It’s hard to categorise Gio Ponti. The Milanese polymath seemingly tried his hand at anything that he could, moving seamlessly across architecture, industrial and product design, interiors, and editorial writing. However, despite such a divergence in his output, his central principles remained constant.
There are few categories of design in which Ponti was not, at one point, involved in and influential. Over a career spanning six decades, he built more than a hundred buildings in Italy and the rest of the world, whilst also leaving a significant mark on decorative arts. Through his rather influential magazine, he also became one of the most dominant voices in renewing Italian design during the 20th century. At the same time Ponti trained several generations of designers through his teaching at the Milan Polytechnic School.
A chair designed by Ponti, courtesy of Il Ponte Casa D'Aste.
While he may never have strayed into the world of horology, in our eyes, his work combines some of the same elements that get us excited about timepieces. Similar ideas of design, proportion, and functionality are at play. From the Pirelli Tower in Milan to the Superleggera chair, there are complimentary areas of appeal in the fields of design which he applied himself to. Due to the sheer scale of his career, it would be foolish of us to attempt to capture everything in one article. Rather, we wanted to take a moment to look at some of the key highlights in Ponti’s career, whilst also understanding the wider impact he’s had on the world of design.
A Disrupted Beginning
Giovanni “Gio” Ponti was born on November 18th, 1891 in Milan to Enrico Ponti and Giovanna Rigone. He would go on to enrol at the Politecnico di Milano University, now the largest technical university in Italy, which was also attended by Giovanni Battista Pirelli, the founder of the tyre manufacturer that Ponti would come to produce one of his most famous buildings for. His studies were disrupted due to the outbreak of World War One, where he served as a Captain in the Pontonier Corps from 1916 to 1918, receiving both the Bronze Medal and the Italian Military Cross.
After the war, Ponti was able to graduate with a degree in architecture in 1921, in the same year he would marry Giulia Vimercati. It wouldn’t take Ponti long to be recognised for his work, as he was named artistic director of the porcelain manufacturer Richard Ginori a few years later. This wasn’t his only role at the time, however. He was also beginning his architectural career in partnership with Mino Fiocchi and Emilio Lancia, whom he worked with over the next decade, from 1923 to 1933. From the very earliest days of his career, it was clear that he had no desire to be constrained to just one area of design.
Inside the workshop of Richard Ginori, where Ponti revolutionised the production process, courtesy of Interior Monologue.
During this era, his work was partially coloured by the rule of Benito Mussolini. While Ponti certainly never aligned his beliefs with the dictator, it was impossible to work in Italy during this time without some compliance to the system. For this reason, Ponti is often listed among artists who were part of the Novecento Italiano movement.
Throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, he was commissioned to realise a handful of foundational buildings, including his first complete project, where he not only designed the entire structure, but also the furniture and every small detail found inside. This was the office building for the Montecatini chemical group, which was completed in 1938 and could house 1,500 workstations. This would prove that Ponti was able to conceive entire worlds, and think about how the interactions within them should take place.
Gio Ponti and his wife Giulia, courtesy of the Gio Ponti Archives.
As if working for the ceramicist Richard Ginori and his own architecture firm wasn’t enough for Ponti, in 1928 he founded his first magazine, Domus. Still running today, it focused on the areas of architecture and design which inspired him the most. He led the magazine for most of his life, helping him become one of the most enthusiastic advocates of an Italian approach to the art of living and a major player in the renewal of Italian design after the Second World War. This is unsurprising when you consider the fact that Ponti was a prolific writer. In fact, it is said that in his life he sent roughly 99,900 letters. Many of them were accompanied with sketches and drawings by the talented designer’s hand.
Ponti the Collaborator
While his work took many forms and occupied different styles of design, one consistency that can be drawn across Ponti’s career is his continual drive to collaborate with other creatives. Whether he was forming his second architecture studio called Studio Ponti-Fornaroli-Soncini, where he teamed up with two engineers, or becoming the co-artistic director of glassmaker Fontana Arte with Pietro Chiesa, he always involved others.
These collaborations would be key, allowing Ponti to be involved in a multitude of disciplines without his time becoming dominated by any one of them. By the 1930s, Ponti had already transformed the production of ceramicist Richard Ginori, worked with glassmakers Venini, as well as the aforementioned Fontana Arte, and had founded the bespoke furniture maker, Labirinto group with Tomaso Buzzi, Pietro Chiesa and Paolo Veinin, among others.
