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The Remarkable Life of the Architectural Designer Giovanni Ponti

The Remarkable Life of the Architectural Designer Giovanni Ponti

Have you ever heard about Giovanni Ponti, the Italian military commander who changed Milan’s skyline through his creative architectural creations?

The first time I got introduced to Ponti’s work was during my visit to his exhibition “Tutto Ponti: Gio Ponti, Archi-Designer” at Musée des Arts Décoratifs (MAD) in Paris 2019, when I was visiting my best friend who was interning at Louvre Museum (Musée du Louvre). 

In celebration of Ponti’s career, his work was staged for the first time in Paris, spanning the entire length of his career from 1921—1978. The exhibition highlighted over 400 pieces of his work, both large and small, from various fields and media including architecture, industrial design, furniture, the creation of journals, lighting, glassware, ceramics, and metalwork.

This visit has left me in awe, and made me research further when I came back home to know more about his design philosophy and the extraordinary versatility of his diverse portfolio. I was truly amazed by his ability to blend functions with aesthetics making the designs minimal and timeless. 

As a designer myself, I found the process behind simplifying products is often far more complex that it seems. The hidden detail, thought, and then there is the mental side of letting go and feeling free to design minimally. Feeling confident that while the design may seem simple, it is everything it needs to be.

Thus, I decided to take you through this remarkable artist’s life and learn how he contributed to the development of modern architecture in Italy through his work in the early to the mid-20th century.

WHO WAS GIO PONTI?

Born in Milan and fought in the First World War as a Captain, receiving both the Bronze Medal and the Italian Military Cross. His time in the army disrupted his studies at the Politecnico di Milano University, but he graduated with his architecture degree in 1921. His post war architecture reflects the changing socio-economic situation and the improving life prospects through a new form of living art.  

Rejuvenating Milan was one of his greatest missions post world war II, which changed the city’s skyline. His versatile design work appears everywhere from glasswork to furniture and skyscrapers and best remembered for his design of the Pirelli Tower in Milan. Throughout his six-decade-long career, Ponti built over a hundred buildings across the world, primarily in Italy.

For his most recognisable achievements is his involvement is establishing several art and design exhibitions, and one of the most prestigious industrial design awards “Compasso d’Oro prize”.  In addition he nurtured generations of budding designers through his work as a teacher, writer, alongside being an artist. Furthermore, Ponti founded the magazine Domus, which he remained involved with for the rest of his career, promoting the latest architecture and design creations.

Domus Magazine became the vehicle through which Gio Ponti promoted most of his design advocacy work. The magazine documented artistic and design expression of all forms, offering a critical perspective on the latest industry innovation. It became a window for its Italian readership. Throughout Ponti’s career, Domus’ international popularity grew and became a means of recording Italian design and architecture developments. Domus Magazine is still in publication today.

GIO PONTI’S MOST NOTABLE WORK

Pirelli Tower, in Milan, Italy

Ponti is most recognizable for his work on the Pirelli Tower in Milan, built from 1956 to 1960 in collaboration with Pier Luigi Nervi (an Italian engineer and architect 21 June 1891 – 9 January 1979). The 32-story skyscraper has a structural skeleton and tapered sides, making it one of the first contemporary skyscrapers. When he completed it, the Pirelli Tower was the tallest in Italy. Hasan-Uddin Khan, an architectural historian, describes the Pirelli Tower as “one of the most elegant tall buildings in the world….that added to the vocabulary of the skyscraper”.

Villa Planchart in Caracas

Other notable work includes the Villa Planchart in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. It’s considered to be one of the most monumental designs made by Ponti. The building remains today, surviving throughout the political upheaval and economic turmoil in Venezuela. The Planchart Foundation is preserving the house.

The Superleggera Chair

Another honorable mention goes to the Superleggera chair, which was produced in the 1950s by the manufacturing company Cassina. The manufacturer describes the piece as being “both of-the-moment” while paying “tribute to traditional artisanal skills.” With its light frame and flexible ashwood, the Superleggera chair is still available for purchase today from Cassina.

GIO PONTI’S ARCHITECTURE DESIGN WORK

Ponti’s career began with a partnership with two Italian architects; Mino Fiocchi and Emilio Lancia during the mid-1920s, which evolved into ‘Studio Ponti e Lancia PL’ through to 1933. His early work was influenced by the Novecento Italiano movement, which formed in 1922 with the aim of reviving the tradition of large format history painting and sculpture in the classical manner.

Ange Volant Hotel

If you’re curious to experience living in spaces he designed, you may explore visiting his first architecture commission for work outside of Italy with the Ange Volant, a country house on the outskirts of Paris constructed from 1926 to 1928 and welcoming guests until today. The Ange Volant represented an opportunity for Gio Ponti to export the idea of Italian living elsewhere in Europe. His work at the Ange Volant accumulated into his book ‘La Casa all’Italiana,’ which captures the principles of constructing an Italian-style house and was published in 1933. 

