Architect + Furniture Designer (1891-1979)
GIO PONTI (1891-1979) was a poet, painter, industrial designer and founding editor of Domus magazine as well as an architect. Through his designs and his work at Domus, he was the godfather of Italy’s post-war design renaissance.
“Love architecture, be it ancient or modern. Love it for its fantastic, adventurous and solemn creations; for its inventions; for the abstract, allusive and figurative forms that enchant our spirit and enrapture our thoughts. Love architecture, the stage and support of our lives.”
Those were the words with which Gio Ponti (1891-1979) began the 1957 collection of essays he published in Italian as Amate L’Architettura, and in English as In Praise of Achitecture. Ponti’s spirit shines through his writing – joyful, generous and brimful of briò – as it did in all his work. Gio Ponti played many roles in his long career: architect, industrial designer, craftsman, poet, painter, journalist and, above all, passionate propagandist for design excellence. Everything he did was imbued with the exuberance of Amate L’Architettura and intended to encourage everyone to use good design as a means of enjoying la dolce vita – the colourful, sensual Italian good life.
A decade after Ponti’s death his daughter, Lisa Licitra Ponti, summarised his career as: “Sixty years of work, buildings in thirteen countries, lectures in twenty-four, twenty-five years of teaching, fifty years of editing, articles in every one of the five hundred and sixty issues of his magazines, two thousand five hundred letters dictated, two thousand letters drawn, designs for a hundred and twenty enterprises, one thousand architectural sketches.”
It was, as she concluded, “a great deal, and all from one man”. Lisa also described the daily routine which enabled her father to achieve so much. It began between 5am and 6am when he wrote thirty letters mostly to friends and collaborators telling them that he had decided to change this or that detail of a project. Ponti then left his family home for his nearby studio, a converted garage so big that, in the early days, his draftsmen rode their scooters right up to their desks, where he worked from 7am to 8pm. He sketched and wrote so frenziedly that his daughter recalled his hands being stained “black with graphite and ink” by the middle of the afternoon. Ponti then carried on working after returning home for dinner: often drawing silently after the lights had gone out, his sketches illuminated by the lights in other houses. Lisa calculated that he typically squeezed sixty hours into an ordinary day.
Born in Milan in 1891, Gio Ponti studied architecture there, only to be forced to interrupt his course to serve in the Italian army during World War I. After the war, he completed his degree but, instead of practising as an architect, became art director of the ceramics manufacturer, Richard-Ginori. From 1923 to 1930, he turned the company into a role model of industrial design excellence by decorating simple ceramic forms with elegant neo-classical motifs. “Industry is the style of the 20th century, its mode of creation,” wrote Ponti after winning the Grand Prix at the 1925 Paris Expo.
In 1928, Ponti was persuaded by his friend, the Florentine journalist, Ugo Ojetti, to found a magazine, Domus, as a vehicle for his beliefs. For the rest of his life, he would edit a magazine, mostly Domus. As Lisa Licitra Ponti noted, he never lost the engagingly amateurish habit of treating them as personal diaries of things which excited and inspired him.
During the late 1920s, Ponti returned to architecture by building houses in Milan and Paris, including the “domuses”, his “typical houses” which looked like typical Milanese homes from the outside, but were innovative inside with flexible spaces and modular furniture. By the mid-1930s, he was winning bigger commissions such as the 1934 Mathematics Department at Rome University and 1936 headquarters of Montecatini, which were more overly modernist in style. As an architect, Ponti’s goals were that his buildings should harmonise form with function, and be exemplars of the correct use of materials. Ponti was also reinforcing his role as a propagandist by curating the Biennale della Arti Decorativa – first in Monza, then Milan as the Triennale – which he established as a showcase for the best of Italian design.
