Considered one of the most influential architects and designers of the twentieth century, Gio Ponti (1891-1979) will be honored at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in his first retrospective in France. A prolific creator who was equally interested in both industrial and craft production, Ponti revolutionized post-war architecture, opening up the way for a new art of living.
The exhibition Tutto Ponti: Gio Ponti, Archi-Designer, presented in the museum’s main hall, covers the entirety of his long career from 1921 to 1978, highlighting numerous aspects of his work from architecture to industrial design, from furniture to lighting, and from the creation of journals to his incursion into the fields of glassware, ceramics and metalwork. Over 400 pieces, some of which have never left their place of origin, trace this multidisciplinary display that combines architecture, furniture and interior fittings for private homes and public buildings (universities and cathedrals).The exhibition design was conceived by the agency Wilmotte & Associés in collaboration with the graphic designer Italo Lupi. While Gio Ponti’s work is admired today by enlightened design enthusiasts and highly coveted by collectors, it nevertheless remains little known in France. This exhibition is an opportunity to introduce the wider public to the creative world of this mythical character from the Italian design scene, whose generosity and passion stimulated his contemporaries and continues to inspire new generations of designers and architects.
Having received his diploma from the Milan Polytechnic, Gio Ponti opened his architecture practice in 1921. In the beginning, he adopted the principles of classically inspired architecture with his villa on the Via Randaccio in Milan. Named artistic director of the Richard-Ginori porcelain manufactory in 1923, he re-evaluated its serial production system, applying his method to all of the company’s creations. His works of neoclassical inspiration were awarded prizes at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925.
The following year, he designed his first architectural work abroad, the Ange volant villa in the Parisian aera, France, and collaborated with Christofle in Paris and Venini in Murano. In parallel, Gio Ponti created a series of modestly priced furniture with simple forms, called La Rinascente, for the Italian department stores, thereby making the decorative arts accessible to the greatest number.
Thanks to his connections with the movement Labirinto which gathered designers and manufacturers, he was able to spread his ideas and promote new talents thanks to the exhibitions that he organized at the Monza Biennial, and especially through the journal Domus, which he founded in 1928.
In the 1930s, his architectural practice took a modernist turn with the construction of Case Tipiche and the offices for the company Montecatini in Milan. Among his work in the field of homewares, he designed lighting for Fontana Arte, silverware for Krupp, fabrics for De Angeli-Frua and Ferrari and furniture for Casa e Giardino.
In the 1940s, Gio Ponti turned his attention to creating monumental frescos at the University of Padua’s Palazzo del Bo. He also returned to oil painting, and to his passion for writing, opera and the cinema, creating new screenplays as well as sets and costumes for la Scala in Milan. At the end of the war, as a major protagonist for the “made in Italy” movement, he promoted Italian design abroad through his journal Domus and the exhibitions he organized. He also conceived of two emblematic objects: the aerodynamic coffee machine La Cornuta (1949) for Pavoni and the Leggera chair for Cassina.
From 1950 to 1960, at the peak of his career, Gio Ponti’s style reached a wider international audience with major private architectural commissions in Venezuela, the United States, the Middle East and even Hong Kong. He created two of his masterpieces during this period: Villa Planchart in Caracas and the Pirelli Tower in Milan. Lightness, transparence, clarity, color and simplicity: these are the key words that describe the profusion of activity coming out of his headquarters in Milan – a veritable creative laboratory. He designed numerous objects and furniture pieces at this time, including the Distex armchair for Cassina (reissued since 2012 by Molteni&C) and his luminous composition for Lumi.
In 1957, the chair Superleggera (a variant of the Leggera), one of the lightest in the world, became the icon of his furniture designs.
Gio Ponti was particularly interested in the interplay between surfaces and colors, and worked towards making walls into elements that are no longer load bearing, but rather elevated, ethereal and almost suspended. He favored ceramic wall coverings that capture and reflect the light, as in the hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento.
In the 1970s, still seeking transparence and lightness, he envisaged his architectural façades as if they were folded pieces of paper pierced with geometric forms, as in the Taranto Cathedral (1970) and the Denver Art Museum (1974). He also took a new approach to furniture design, which became more flexible, mobile, light and luminous in order to adapt the space to contemporary lifestyles.