Some of the furniture designs that Ponti produced over the years, courtesy of Il Ponte Casa D’Aste.
One of his biggest legacies was the work he did in promoting and displaying other artisans’ work through the Monza Biennials and Milan Triennials of Art and Modern Architecture. His work here as a member of the steering committee aimed to bring arts and industry closer together. As someone who had first-hand experience in bringing art to an industrialised setting, in his work at Richard Ginori, Ponti was perfectly placed to bring these two worlds together.
While his endeavours at the shows looked to bring two working worlds together, his purpose at his two magazines, Domus and Stile, was to present the work of other well-known artists to the public. Names such as Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and even Charles Eames graced the pages of the titles that Ponti oversaw. He helped to solidify, in Italy, what good style was, whether it was an entire building or a chair. Not only did Ponti hope to bring people together, but he also wanted to share good design with as many people as possible, in as many different mediums.
A spread from the issue of Domus published in December 1954, courtesy of Editoriale Domus S.p.A.
Possibly one of his best-known creations is the Superleggera chair. Ponti was commissioned by furniture maker Cassina to produce a new dining chair in the spirit of Industrial Functionalism. Stripping the idea of a chair down to its very basic form and working from there, Ponti’s aim was to create something that was not only simple to produce but as lightweight as they could manage. The idea was to make a chair and nothing else.
While it was a challenge to make it as lightweight as possible, Ponti was also forced to think about the production process, as Cassina wanted this to be easy to put together. Working with the Cassina engineers, he imagined a construction that simply slotted together, with little needed to hold it together, other than the parts that make up the chair’s frame. The story goes that Ponti was so obsessed with making this chair strong and durable that he would hurl prototypes out of a fourth-floor window and wouldn’t be satisfied until it landed in one piece. So sound was Ponti’s design that the chair is still in production today, 65 years after it first appeared in Cassina’s catalogue.
One side effect of collaborating with so many over his career was that Ponti’s ideas were at risk of becoming contaminated by others. A criticism often levelled at his body of work is that through his diplomatic spirit, he never stood strong on certain points and was all too happy to be swayed in one direction or another if it would avoid conflict. As a man who served through some of the worst years of the First World War and managed to navigate fascist rule without fully falling into the party line, this trait could be seen as a survival technique more than anything else. It did however mean that there were occasions where his ideals and vision seemed to get lost in the collaborative process which he clearly held above all else.
During the years of Mussolini’s rule, getting work from outside of Italy didn’t come particularly easily to Ponti, or any of his contemporaries either. A big shift came about in the ‘50s, when Italy was beginning to recover economically from the war. Ponti was perfectly positioned to make the most of this recovery, by standing as a representative of true Italian design and aesthetic. Thanks to his efforts in distancing himself from the former fascist regime, he was the right figure to bring Italy into the second half of the 20th century, when it came to many areas of contemporary design.
At the time of completion, the tallest building in Europe, the Ponti-deigned Pirelli Tower, courtesy of Fondo Paolo Monti.
The project that put Ponti on the international map was the commission for the Pirelli Tower. What was the second skyscraper in Milan and the tallest in Europe at the time, it became a monument to Italy’s post-war recovery. Ponti was commissioned by Alberto Pirelli, the president and owner of the eponymous brand, to build the tower on the site of the company’s first factory that opened in the 19th century. After its completion in 1958, Ponti’s status on the international scene blossomed.
These global commissions dominated Ponti’s work for the remainder of his life. He began work on projects in as far-flung locales as Tehran, Islamabad, and Hong Kong. This would allow him to integrate the different aspects of his work, as he developed diamond shaped tiles in collaboration with the Milanese firm Ceramica, that would adorn the facades of many of these international projects.
The profile plan of the Pirelli Tower, courtesy of Arch Daily.
The only project of Ponti’s that would be completed in the United States was the Denver Art Museum in Colorado. It was finished in 1971 and bears a striking resemblance to a castle. The thin and austere vertical façades that make up the building’s exterior were very much aimed at creating this defensive image, as Ponti was quoted saying, “Art is a treasure, and these thin but jealous walls defend it.”
