Culture

Gio Ponti, the father of Italian industrial design

Giovanni Ponti (1881-1979), known as “Gio” Ponti, is a major figure in Italian and international design in the 20th century. It is difficult to sum up such a long career in a few lines, since from the 1920s to the end of the 1970s, this original and eclectic personality was at once a renowned architect, an interior decorator, one of the first to bring design into the industrial era, a teacher who trained several generations of designers, an organiser of major events and a respected author. Like his compatriot Joe Colombo, Ponti was a workaholic and a relentless creator.

To understand the considerable influence Gio Ponti had on his contemporaries, it is important to note that he was a central figure in Italian artistic and institutional life in the 20th century. In addition to his own work, in 1928 the Milanese created the famous magazine Domus, considered by many to be the Bible of architecture and design, which he continued to edit until his death, except for a short period during which he collaborated with the magazine Lo Stile.

Very involved in the post-war Italian furniture industry, Gio Ponti helped to create the Compasso d’oro prize in 1954, which rewards designs made in Italy. This prize still exists today and has been awarded to some of the greatest designers, such as Ettore Sottsass, Vico Magistretti, Konstantin Grcic and Philippe Starck.

Another feat that placed this Italian designer at the heart of his country’s architectural ecosystem was his appointment in 1925 to head the Monza Biennale, one of the first international events devoted to the decorative arts. Under his impetus, the Monza Biennale became a Triennial in 1933, which would henceforth be held in Milan, the capital of design. The 22nd edition of this unmissable event will take place from1 March to1 September 2019.

As anarchitect, Gio Ponti made a name for himselfin 1925 with his own house in Via Randaccio in Milan, and then with the country house L’Ange Volant in Garches (France), his first foreign commission. The architect used a neoclassical language. The style is academic, recognisable, for example, in the Via Randaccio façade, decorated with obelisks, or in the Palladian character of the Ange Volant

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Gio Ponti’s personal house, via Randaccio in Milan (1924-1926).

The Villa Bouilhet or House of the Flying Angel, Garches. Architect: Gio Ponti, 1926. The Palladian-style house was built for Tony Bouilhet, director of the Christofle brand at the time. It was Gio Ponti who gave this family home the name “The Flying Angel”, in reference to Carla Borletti, Tony Bouihet’s wife, but also Gio Ponti’s niece by marriage (through his Milanese wife Giulia Vimercati).

Maison de l’Ange Volant, Garches, interior view.

Considered one of the masters of Italian architecture, Gio Ponti progressively abandoned the neoclassical style to reflect on and design a modern habitat. His most emblematic achievement remains the Pirelli Tower or skyscraper (Torre Pirelli), built from 1956 to 1960 in Milan, in collaboration with the engineer Pier Luigi Nervi. It illustrates the architect’s obsession with the perfect form, which he conceptualised as a ‘finished’ form, symbolised by the crystal. The architecture of the Milanese building does not allow for additions and/or modifications.

Pirelli Tower, 1956-1960, Milan. Architects: Gio Ponti, Alberto Rosselli, Antonio Fornaroli & Luigi Nervi.

In parallel to his career as an architect, the Italian maestro initiated the design culture in Italy in the 1920s and 1930s. Nearly 1,000 design projects were to mark his career: chairs, tables, sofas, lighting, domestic appliances, furniture and sanitary installations; for Cassina, Artemide, Frau or Ideal Standard… But the most remarkable thing is that he is considered by many, and rightly so, to be the originator of Italian industrial design.

In fact, in 1923, Gio Ponti became artistic director of the Richard Ginori porcelain factory, which marked the revival of Italian art ceramics. Convinced of the necessary reconciliation between art and industry – in the image of the teachings of the Bauhaus at the same time – Gio Ponti moved the factory from the artisanal era to mass production. To this end, he renewed the entire production process and created the Grandi Pezzi d’Arte Destinati alle Collezzioni e ai musei (Large Art Pieces for Collectors and Museums) collection.

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Gio Ponti & Libero Andreotti, La Conversazione Classica, collection Grandi Pezzi d’Arte Destinati alle Collezzioni e ai musei, majolica porcelain, Manufacture Richard Ginori, 1927

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Gio Ponti, Prospettica majolica vase, collection Grandi Pezzi d’Arte Destinati alle Collezzioni e ai musei, Manufacture Richard Ginori, 1926.

Gio Ponti knew how to do everything with talent. In 1933, he designed the 0024 suspension lamp for Fontana Arte, a subsidiary of the Luigi Fontana company of which he had become artistic director in 1931. Horizontal discs in transparent tempered glass form an elegant and timeless sphere. In a completely different style, still for FontanaArte, he had designed the Bilia lamp a year earlier, based on a sort of geometric obelisk, a form he was particularly fond of.

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Suspension 0024, design by Gio Ponti, for FontanaArte, 1933. The lamp is still in the Italian publisher’s catalogue.

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Bilia lamp, design by Gio Ponti for FontanaArte, 1932. The Bilia, like the Suspension 0024, is still part of the Italian publisher’s catalogue.

In 1948, Gio Ponti, a creative mind, revolutionised the Italian coffee machine. At the request of the Italian manufacturer La Pavoni, he created a unique style of espresso machine. With the help of designers Antonio Fornaroli and Alberto Rosseli, he designed the boiler system that heats water under pressure, with the body of the machine being designed horizontally, a first. The industrial-inspired design emphasises the curved lines of the machine, which displays superb chrome-plated stainless steel dispensers. La Cornuta (The Horn) was born and became the symbol of the Italian Dolce Vita.

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La Cornuta espresso machine, design by Gio Ponti for La Pavoni, 1948.

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La Cornuta espresso machine, gleaming chrome for a pure line, an object that has become cult..

Finally, we cannot mention the design genius that is Gio Ponti without mentioning the 699 Superleggera chair designed for the publisher Cassina in 1957. In his search for a lightweight yet robust seat that was compatible with mass production, Gio Ponti achieved a master stroke. His chair, which weighs only 1.7 kg, is designed without screws or nails, all the parts fitting together.

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699 Superleggera chair, design by Gio Ponti for Cassina, 1957.

The thin triangular legs of the seat illustrate Gio Ponti’s constant taste for experimentation and his search for a balance between lightness and heaviness. His design is deeply marked by this quest, between complexity and simplicity, tension and relaxation, or past and future. Still published by Cassina, with a limited edition released in 2016, the 699 Superleggera has become an icon of modern design. Today, most of the furniture created by Gio Ponti is faithfully remade and reissued by the Italian publisher Molteni & C.

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699 Superleggera chair, limited edition 2016 at Cassina. The new version of the chair is revisited with the Boxblocks fabric designed by Dutch artist Bertjan Pot.

François Boutard