The exhibition Tutto Ponti: Gio Ponti, Archi-Designer presents a chronological view of Ponti’s six-decade career in the fields of architecture, design, interior design and publishing. An evocation of the Taranto Cathedral, one of his late masterpieces, introduces the circuit that then unfolds in three parts, focusing on objects, furniture and architecture.
Finally, six “period rooms” conclude the visit with spectacular reconstructions emphasizing the global aspect of his work. The garden-side gallery explores the collaborations that he undertook with major art-object manufacturers such as Richard Ginori, Christofle and Fontana Arte, as well as with artisans and smaller companies. Ceramics, glass and metalwork intermingle with works in papier mâché and enameled copper.
The main hall – the backbone of the exhibition – is punctuated by five sections featuring major commissions, furniture, lighting and textiles, as well as architectural projects detailed chronologically through drawings, models, photographs and films from the period.
Finally, on the Rivoli side, six unique spaces have been conceived, each representing a decade, in order to highlight Ponti’s creations: l’Ange volant in the Parisian aera, the Montecatini building in Milan, the palazzo Bo - Padua University, Gio Ponti’s home on the via Dezza in Milan, the interior of the Parco dei Principi hotel in Sorrento and finally the Villa Planchart in Caracas.
Until the very end, Gio Ponti defended his notion of an “Italian house”, considered to be the ultimate expression of an authentic modern and international civilization. The expression “from the spoon to the city”, attributed to the Italian architect Ernesto Nathan Rogers (1909-1969) in reference to Gio Ponti, perfectly embodies the personality of the Milanese architect, whose projects could range from the infinitely small to the infinitely large.
This catchphrase sums up the breadth of Ponti’s field of exploration, through which richness and originality remained constant in his joyful, colorful and very personal work.
From the forest of possible choices for some exhibitions, paying tribute this autumn 2018 to Gio Ponti, seemed the most obvious one. This great tree is proudly-rooted (…) self-evident. There is no particular anniversary to celebrate in Ponti’s long creative career which started in the 1920s and remained prolific right up until his death in 1979. So prolific that the elegant archidesigner Gio Ponti, with an almost limitless creativity, left behind him a corpus that defies all qualification: dozens of major edifices for the history of twentieth century architecture, buildings, houses, museum, cathedral, universities and factories, the whole world over, from Milan to Teheran, Caracas to Denver. Hundreds of models of objects and pieces of furniture, thousands of letters (…), hundreds of articles for the magazine Domus (…). A world of creation which made Ponti the legitimate heir of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance – by redesigning the contours of another possible world, poetic and practical, light and bright, vibrant, he embodied the continuity of a heritage that still fascinates us today, the Leonardo or Michelangelo in his field, from the overall whole down to the very last detail.
In 1978, Tony and Carla Bouilhet, who were there at his beginning with the commission for the Ange Volant (a post-Palladian villa in the Paris region), had begun to design a retrospective that was put on hold due to his death a year later, and if it had taken place, it quite normally would have been held in the nave of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Will we point out the museum’s major role in the organisation of the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925? An important date in Ponti’s life, because being awarded one of the main prizes, thanks to his contribution to the Italian Pavilion via the installation by the Richard Ginori manufactory, really got his international career off the ground.
In some ways, Paris brought Gio Ponti good luck, and he never forgot it. In 1973, working with the art critic Pierre Restany, François Mathey, director of the museum at that time, devoted an exhibition to Domus covering not less than forty-five years of an intellectual adventure that had shaped a large part of European modernity, as much a platform for inspiration as a place to encounter artistic talent: the list of partnerships that brought together the elite in the field of modern thought and contemporary creation is quite head spinning. By way of a thank-you, Gio Ponti drew an elegant hand on some of the museum’s headed writing paper, with slender fingers and his beautiful fluid handwriting flowing out of it: “Thank-you my friend for all that you and the museum have done for me and Domus, here’s to you Mathey i miei pensieri fraterni.”
And so there are a great many threads that tie the Musée des Arts Décoratifs to Gio Ponti, like a long working partnership, episodic but faithful, from one decade
to another. This timely exhibition renders unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to Ponti the place he deserves in the history of architecture, design and decorative arts, in short a major part of art history.
