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Ornament and pleasure: He designed the Pirelli skyscraper in Milan, breathtaking villas in Caracas, a super-light chair and interiors of shimmering elegance. Now publisher Taschen-Verlag celebrates Gio Ponti’s versatile oeuvre in a magnificent volume.

By Thomas Wagner

Gio Ponti in 1959 at the New York Alitalia office, with two Supperleggera chairs placed one on top of the other.
Page 299. Gio Ponti in 1959 at the New York Alitalia office, with two Supperleggera chairs placed one on top of the other. Photo: Gio Ponti Archives/Historical Archive of Ponti’s Heirs (Photo Dan Wynn).

The Chiavari is a slender chair made of cherry wood with a rung back and woven seat. It was originally designed in 1807 by Giuseppe Gaetano Descalzi, a furniture maker in Chiavari, a small town on the Ligurian coast of Italy. For Gio Ponti, the connoisseur and admirer of a diverse Mediterranean culture, Chiavari was the ideal starting point in the 1950s for a light, stable, formally concise and yet elegant chair: the “Superleggera”. Its thin legs, which have a triangular cross-section at the bottom and top where they meet the backrest, make it filigree (the technical implementation was a challenge for Fausto Redaelli, the head of the wood workshop at Cassina). Ponti himself wrote about the great success of this icon of the “Stile italiano”:

“Compared to chairs with lofty names (…) this chair-chair came virtually out of nowhere, this inconspicuous chair, simple and innocent, was celebrated over time like a revelation. This ancient chair that had always existed, this primordial chair was hailed as a novelty, as the invention of the chair par excellence: it was photographed, sold, exported to America (…). And the moral of the story: in view of the frenetic pursuit of creativity, in view of the creative restlessness of our time, in view of the anxious effort to put one’s own stamp on even the smallest nail, we have moved so far away from the spontaneity of the true, the natural and the simple that the appearance of a simple object, natural, simple, ‘real’ and born out of spontaneity, astonishes people and reaps a completely unexpected success.”

Sometimes it is a mystery what the zeitgeist loves and praises.

Superleggera (model 699) for Cassina, 1957
Page 298. Superleggera (model 699) for Cassina, 1957. Photo: Gio Ponti Archives/Historical Archive of Ponti’s Heirs (Photo Giorgio Casali).

Anyone with even a slight interest in Milan, architecture and design will be familiar with at least two of Ponti’s designs: The filigree “Superleggera” and the striking Pirelli skyscraper located not far from Milan’s main railway station. If that’s not enough for you, because he or she intuitively suspects that behind the name Gio Ponti (the first name Giovanni stile milanese) lies more than just one of many architects who flourished so well in Italy in the 20th century, this magnificent volume by Taschen-Verlag presents a rich selection from Ponti’s diverse oeuvre and a wealth of facets of his way of designing.

That which distinguishes the culture of northern Italy

Gio Ponti (1891 to 1979) was an exceptional designer, one who designed everything from chairs to skyscrapers, from interiors to coffee machines, from museums to cathedrals: everything that shapes everyday life and awakens and shapes our understanding of the form of things. But he was not only a versatile and successful architect and designer. The talented draughtsman and painter also wrote media history as an author and editor-in-chief. And he acted strategically as a promoter of Italian industrial design. At least two things can be discerned from his oeuvre as a whole and from some of the twists and turns in his development: That the artist, in the words of Schiller, always remains a son of his time (without having to become its minion); and that beyond the clichéd notions of “modernism” there exists a vast and fertile land that still harbours much of what characterises the culture of design in northern Italy.

Sparkling simplicity

With this weighty volume, produced in close collaboration with the Gio Ponti Archive and edited and designed by Berlin art director Karl Kolbitz, the publisher has not only succeeded in paying homage to an exceptional artist. The appealingly airy and precisely laid out pages of this heavyweight (the volume, 572 pages in 36 x 36 cm format, containing 136 richly illustrated projects, weighs almost six kilograms) take you on a voyage of discovery. The longer it takes, the more clearly one realises how precisely and with an obsession for detail, at the same time how lovingly and playfully Gio Ponti was able to transform the seemingly strict rules of modernism into a profoundly humane, never dull or even boring, but always stimulatingly elegant “semplicità”. Into a simplicity inspired by the traditions of Italy and sparkling in the light of modernism. It is no coincidence that he himself spoke of architecture as a crystal.

Ponti was active for almost six decades, from the 1920s to the end of the 1970s. As early as 1923, he became artistic director of the Richard-Ginori porcelain factory and was one of the co-founders of the Triennale in Monza. In 1927, he opened his first architectural office in Milan, together with Emilio Lancia, with whom he had realised his first project in 1926, a residential building in Via Randaccio 9 in Milan. The fact that he founded the magazine “Domus” in 1928 together with Gianni Mazzocchi shows how active he was.

