Ceramics & design: a mutual attraction

In 2017, the Italian ceramics publisher Bitossi decided to entrust Nathalie Du Pasquier, a member of the 1980s design movement Memphis, with the design of its new collection. The aim was to create pieces that challenged the codes of ceramics. This is proof of the interest shown by a historic ceramic manufacturer (1921) in the creative power of a renowned designer. The very special work of ceramics attracts designers, just as the world of design uses this ancestral art to sublimate interiors, to create aesthetic pieces that reflect an atmosphere or a mood. These close links between design and ceramics will be discussed through the collaborations of the famous Italian glass company Venini, or the fabulous project for the furnishing of the Parco Dei Principi hotel in the early 1960s.

Ceramic creations for Bitossi, Nathalie Du Pasquier, 2018

Indeed, if there is one glassworks from Murano – the island with the historic tradition of glassblowing – that very quickly understood the value of collaborating with designers and architects, it is the highly reputed Venini company, founded in 1921. In order to establish its reputation and produce artistic pieces and collections, from the 1930s onwards, Venini’s directors called on designers from all over the world to inject – one might be tempted to say “blow” – creativity and originality into their production.

At Venini, the Italian architect and designer Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978) did not come from a traditional glassmaking background. In the traditional glassworks of Murano, know-how is often passed on from generation to generation, between people of the same family. Scarpa first became an artistic advisor to the Cappellin glassworks. He then joined Venini in 1932, before becoming the artistic director, a position he held until 1946.

Vase from the Sommersi series, designed by Carlo Scarpa for Venini, circa 1934. Small oval vase in blue sommerso glass with air bubbles and gold leaf inclusions.
Vase from the Incisi series, design Carlo Scarpa for Venini, circa 1940. Glass vase of type iridato cylindrical two-coloured, entirely decorated with engraved waves.
Coppa del serpente, design Carlo Scarpa for Venini, circa 1940. A glass bowl, murrine (coloured patterns) black, coral and white polished with a stylised snake decoration.

Venini quickly acquired an international reputation that went hand in hand with the renaissance of Murano glass. Henceforth, the glass factory attracts to her in the second part of the XXth century of the foreign designers of which : Tyra Lundgren, Ken Scott, Tappio Wirkkala. The greatest Italian designers also flocked to La Fornace, including Fulvio Binaconi, Tomaso Buzzi, Franco Albini, Piero Fornasetti, Alessandro Mendini, Gae Aulenti, etc.

Vase from the Pezzati series, design by Fulvio Bianconi for Venini, circa 1950. Glass vase with multicoloured Paris-type tessera, asymmetrical shape with a protruding tip and irregular edges.
Plate with decoration, technique “murrine”, design: Tapio Wirkkala for Venini, about 1968.
Mirror in glass and lithography on wood, design Piero Fornasetti for Venini, 1950.
Glass mirror and lithography on wood, design Piero Fornasetti for Venini, detail, 1950.
Maison Rapin
Pair of suspension lamps, Model No. 4023. Design by Franco Albini for Venini, 1955.

If designers respond favourably to the sirens of the great glass houses of Murano, the art of ceramics can also be put at the service of a design and furnishing project. A historical example illustrates this model with the intervention of one of the masters of Italian architecture, Gio Ponti (1891-1979), to transform and furnish the Hotel Parco dei Principi, located on the Gulf of Naples, in Sorrento.

Portrait of Gio Ponti
View of the sea from the Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento.
Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento

In 1960, Gio Ponti was commissioned to transform a former dacha into a hotel. Located on a cliff overlooking the sea, the setting was superb: the azure sea of the Amalfi coast and the dolce vita. The great Italian architect achieved a master stroke by building a palace of brilliant whiteness, expressing his taste for a modern radicalism through an architecture that celebrates the right angle.

Main façade of the Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento.
Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento

Another great achievement, and this is what interests us here, is the way in which Gio Ponti will arrange the interior space of the palace. For this project, the architect used the aesthetic qualities of ceramics. He designed 30 different types of ceramic tiles for the floor of the rooms. He says: ” I did a hotel in Sorrento and, although it wasn’t necessary, I decided that each of its 100 rooms should have a different floor. So I made 30 different models, each of which could be used to produce 2, 3 or even 4 combinations.

These tiles, 20 cm by 20 cm, which have gone down in design history (they are known as “Ponti Blue”), reflect the beauty of the place. They are blue, sky and white designs, reflecting the azure blue of the sea and the sometimes blinding luminosity of southern Italy. The motifs are geometries in space, stylised floral patterns, dynamic carpets of leaves… Gio Ponti had his famous tiles made in collaboration with Ceramica D’Agostino of Salerno. The hotel is truly a total work of art, with an exceptional chromatic unity.

View of the interior of the Hotel Parco dei Principi, Sorrento. Ponti’s decoration and fittings have been preserved, and the hotel still receives guests.
View of the interior of the Hotel Parco dei Principi, Sorrento. Today it is the Ceramica Francesco de Maio in Vetri that has the rights to produce the famous tiles designed by Gio Ponti
Interior view of the Hotel Parco dei Principi, Sorrento.
View of the interior of the Hotel Parco dei Principi, Sorrento. Another floor pattern designed by Gio Ponti in a room.
View of the interior of the Hotel Parco dei Principi, Sorrento. Gio Ponti found a means of expression in ceramics. Here, ceramic pebbles reminiscent of cave walls adorn the walls of the hotel’s lobby.

For Gio Ponti, ceramics was a field of experimentation. Long before he signed the transformation of the Hotel Parco dei Principi, the architect had been the artistic director of two factories belonging to Richard Ginori since 1923. One specialised in pottery and the other in the production of fine porcelain. Gio Ponti succeeded in modernising the production of ceramics, creating a system of families of pieces and thus dusting off the old-fashioned tastes of the forms and motifs inherited from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Vase with lid “La Conversazione Classica”, design by Gio Ponti for Richard Ginori, 1929. Polychrome porcelain.

Like Gio Ponti, another prominent figure in 20th century Italian design renewed the art of ceramics, developing a new aesthetic language in different periods. His name: Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007), the brilliant Italian designer who did everything. In the 1960s, Sottsass began using ceramics in his work.

Ceramics of Darkness series, design by Ettore Sottsass, 1963. In the early 1960s, Sottsass travelled to India and returned to Italy very ill. He even saw himself dying. This experience inspired this series, hence its name. A mystical way of exorcising his demons…
Ceramics in the form of totems created by Ettore Sottsass, 1980s. At the height of his “Memphis” period, Sottsass mixed materials in his pieces: polychrome ceramics and laminated wood. An explosive mix of genres and colours. The figure of the totem refers to the mystical questions of the designer. An element that is not surprising when we observe the African inspirations of the Memphis movement.

He finds a field of expression in which he applies the traditional techniques of Italian pottery to his vision of contemporary architecture. The objects he creates even represent his moods and philosophical questions. For Pierre Staudenmeyer, gallery owner and specialist in contemporary decorative arts: ” Ceramics is the common thread that underlies all of Sotssass’s work. Proof that the world of design and that of ceramics maintain a fusional relationship…

François Boutard