Here, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, in this spirit of unity which was one of the permanent motifs of his vision, Gio Ponti comes face to face once again with the spirit of the place he loved and frequented. A place that represents both his close relationship with France and his influence on an international level. The feeling of seeing Gio Ponti return to the source of his art, coming back home.
Gio Ponti: A Guide for Contemporary Use Salvatore Licitra
I believe that the decision of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris to organise an exhibition dedicated to Gio Ponti, today, responds to both a basic need, as well as something more urgent. There are many reasons for this choice: Gio Ponti’s long relationship with the museum’s supporters and directors (…) and the acknowledgment of the importance of Ponti’s oeuvre, for which French culture was an important point of reference. This is not a case, therefore, of presenting an account of “Italian arts”and of a figure from a past and bygone age, but rather a way of looking at the present, and at the sources to which important contemporary expressions of creativity refer and look for inspiration. Our intention was that this exhibition on Ponti be comprehensive, a setting in which all the varied expressions of his long creative career could come together. (…) Concerning this “Pontian universe,” finally, and the renewed attention it is attracting today among artists, designers and architects, there are two terms that I feel it necessary to make explicit at the outset of this initiative. These terms are interrelated, describing the same subject from two different points of view, and are useful in illustrating how Gio Ponti’s work is being looked at today.
The first is “the gaze as measure.”
If you observe many of Ponti’s architectural plans, you will notice they are strewn with eyes and pierced by lines that trace the visual field. This is architecture that is formed and modelled not only based on the functions and availability of spaces, but on the visual experience of the people who will inhabit them.
Gio Ponti started out as an artist and loved defining himself as an artist who had fallen in love with architecture. His work contains a refined play of composition expressed in three dimensions, extending out to include vast portions of reality such as building facades, or focusing in on decorative details, walls, openings, lights, the juxtaposition of materials. (…) Gio Ponti’s ability to make visual perception into one of the pillars of his work, with the detachment worthy of a director/composer and the freedom of a true artist, is one of the elements that most contributes to the consideration of his oeuvre as a forerunner of a contemporary mode of perceiving architecture, colours, spaces and design. (…)
How does Ponti’s activity evolve over time? What is the most appropriate way to describe its development over his six-decade career? Inevitably any itinerary of this sort is, by its very nature, chronological. This allows us to create connections between Ponti’s work and the historical and cultural context in which it arose, and this is significant. Yet if we wish to avoid being distracted by the“context,” precisely because of the peculiarities and marked artistic slant of Ponti’s work (…) we must distance ourselves from this chronological vision and imagine another, in which each individual work provides us with the elements necessary to relate it to the others. Refraction, then, in the sense that the element that interests us is atemporal, intrinsic to a single work, and seemingly recognizable in previous or subsequent
projects (the theory of mirror neurons comes to mind).
Thus emerges a network-like system of references, forms, archetypes, and terms that describe the Pontian universe. A sort of keyboard with which Ponti “composed” his works, whether the ceramics of the 1920s, the architecture of the 1950s, or the furnitureof the 1970s. (…) Ponti certainly visited Etruscan museums and made notes about the décor, redesigned and reproduced Phoenician vases at Richard Ginori, developed a passion for Palladian obelisks, spoke to us enthusiastically about Serlio ... yet in Ponti’s career there is no “Etruscan,” “Phoenician,” “Palladian,” or, much less, “16th century” period. These suggestions, and many others, participated in Ponti’s work and shaped its creative impulse, but he then consciously transfigured them thanks to the distance an artist maintains from the colours on his palette, the vibrations of which he values and knows, but which he uses with the freedom and inventiveness necessary in new ideas. (…)
In conclusion, I hope that among the people who visit the exhibition and read this catalogue, there will be some, perhaps the most curious or the most restless, who adopt the approach that Gio Ponti certainly would have, disobeying and all but disregarding the chronological layout. Doing so will allow them to string together similarities and cross-references between the works of design, painting and architecture that were the “expression of Gio Ponti” (as he used to title his work), to comprehend their spirit but also, and above all, to experience the reasons why so many contemporary artists, designers and architects from all over the world look to the Pontian universe for inspiration.