Zodiac Suite, ocean liner Andrea Doria, 1950.
Page 229. Gio Ponti with Piero Fornasetti, Zodiac Suite, ocean liner Andrea Doria, 1950. Photo Courtesy Paolo Piccione
Page 524. Church of San Francesco d’Assisi al Fopponino, Milan, 1961–64. Photo: Luca Rotondo.
Cover of Domus 270
Page 240. Cover of Domus 270, May 1952, showing the main reception room at the Vembi-Burroughs company in Genoa. Courtesy Editoriale Domus S.p.A (Photo Ancillotti).

An engine from which concentrated energy flows in the form of coffee

The fact that Ponti’s work unfolded in the midst of all the upheavals and upheavals of the 20th century, from the explosive machine dreams of the Futuristi to the neo-classical orchestrated power of the Fascists to the burgeoning industrial culture of the post-war period, enriched rather than limited it. During the fascist period, for example, he skilfully balanced their grip on architecture with ancient and rational elements. Without giving in to any of the ideologies, he took one or two impulses from the times. For La Pavoni, for example, he designed the “La Cornuta” coffee machine as a sculpture made of shiny metal in the spirit of Futurism. Its powerful profile combines mechanics and energy, elegance and machine aesthetics. La Cornuta is not simply a mechanical machine for preparing the typical Italian “caffè”; it is an engine from which concentrated energy flows in the form of coffee.

Light, slim, elegant

Thus, the range of Ponti’s activities and projects is also wide. Alongside ceramics, cutlery, lamps, the Villa Bouilhet (1926-27), the construction of the Faculty of Mathematics in Rome (1932-35), the first office building for Montecatini (1935-38) and many an extravagant interior, the incredible Villa Planchart in Caracas (1953-57) stands out in particular, a, as it is called, “spectacular spectacle of spaces for everyone who enters it”. Simplicity, heightened to elegance, also plays a central role in the construction, which rests on the ground like a butterfly. Ponti’s mastery reached its peak in the 1950s. The Villa Arreaza (1954-56), also in Caracas but unfortunately no longer in existence, was nicknamed “La Diamantina” because its walls were covered with diamond-shaped ceramic tiles. And the Pirelli skyscraper (1956-60) also derives part of its fascination from its “intelligent construction” and the abandonment of spaces with rigid right angles.

Again and again, crystalline structures appear when Ponti draws rooms that are shifted against each other, nested, jumping out of the right angle and liberating themselves. The arc continues with the Hotel Parco dei Principi in Rome (1961-64), the Denver Art Museum (1966-72), which appears closed off like a castle or fort and opens only through narrow slits, and the Gran Madre di Dio Cathedral in Taranto (1964-70), which stretches out a sail as a façade for the sky. Not to mention lesser-known gems such as the sympathetically crazy “Zodiac Suite” on the luxury liner Andrea Doria, which Ponti designed together with Piero Fornasetti in 1950.

Pirelli Tower, Milan, 1956–60
TASCHEN Gio Ponti. page 426-427. © Taschen. Pirelli Tower, Miland, 1956–60. Photo: Luca Rotondo.

A maestro-anti-maestro and man of qualities

If the word were not so hackneyed, one would have to speak of a uomo universale, so diverse were his fields of activity. His daughter Lisa Licitra Ponti (1922 to 2019), poet and artist involved with her father in “Domus” and later in “Stile”, called him a “maestro-anti-maestro”. In his extensive text, which describes Ponti’s origins in the Milanese bourgeoisie, his career “from the Novecento to Modernism”, his diverse activities and wide-ranging relationships in detail, Stefano Casciani speaks, not coincidentally and with a sideways glance at Viennese Modernism and Robert Musil, of a “man with qualities”. And as far as decorative elements in architecture are concerned, there is winking talk of “ornament and pleasure”.

The fact is, Ponti responds to complexity with increased transparency. The playfulness of his architecture is revealed in the way he balances the relationship between the hidden and the obvious. Thus his special kind of “semplicità” never occurs without the joy of playing with forms, the sensual quality of materials, surfaces and colours. Nothing in his work seems frozen, everything appears light, “superleggera” like his famous chair. Ponti’s modernism is not a revolution at any price. Its method is not a “tabula rasa”. His Mediterranean-grounded modernity is more like a tradition stripped of superfluous pounds that goes back to antiquity.

TASCHEN Gio Ponti. p. 462-463
TASCHEN Gio Ponti. Page 462-463. © Taschen

© Taschen

Gio Ponti

Karl Kolbitz, Salvatore Licitra, Stefano Casciani, Lisa Licitra Ponti, Brian Kish, Fabio Marino

Hardcover, 36 x 36 cm, 5,67 kg, 572 pages

Famous First Edition: Numbered first edition of 4,000 copies

200 Euros


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