORTO.” This was what made Italian living for Ponti; what he strived to express in his design.
The biennial exposition in Monza became the Milan Triennial in 1933. Gio Ponti was a member of the organizing committee, while also exhibiting his own work. His involvement with the Milan Triennial was of great significance. For the 1933 event, he built the Torre Littoria, a permanent building on the site. Three years later he presented his furniture at the exposition.
A government-led effort to advance the Italian industry in the ’30s led to a greater incorporation of modern materials and technologies in design in the following decades. This shift in mindset is evident in Ponti’s furniture design of the ’50s. By this time, the focus of his classical inspiration had shifted from ornament to the fundamental principles of mass and proportion. Along with the development of the times, it resulted in a very different aesthetic to his early work.
The Superleggera chair is the embodiment of a stripped back craftsmanship of a new, industrial age in design. In 1970, he presented his Sedia di poco sedile or small-seated armchair, in which he utilizes steel for the frame. The two pieces are completely different, yet similar in the intent of mass-produced masterpieces. Besides his famous furniture designs of this period, Ponti’s work with Venini, a Murano glass manufacturer and influential advocate of modern design, is also worth noting. His distinct, multi-colored light fixtures were the most famous products of the collaboration.
Arguably his most famous building is the Pirelli Tower, built between 1956 and 1958, which he designed with renowned engineer Pier Luigi Nervi. Juxtaposed against its historical surroundings, the tower is inherently modern, representing the Italian take on the US skyscraper. It stood as the tallest building in Italy for several decades and was noted for its structural innovations. For Gio Ponti, it marked a marvelous period in his career.
One of his final projects was a particularly magnificent summary of his lifelong exploration of form – the Taranto Cathedral built in 1970. Designed in reinforced concrete, it possesses an unusual lightness, emphasized by geometric shapes resembling a paper cut-out. The project perhaps marks the end of Ponti’s career arc – from his neoclassical roots, to the peak of his career with the modernist Pirelli Tower, and to finish, this light-filled modern interpretation of a Gothic Cathedral.
At the beginning of 2019, a wood reconstruction of the Cathedral’s facade inaugurated the first retrospective exhibition of Gio Ponti at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Interestingly, the exhibition opens with the final stage of his career, in a museum which celebrates his beginnings – the decorative arts. An attempt at shining a light on the eclectic career of a spectacular figure, it combines essential elements of his oeuvre from all spheres.
Indeed, Ponti’s later work remains some of his most famous, but it was his early love of classicism that provided the fundamental basis for his entire career, making his beginnings the most influential. There was hardly a branch of design Ponti didn’t try his hand at, from decorative objects to furniture and architecture to name a few – the sheer heterogeneity of his work is something not many can boast of. However, it was arguably his omnipresence on the design scene which ultimately spread his talents too thin. Nevertheless, Gio Ponti was an extraordinary influence on the development of twentieth century design in Italy. His notion of true Italian living strove for peace and serenity, his work drawing inspiration from the richness of Italian heritage. It defined his philosophy, while he redefined Italian design.
Featured image: Gio Ponti by Anonimus [Public domain] / cropped from original
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