The bonds connecting Gio Ponti to France arose at the beginning of his career, while the young Milanese architect was artistic director for the porcelain manufacturer Richard Ginori. For two years he had been at work on the profound renewal of the manufacturer’s style while at the same time trying to optimize its mode of production, when the Parisian elite began busying itself with the highly anticipated preparation of the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in 1925.
He convinced the Richard family to take part in it and to open itself up to new markets(…). This Parisian triumph was doubly rewarded: not only did he win away first prize in the ceramics category, with the porcelain vase La conversazione classica, but he made the acquaintance of Tony Bouilhet, young heir and director of the firm Christofle who was also the head of Arts of the Tableware for the French section. (…) Ponti’s effervescent personality immediately fascinated the Parisian jeweller. (…)The following year, he commissioned Ponti to design their country home, located in the Parisian Region, on the heights of the Saint-Cloud golf club, just a few cable’s lengths from Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein-de-Monzie. This project realised the architect’s desire to design a modern, “Italian” style house conceived as a single unit, from the roof to the garden without forgetting about the doorknobs. The ornamental character imagined by Christofle in polished steel and nicknamed Pony (Ponti-Tony), applicable on a large number of objects, from radiator knobs to cutlery and cigarette holders, forever sealed their creative partnership. This reciprocal emulation was further reinforced even by the fact that, beginning in 1928, they became relatives thanks to the marriage between Tony Bouilhet and Ponti’s niece, Carla Borletti.
After the war, Ponti’s sole focus was on participating in the economic, cultural and political reconstruction of his country thanks to the promotion of the arts.
In retaking the helm of the magazine Domus, he positioned himself in a strategic post for the observation and promotion of Italian and international creations in the fields of architecture, design and art. All throughout his life, and particularly in the 1950s, Ponti was a fervent defender of the “Made in Italy” abroad. With contagious enthusiasm he encouraged initiatives promoting Italian design in Paris, New York and London. (…) In 1967, with the exhibition “Domus formes italiennes” Ponti achieved his most triumphant success in Paris. (…)
Ponti’s unconditional love for French culture certainly contributed to the manner in which Domus supported design in this country, whether in the simple articles of the 1920s or the expanded special issues of the 1960s. The biggest names of the architectural and artistic scene were regularly championed in its pages: the home by Le Corbusier and Jeanneret in Boulogne-sur-Mer published in 1928, the interior design and furnishings of Jean Royère in 1939, the prefabricated home of Henri Prouvé in 1950, the experimental house of Claude Parent in 1957, and sculpted dwellings of André Bloc in 1965, to name just a few.
To evoke the importance of Ponti’s contribution in the history of 20th-century architecture, the French press went as far as to describe him as the “Italian Le Corbusier.” (…) At the end of his life, Ponti’s French friends desired to pay tribute to him: in 1968 he was inducted into the Académie d’architecture, while in 1973 the Union centrale des arts décoratifs, at the behest of Pierre Restany and François Mathey, the museum’s head curator, organised an exhibition on his editorial work, entitled ‘1928-1973 Domus: quarante-cinq ans d’architecture, design, art. Expressing the joy the city inspired in him and his inclination towards it, Ponti desired, he said, “to die in Paris at the home of his friend Tony.”20 In Pierre Restany’s views, L’Ange volant, his only building in France so effectively embodied his vision of an Italianstyle humanism.
Residential Building, collaboration with Emilio Lancia, Milan, Via Randaccio 1924–26
During the First World War, as a young soldier Gio Ponti had the opportunity to lodge in several abandoned villas designed by Andrea Palladio, which he sketched abundantly. This admiration for the Renaissance architect stayed with him throughout his life (…) Niches, urns, entablatures, tympanums, obelisks: this architectural vocabulary is transposed with humorous lightness into his building on Via Randaccio, the first building Ponti designed – in collaboration with Emilio Lancia – and where he resided with his family from 1926 to 1936.
The building plan fans out with four facades, each possessing its own distinctive rhythm. The concave facade overlooking the garden, the most ornate, resembles a small Palladian theatre (…) Each floor is imagined as an apartment unto itself, with rooms distributed around a circular antechamber that divides the living area from the sleeping area (…) Ponti would later recall this first building, designed in the “Novecento” spirit, as an example of “architecture for architecture’s sake.”