A rather complex design, it involves 28 vertical panes around the outside that are covered in more than a million reflective glass tiles. Totalling seven stories with 210,000 square-foot of exhibition and storage space, it was one of the first high-rise galleries to open in the United States, designed to accommodate roughly 100,000 visitors a year. It is estimated that the gallery now welcomes somewhere around 850,000 people per annum. This led to a $150 million renovation project that refreshed the original façade and added an additional 72,000 square-feet of space.
Inside Villa Planchart, one of Ponti’s complete designs, located just outside Caracas, courtesy of Antoine Baralhe.
Ponti also took on private residential projects all around the world, starting off with ten villas in his home city of Milan, known as the “Ponti Houses” or “Case Tipiche”. One of the more famous designs that he would produce outside of Italy, however, was the Villa Planchart, located on a hill overlooking Caracas. Completed in 1957, also known as “El Cerrito”, it was commissioned by Anala and Armando Planchart. Made up of six bedrooms and totalling 10,000 square-feet, this was one of the most complete depictions of Ponti’s vision, as he not only designed the structure, but also the furniture and interior decorations. Featuring double-height floor to ceiling windows and a central open-air courtyard, the design aimed to make the most of the Venezuelan sun by allowing light to flood into every corner of this open and airy home. In a letter to the couple prior to completion, Ponti described the house as “a big butterfly poised on the hillside.”
With his own interpretation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s car port stretching out of one side of the property, the flying imagery becomes a lot easier to imagine. Having somewhere prominent to house his cars was important for Armando Planchart, as he would later become the region’s representative for General Motors. Aside from Armando’s cars and the couple’s art collection, Anala was also very proud of her orchids, but wanted them in the house. Having never seen an orchid before, Ponti required some explanation on what they were like and what they might need. This led to the interior courtyard, which acts as a big lightwell.
The striking silhouette of the cathedral in Taranto, known as Concattedrale Gran Madre di Dio, courtesy of Rick Stapleton.
Towards the end of his career, Ponti became fascinated with facades that allowed light to flow freely through them. Many of them appear like undulating, perforated sheets of paper. One of the most famous examples of this fascination was the cathedral in Taranto, a now rundown port-city on the heel of Italy. A highly religious man, Ponti had already designed a few churches during his career and reportedly jumped at the idea of tackling an entire cathedral. It became known as the Concattedrale Gran Madre di Dio, and is perhaps more striking for its use of negative space and openings “onto the immensity and the mystery of space and time”, as Ponti puts it.
Inside Ponti’s cathedral in Taranto, courtesy of Filippo Poli.
The full-width belfry takes its inspiration from the town’s history as a port and recalls the sail of a broad ship. Reaching 40 metres high, it is an imposing sight for a town that combines both the dramatic architecture of a medieval castle and the rather gloomy apartment blocks erected by Mussolini. As you enter through the triple bronze doors you are greeted with a low, wide nave that’s lit by a scattering of tiny hexagonal windows. This rises sharply as you reach where the crossing would normally be. Hidden from the rows of pews are large windows in the ceiling, which flood the choir with light. This is a rather dramatic touch, that shows Ponti’s mastery of light and shadow, needed to generate these illuminating effects. Unfortunately, the cathedral has seen better days and is now in need of restoration, if Ponti’s original vision is to be enjoyed by others for generations to come.
Today, it can be hard to place Ponti and his body of work into one classification. Having a career that spans over six decades and just as many disciplines, pinning Ponti down to a certain classification or category can be tricky. What also adds to this is that his work and style evolves with him over time, taking influences from the Novecento Italiano movement of the ‘20s, that was supported by Mussolini, as well as the far broader Modernism that perpetuated so much design in the first half of the 20thcentury.
A design sketch by Gio Ponti, courtesy of 1st Dibs.
One benefit of Ponti’s work spanning such vast areas of design is that, today, we can draw from him in so many different ways – be it his minimal use of decoration and materials for the Superleggera chair or the mastery of light shown in many of his residential properties. There is a lot that we can draw from Ponti, and there is much of Ponti’s influence in the design world around us today.
Here in the watch world, we are no strangers to collaborations, from the Harry Winston Opus series to the Genta-designed pieces from Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet. That being said, Ponti was perhaps one of the greatest collaborators of them all. Able to bring together differing industries due to his intimate knowledge of them all, he could gain people’s trust and seemingly bring out their best whenever he gathered them.
Banner image courtesy of David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection, Inside Utopia.