A retrospective on the work of influential Italian architect and designer Gio Ponti
Most people who think of Gio Ponti picture his elegantly simple Superleggera chair, created for Cassina in 1957—a chair so light that a child could pick it up with one finger—or the razor-edged Pirelli Tower which, when it was built in Milan in 1958, was the tallest building in Europe. But the remarkably versatile Italian architect and designer deserves recognition for so much more. During a prolific six-decade creative career he worked for 120 companies, built projects in 13 countries, produced and contributed to 560 issues as a magazine editor, wrote poetry, painted and taught. Not surprisingly, he was a renowned workaholic sleeping only five hours a night. When he died in 1979 at the age of 87, he was regarded as one of the most influential and revolutionary Italian architects and designers of the 20th century, having jumpstarted Italy’s cultural renaissance of the 1950s.
Born in Milan in 1891, Ponti was the only child of a middle-class Milanese family. Having obtained a degree in architecture in Milan, instead of following the usual route of joining an architecture studio, young Ponti spent most of the 1920s and ‘30s working with the 200-year-old Florentine porcelain company Richard Ginori, and adding rich colours and flamboyant forms to its historic designs. Ponti believed that architecture was much more than creating a structure, and should extend to furniture and accessories. The happy result is an eclectic oeuvre ranging from stage sets and costumes for Milan’s La Scala to glassware for Venini in Murano, as well as buildings, from contemporary homes to a cathedral. Ponti also created numerous ‘divertimentos’ such as glasses, mirrors and bottles, ink and watercolour sketches on paper, and beautifully crafted one-off pieces of furniture, often created especially for particular spaces.
A NEW AGE
Post-war Italy was a heady time for designers and some of Ponti’s iconic designs including the voluptuous 1948 chrome Pavoni La Cornuta espresso machine evoke the era’s renewed exuberance and style. Architecture and landmark buildings such as the Denver Art Museum in the US, the Concattedrale of Taranto in Italy, and the Bijenkorf department store in Eindhoven, remained Ponti’s core passion. As early as 1930, he was exploring new, flexible ways of living, outfitting his own house with modern features such as modular furniture, sliding partitions and an openplan bedroom. His last home was in the Via Dezza apartment building in Milan, where he encouraged all the other owners to specify their window designs adding variety to the streetscape, while in 1960, at the Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento, Ponti was given complete creative control of the design of the building, its decoration, furniture and even the tableware.
For many of his fans, however, Ponti’s greatest contribution was his outlook on design and creativity, shared through the legendary Domus magazine that he founded in 1928 and edited until 1941 and again from 1947 until his death. Domus— the name is Latin for house or home—became Europe’s most influential architecture and design publication, encouraging both young and established designers and artists such as post-modernists Alessandro Mendini and Ettore Sottass to explore new ideas. It is still in print, which just goes to show the strength of Ponti’s legacy.
“PONTI ENRICHED POST-WAR ARCHITECTURE, INDICATING THE PROSPECTS FOR A NEW ART OF LIVING”
ABOVE Sketches of the D.151.4 armchair by Gio Ponti, produced by Molteni&c
PREVIOUS PAGE A view of the seating area of the architect’s home in the Montecatini building; based on Ponti’s original drawings, the re-edition of the D.235.1 Montecatini chair is made entirely in polished aluminium; the D.235.2 chairs reworks the original Montecatini chair, with a seat and seatback in hide leather