In 1941, Ponti left Domus to found another magazine, Stile, which he edited until 1947 when he returned to Domus. During Ponti’s absence, the architect, Ernesto Rogers (uncle of Richard Rogers) had turned the magazine into an advocate of rationalism. Ponti immediately recast it in his own eclectic, exuberant vision of the modern and tirelessly championed designers he admired, notably Carlo Mollino. By then, his work extended to stage sets and costumes for La Scala in Milan; exquisite Murano glass for his friend, the master glassmaker, Paolo Venini; and the curvaceous 1948 La Pavoni coffee machine which came to symbolise post-war Italy’s coffee bar culture.
Always eager to collaborate, Ponti worked with Piero Fornasetti, the Italian decorator renowned for his surreal, neo-classical style, on the Casino at San Remo – which they decorated with enormous playing car motifs – and Vembi-Burroughs offices in Genoa and Turin, where they emblazoned the furniture with intricate images of pens, pencils, sheets of paper and early computers.
During the 1950s, Ponti devoted more time to industrial design. The angular 1953 Distex armchair and 1957 Superleggera chair (inspired by the traditional Chiavari chairs Ponti had seen at the seaside, but so strong and light that a child could lift one up on a single finger) he designed for Cassina swiftly became classics of the period. Ponti also exported his light, sensuous vision of La Dolce Vita – enlivened with soft colours and exuberant patterns – to Caracas, where he built the beautiful 1955 Villa Planchart which still hovers above the city at night like an illuminated butterfly, and to his 1958 Alitalia offices in New York. Back in Milan, he built one of the city’s 20th century icons, the graceful 1956 Pirelli Tower which he described as “a graphic slogan”.
Although Ponti remained productive throughout the 1960s and 1970s – notably by building the 1964 San Francesco Church and 1967 San Carlo Chapel in Milan, and the 1972 Denver Art Museum – he was perceived as an architect and designer whose heyday was in the 1940s and 1950s. By the end of his life in the late 1970s, Ponti was too frail even for the short walk from his home to his studio, but carried on firing off dozens of daily letters and swapped the beloved Citroën DS he had driven for years for a 12-seater Fiat minibus in the hope of conversing with friends while travelling around Milan.
1891 Born in Milan, spends his childhood there and enrols for an architecture degree at the Politecnico.
1921 Finally graduates, having interrupted his studies during World War I.
1923 Becomes artistic director of Richard-Ginori, the ceramics manufacturer for which he wins the Grand Prix at the 1925 Paris Expo.
1926 Designs his first house on Via Randaccio in Milan.
1928 Founds Domus, which he establishes as Europe¡|s most influential architecture and design magazine.
1933 Organises the 5th Triennale exhibition (originally in Monza) in Milan.
1934 Completes work on Mathematics Department at Rome University.
1936 Construction of the first Montecatini headquarters in Milan.
1941 Quits Domus to found Stile, an art and architecture magazine.
1946 Start of three year project to design Murano glassware for Venini.
1947 Leaves Stile to resume the editorship of Domus.
1948 Unveils the La Pavoni coffee machine and begins a four year commission to restore four Italian liners with Nino Zoncada.
1950 Collaborates with Fornasetti on interior of the Casino at San Remo.
1953 Launch of Series P sanitaryware for Ideal Standard and the angular Distex armchair for Cassina.
1955 Completion of Villa Planchart, or the “Butterfly House”, in Caracas.
1956 Construction of the Pirelli Tower as “a graphic slogan” in Milan.
1957 Design of Superleggera Chair for Cassina, a lighter version of 1955’s Leggera Chair. Publication of Amant L’Architettura, a new version of a book of essays which orginated in Ponti’s
1940 pamphlet, Architecture is a Crystal.
1960 Builds Villa Nemazee in Tehran in the same “joie de vivre” style as the two Caracas houses, Villa Planchart and Villa Arreaza.
1964 Interior design of Hotel Parco dei Principe in Rome and its (recently restored) sister hotel in Sorrento. Builds Church of San Francesco in Milan.
1966 Completes Church for the Hospital of San Carlo in Milan.
1970 Construction of Taranto Cathedral conceived as a very visible “sail”.
1979 Gio Ponti dies in his family home on Via Nezza in Milan.