Throughout the 1930s, his work focused primarily on the Milan area. His design work focused on more streamlined and minimalistic silhouettes and structures. He blended the concept of rationalist modernism ( architecture that can be comprehended rationally) with the classic Mediterranean features that defined the idea of Italian living, including balconies and pergolas. In this era, his designs were tailored towards the new wealthy class’s needs developed out of the aftermath of the First World War.

During the 1940s, his architectural projects slowed down due to the Second World War, allowing him a chance to reflect on his design work. Throughout the 40s, Gio Ponti turned his hand to set and costume design for some of Milan’s most famous institutions, including La Scala.

Following the Second World War and the subsequent economic boom, Gio Ponti’s work focused on famous shipping vessels and liners. His work varied and included his involvement in an urban social housing project within Milan’s Harar-Dessie district. 

The interior design focused on light and colour, made using materials exported from Italy as an abstract sculpture. He later designed the Diamantina, located only a few miles away, named after its diamond-shaped tiles on the façade. While the Villa Planchart has been preserved, the Diamantina has not been as fortunate.

the Diamantina

The sky and light continued to be one of his primary muses and focuses as a designer. Gio Ponti oversaw Parco dei Principi’s interior design in Sorrento, one of Italy’s original design hotels. He spent the final years of his career focusing on blending light and transparency, creating geometric shapes for building facades. The resort is still welcoming guests from all over the world, if you’re a looking for a peaceful getaway, add it to your bucket list. 

Parco dei Principi Hotel in Sorrento

INDUSTRIAL DESIGN

The porcelain exhibition is what stricked me the most from Ponti’s exhibition, showcasing work after his appointed as Artistic Director of Richard Ginori, one of Italy’s leading porcelain manufacturers. He shifted the company’s focus to reimagining porcelain’s classical tradition, streamlining the production process without compromising the porcelain’s quality. 

There’s no denying that Ponti was one of the most significant figures involved in modernising Italy’s decorative art industry. His work is trading hotly among the most renowned auction houses, sold for well beyond their pre-sale estimates of £8,000, realised an extraordinary of £200,000. 

(Personal note; if you’re hunting a gift for me, look no further than one of Ponti’s creation no matter how small it is :D)

Throughout the 1960s, he continued to focus on household furniture. His portfolio at the time included everything from a sofa bed to lighting fixtures and wooden armchairs. In 1970, Gio Ponti unveiled his concept of a ‘casa adatta,’ an adapted house revolving around a spacious room where every aspect of the proposed home was utilised to maximise space with flexible furniture.   

ADVOCATE FOR ITALIAN DESIGN

One of the things Gio Ponti is remembered for is his advocacy of Italian design on the international stage. His work always incorporated aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle and the Italian idea of living.

Along with Domus Magazine, Gio Ponti was involved with the development of countless exhibitions, adding the allure to the idea of “Made in Italy” – a phrase that is today synonymous with luxury. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Ponti hosted several events throughout Italy and internationally that provided a platform for up-and-coming artists and designers.

Ponti was one of the most notable advocates for the Italian aesthetic and focused on the art of living as a leading force in the design world following the Second World War. He was awarded several prizes in recognition for his work, and was bestowed an honorary doctorate by the London Royal College of Art.

GIO PONTI’S LEGACY

Drawn letters and journal pages by Gio Ponti

Gio Ponti passed away in September 1979 at the age of 87. You can see the influence of his work across the world, from the streamlined skyscrapers to the minimalistic and space-saving furniture we utilize today. Many of his most fabulous creations, such as the Superleggera, are still available to purchase today. 

His previous work that is no longer in production is highly sought after, which is a testament to Gio Ponti’s work and unique position as an artist who exported Italian style across the world.

Perhaps one of Gio Ponti’s greatest legacies is his encouragement of the next generation. He worked as a Professor in the Faculty of Architecture at Politecnico di Milano University from 1936 to 1961. 

The person who can best describe Gio Ponti’s design aesthetic is the man himself. The Italian multi-disciplinarian once said, “Enchantment – a useless thing, but as indispensable as bread.”

PERSONAL REFLECTIONS

I never got to meet Ponti – unfortunately, but what I am learning from his career as I go through his books and different articles makes me appreciate his school of design he established by seeing no distinction between his life and his art. Blending the sense of pleasure with purpose, made his designs strikingly remarkable. 

Despite the fact, he has been through two wold wars, he remained committed and consistent toward his vision and contributed not only in the development of his own country post war, but transformed the skyline of Milan. 

They say if you looked into designing different disciplines, you won’t master the details, but not in Ponti’s case, he was always fascinated with the in “complete” concept of idea, where he starts designing the architecture of the building, design the interiors, furnitures,  home accessories down to every single of details of the project. Not to forget that plants and trees were omnipresent throughout the plans and sketched, culminating in a luxurious space.

His integrity in his vision toward art made him re-define the modern Italian design, which made me think of our role as designers and contribution to the art and design scene? How far we’ll got caught by our deadlines against making a true impact to the design industry? And how far should we challenge our clients and push our boundaries together?

Share your thoughts and reflections on our Instagram page, I would love to hear them.  


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