Borletti Building, collaboration with Emilio Lancia, Milan, Via San Vittore, 1928
With the apartment building in Via Randaccio in Milan in 1924–26 and L’Ange volant in Garches in 1927–28, the Borletti building numbers among Gio Ponti’s very first architectural realisations. Built in collaboration with the architect Emilio Lancia, this luxurious eight-story construction destined for the Borletti, one of the great families of the Milanese commercial middle class, daringly reinterprets the neoclassical stylistic repertoire in a “Novecento” spirit. Obelisks, oculi, niches, panels and balconies decorate the facade with a certain formal sobriety, as does the interior courtyard to which equal importance is accorded.
Laporte House, Milan, Via Benedetto Brin, 1935–36
The Laporte House is subdivided into three apartments spread over four floors. Each apartment has a unique plan that respects the Pontian division of interior space into three areas: day, night and services. The double height of the top-floor apartment makes it possible to design its living spaces from multiple points of view, especially the large open volume of the living room-dining room. (…)
Finally, echoing the ideas of Le Corbusier regarding the roof-terrace and reinterpreting the structure of the Pompeian villa gardens, Ponti conceived a vast rooftop terrace that takes up half of the uppermost floor. With its pond, its vegetable garden and its sandbox, it’s considered as an entirely separate room. Surrounded by walls that alternate with pergolas and equipped with Italian-style retractable awnings, it has “the sky for a ceiling.” “The house becomes a creation, a unique composition of spaces and of light that, put into relationship with one another, arouse in us emotions that are more beautiful, fresher, closer to architecture and our vision of life,”
wrote Ponti on the subject of this house on whose top floor he lived between
1936 and 1943.
Case tipiche, Milan, 1931–38
The case tipiche (“typical homes”) refer to a group of residential buildings designed by Gio Ponti for a number of general contractors and located in various Milan neighbourhoods. (…) In his view, the home was an orderly place, a receptacle of the joys of life and the beauty of the world, which must be able to reflect civilisation at its highest point. These domus also inaugurated a new architectural style. Despite using numerous traditional elements of Italian architecture, their essential lines bring them closer to the more rationalist, Modernist aesthetic. The homes in Via Letizia were conceived to form neighbourhood units and compose a harmonious, modern, and colourful urban landscape. Gardens serve as a transition between the buildings and the street. While variations in volume and typology are reduced, each building nevertheless conserves a degree of originality. Balconies, terraces, loggias and bay windows constitute the minimalist decoration of the facades and recall the architect’s belief that roofs and facades are made for being lived in just like the rest of the house.
First Montecatini Building, Studio Ponti-Fornaroli-Soncini, Milan, Largo Stati Uniti d’America, 1936–38
Exemplary creation of Milanese
rationalism of the 1930s imagined down to the smallest details by Gio Ponti for the chemical group Montecatini, this office building constituted a veritable revolution in the architectural and working worlds and contributed to the advent of industrial design in Italy. Commissioned by the group’s president, Guido Donegani, and built in record time (less than two years), with the collaboration of engineers Antonio Fornaroli and Eugenio Soncini and work supervisor Pier Giulio Bosisio, it bears witness profound economic and social changes that Milan had experienced. Indeed, with the development of the service sector there emerges the figure of the office worker in a city that saw its population double in less than twenty years. (…)Service areas available to personnel after work (library, dressing rooms, hair salon, pharmacy, bar, deli, clothing store) were located on the basement level. Finally, ever in pursuit of the idea of bringing out the best in workers, a glass partition made it possible to see the cooks at work in the dining hall kitchen.
Tradition and Modernity at the University of Padua
His first intervention in the Palazzo del Bo took place for free. (…)Ponti conceived and created a magisterial path, the Scala del Sapere (“Staircase of Knowledge”), which made it possible to access the rooms he recreated without having to suffer any intrusion from the blinding brightness of Fagiuoli’s courtyard. The ascent up to the main floor gives its entire breadth to the project. There, too, the treatment of the architecture relies on the use of colour: not only the frescoes but the entire monumental staircase, or the precious marbles that decorate the steps, offer a basic tone in relationship with which the pictorial cycle is deployed in perfect harmony. This ascent, to the rhythm of the conquests of knowledge, actually prepares the spectator for the soft, Mediterranean colours of the president’s office, which completes the tour of the courtyard. (…)In reality, the architect discussed even the smallest choices with the rector, guiding him on visits of the workshops of the artists with whom, often, he had shared the experience of the Milanese Triennale. Nevertheless, it was above all in the main rooms that we can fully appreciate the acuity of his gaze, for he refused to conceive of the content as separate from the container. For Ponti, architecture was design and viceversa: thus, in the great Basilica room, the diamond motif that characterizes the ceiling is elegantly evoked on the backs of the banquettes and the red of the columns, doubly narrow, magnifies the giant walls painted by Pino Casarini.
