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Gio Ponti, Designer of a Thousand Talents

[Source: Alice Rawsthorne | The New York Times]

MILAN — It was quite a career. As a designer, Gio Ponti worked for 120 companies. As an architect, he built in 13 countries. As a magazine editor, he produced 560 issues and wrote at least one article for each one. As an academic, he lectured in 24 countries. He also found time to dictate some 2,500 letters and draw 2,000 illustrated letters, as well as for painting and poetry.

Ponti, who died in 1979 at the age of 87, emerged as one of the most influential Italian architects and designers of the 20th century, whose Pirelli Tower still soars above his native Milan. Summing him up has always been tricky. Not only was he extraordinarily prolific, his work was unusually eclectic, reflecting the diverse, often conflicting, styles and ideologies with which he experimented over the years.

Gio Ponti’s iconic 1948 espresso machine La Cornuta. Credit Gio Ponti Archives

Germano Celant, the curator of “Expressions of Gio Ponti,” a retrospective running through July 24 at the Triennale museum in Milan (www.triennale.org), begins his essay in the catalog by admitting that it is “impossible to condense” Ponti’s achievements into a single show. Curators often make similar statements, which usually sound suspiciously like excuses, but with Ponti it is true.

Rather than trying to present a potted history of his career, Mr. Celant has chosen some 250 of Ponti’s tens of thousands of works to tell his story as a series of vignettes. Sadly, he is hindered rather than helped by the exhibition design. Built as an art museum in the Mussolini era, the lugubrious Triennale often overwhelms its shows, including this one, which has the bleak air of a trade fair. “Expressions” also had a difficult birth. Originally intended as the debut exhibition of La Triennale’s satellite museum in New York, which was due to open last fall, it ended up in Milan after the New York project was suspended.

Ponti in 1955 in Caracus.

Gio Ponti Archives

What a treat it has turned out to be. The exhibits are so luscious that, despite the drab design and checkered history, the show shines with Ponti’s joyful spirit, and the subtlety, sensuality and intelligence of his best work.

Like so many of the maestri, or masters, who established Italy as a global design center in the mid-20th century, Ponti originally trained as an architect and entered industrial design by developing products for an Italian company. His employer was Richard Ginori, an 18th-century ceramics manufacturer based near Florence. During the 1920s and ’30s, Ponti collaborated with its artisans to develop intricate, beautifully crafted ceramics, sumptuously decorated, often in the neoclassical style.

Two works by Ponti for the 18th-century ceramics manufacturer Richard Ginori in 1935.

Gio Ponti Archives

Stunning though those pieces were, they look archaic compared to the ascetic “modern” style then being embraced by Ponti’s peers. Designers today are encouraged to be expressive, but not then. Self-expression was seen as an unnecessary distraction to the serious business of functionalism. Ponti’s early experience at Richard Ginori fostered his love of rich colors, exuberant shapes and fine craftsmanship, all of which were deeply unfashionable for most of his career, but remained important to him, even though his work became less flamboyant over the years.

Some of the pieces at La Triennale, including Christofle silverware and Venini crystal, as well as the Richard Ginori ceramics, are dazzling examples of craftsmanship, as are the beautiful embroidered 1930s silk fabrics for Vittorio Ferrari and sumptuous 1935 cabinets made from briar roots.

Gio Ponti originally trained as an architect, with his masterpieces including the Villa Arreaza (1956) in Caracas.

Gio Ponti Archives

Even Ponti’s most successful examples of industrial design have an idiosyncratic air. Take the voluptuous curves of La Cornuta, his 1948 espresso machine for La Pavoni, which became a symbol of “La Dolce Vita” Italy; or the artisanal woven seat of the 1957 Superleggera (literally “super-light”) chair he designed for Cassina. The chair was so light that the promotional photographs featured a boy lifting it on the tip of a finger.

As an architect, Ponti’s repertory ranged from the classical style of his earliest projects in the 1920s, mostly houses, which were heavily influenced by Andrea Palladio’s 16th-century villas, to the modernist restraint of his postwar work, including the 1956 Pirelli Tower. But his finest buildings, such as the 1955 Villa Planchart in Caracas and the 1960 Villa Nemazee in Tehran, are the ones that reflect his vivacity by creating dazzling contrasts of color, light and texture.

Ponti’s Pirelli Skyscraper (1960) in Milan.

Gio Ponti Archives

Important though Ponti was as a practicing designer and architect, he was equally if not more so as a cultural catalyst who celebrated other designers’ work and defined the terms of the design debate as an editor, writer and teacher.

He was the chief chronicler of the evolution of modern design in Italy as editor of Domus magazine from 1928 to 1941 and 1948 to 1979, and Stile magazine from 1942 to 1947. Ponti used those roles to champion designers and artists whom he admired, including Carlo Mollino, Piero Fornasetti and Lucio Fontana, and to contextualize Italian design within contemporary culture. By doing so, he gave it an intellectual weight, which saved design from being dismissed as a purely commercial discipline in Italy, as it was in the United States.

One of Ponti’s greatest strengths as an editor and designer was his generosity. Intensely curious, he was unusually open-minded and eager to explore new ideas. He forged firm friendships with colleagues all over the world, who often visited him at home in Milan or in his studio. Once a garage, the studio was so huge that Ponti’s assistants literally rode up to their desks on scooters. His friends still tell stories of his charm, and his kindness toward them.

Even though Ponti’s own work became more conventionally modernist in the second half of his career, he still enjoyed encouraging younger designers, including those whose thinking challenged his own. Among them were Alessandro Mendini and Ettore Sottsass, who were at the forefront of the 1970s post-modernist movement, which was emerging as an alternative to modernism.

By then, Ponti was in his 80s, still working, but forbidden from driving his beloved Citroën DS around Milan. He replaced it with a sedate Fiat people carrier. Typically, he chose one with 12 seats, hoping to fill them with friends to whom he could chat while they were on the road.

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