This space, which painting could crush or annihilate, is transformed into a structure of colour: it permeates the visitor, who penetrates in this way into the heart of the heroic narrative deployed around him and participates in it. This decision to envelope the volume is also found in the older spaces where Ponti intervened: in the medical room, his desks evoke the mouldings of the consoles that support the 14th-century ceiling, almost as if they reflected their aesthetic quintessence onto the surrounding walls.
Ponti’s modernity is certainly functional, but it’s also careful to insert itself into the complicated weave of the memories of the past; his classicism is undeniable, but as a perfect point of equilibrium between practical necessities and the aspirations of the imagination. A lesson that won’t be forgotten.
Pirelli Tower, Studio Ponti-Fornaroli-Rosselli, Collaboration with Giuseppe Valtolina, Egidio Dell’Orto, Arturo Danusso and Pier Luigi Nervi, Milan, Piazza Duca d’Aosta, 1956–60
A symbol of Milan’s economic dynamism and of the euphoria of the post-war period, it was built for Pirelli, a company specialising in tyres and rubber goods, in place of the production workshops destroyed during the war. 127 metres and 31 stories tall, situated right in the heart of Milan, across from the central train station, this building was, at the time of its inauguration, one of the tallest in Europe.
Its construction was the fruit of the collaboration between Gio Ponti and his studio and engineer Arturo Danusso, and starting in 1954 with Pier Luigi Nervi, both of whom were experts in prestressed concrete and advised Ponti on the building’s form and structure.
Following the experience of the Montecatini building, Gio Ponti solidified with this project his theory of the forma finita (finite form) by opting for a volume that would admit neither additions nor removals. (…)
Interior Design of the Hotel Parco dei Principi, Sorrento, 1960
After having Gio Ponti supervise the interior design of the Royal Continental Hotel in Naples, its owner, Roberto Fernandes, solicited his intervention once more for the creation of the Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento (1960), as well as its companion structure in Rome (1961–64). With these commissions, the architect renewed his research of the 1930s on the Mediterranean residence and on hotels in general. Following the example of the Dane Arne Jacobsen, who designed the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel in Copenhagen several years earlier, Gio Ponti implemented his conception of the hotel as a comprehensive work of art.
Ponti opted for a chromatic solution that immersed the eye in white and blue, as if welcoming the external environment inside the hotel. He developed, with the aid of Ceramica D’Agostino in Salerno, thirty tiles of 20 centimetres per side decorated in blue and white motifs which, assembled and arranged in different ways, made it possible to obtain hundreds of different floors, sufficient to make each room unique.
The ceramic plates that welcomed visitors in the entrance were made by Fausto Melotti and the ceramic shingle by Ceramica Joo. The latter recalled the grotto walls in Baroque gardens; this metaphor is continued in the hotel’s park where Ponti imagined a swimming pool “as a reflecting pool for wood nymphs,” from which emerges a diving board on an island in the middle of the water.
Plan for a family house, 1964
In 1964, Gio Ponti published in the pages of Domus a plan for a family home, a prototype entitled Lo Scarabeo sotto una foglia (Beetle under a leaf ), the layout of which he presented to readers on a 1:50 scale. This small oval house was entirely covered in white and green ceramic tiles, both inside and outside, including the roof. Thanks to the brilliance of the tiles and the choice of colouring, the home’s facing was supposed to absorb the surrounding landscape and fuse with it, like a beetle with its shell. Imagined like a leaf fallen to the ground, its projecting roof protects the facades from the rain and sun.
In 1966, the avant-garde art collector Giobatta Meneguzzo commissioned his own version of the “Beetle” in Malo, in the province of Vicenza. Following Ponti’s advice, he enlisted designer Nanda Vigo to design the interiors. Completely tiled in white and famous for its spiral staircase covered in grey fur, it housed an important collection of contemporary art with works by Lucio Fontana, Agostino Bonalumi, Julio Le Parc and Raymond Hains. A monumental white monochrome was created specifically to decorate the walls of the entryway. Soon after its inauguration, this house became a gathering place for the artists, art critics and art dealers of the time.
Villa Planchart, Caracas, 1953–57
By Sophie Bouilhet-Dumas
Double-height living room, Villa Planchart, Caracas, 1953-57
In the 1950’s, strengthened by its petroleum resources, Venezuela saw unprecedented economic growth. Transforming very rapidly, its capital wanted to rival with the modernity of other Latin-American capitals like Rio de Janeiro or Mexico City. Armando and
Anala Planchart, collectors and lovers of modern architecture, contributed to this by inviting Gio Ponti who was by then internationally recognised thanks
to Domus magazine, to design their villa on the hilltops of Caracas.
“Your house will be (…) like a big butterfly poised on the hillside”, Ponti specified in a letter resuming the future owners’ wishes. Indeed, lightness was the key feature of the ensemble: elevated walls fixed to the framework appeared like suspended screens and defined the spatial character of the house. The roof, sitting like a wing on the summit, finished off the building and conformed to the principal of forma finita (finished form) announced by the architect. At night, a lighting system emphasized the contours and in the daytime, the white walls punctuated with bay windows created a sparkling surface.
Throughout the 1300 square metres, Ponti favoured the multiplicity of viewpoints, the openings facing the horizon and the view of the surrounding mountains. He created this house like a life-size abstract sculpture that can be visited from inside in an uninterrupted series of constantly changing spectacles. (…)
A kaleidoscopic play of colours brought the surfaces of the rooms progressively to life. The yellow striped ceilings of the lounge, library and small dining room echoed the marble mosaic floor of the entrance hall, but also the multicoloured designs of the ceiling in the main dining room. The interior doors and windows were all unique thanks to the geometric motifs painted in pink, yellow and sky blue onto a white background. (…)
As with the Ange volant in France, Villa Planchart is the transposition of an Italian dream, but this time amidst the tropical vegetation of Venezuela. All of the materials, marble and aluminium, the carpentry, but also the furniture and the craft objects were brought from Italy by boat. (…) A total work of art, today, Villa Planchart is home to the foundation that watches over the conservation of the building in its entirety.
The project of the Taranto Cathedral was born out of the need to create a religious centre closer to the new direction in which the city was expanding. The International Institute of the Liturgical Arts, charged with the project, and Archbishop Guglielmo Motolese chose Gio Ponti to create it. From its genesis in 1964 to its inauguration in 1970, this building was reworked repeatedly until the Milanese architect arrived at a design that transmitted his conception of the sacred. Multiple sources of inspiration accompanied his reflection: the whiteness of Puglia’s traditional architecture, the austerity of Franciscan spirituality, and the stone dentils of Gothic cathedrals.
Faced with need to give the cathedral a character of both bareness and grandeur, the Milanese architect solved the problem by opting for the creation of two facades: “One, the lesser one, for entering the church. The other, the greater one, accessible only to the view and the wind: a facade ‘for the air’ […] with eighty windows open onto ‘the vastness,’ which is the ‘dimension’ of the mystery of the eternal presence of God.” Referencing the biblical ark and Taranto’s maritime tradition, the building eventually took the shape of a ship with a rectangular-plan nave surmounted by a curtain, a double cement wall 41 metres tall rising from a withdrawn position, in the middle of the building. Hexagonal-shaped openings perforate this double wall and allow the immensity of the sky to filter in. This way, the perception of the subtle play between light and shadow varies continuously according to the weather. Ponti chose materials of an austere quality: reinforced concrete, left visible in certain places, and a coat of white in the extension of the Mediterranean tradition. In the building’s interior he also opted for a simple décor of flat tints of colour ranging from yellow to green.
Around the structure, Ponti imagined an island of greenery whose unconstrained appearance would recall the Garden of Eden. In front of the cathedral, a reflecting pool composed of three levels splits in two the vibratory quality of the rays of light traversing the facade. (…)
Green is the prevailing colour in the church’s interior: the almond green that covers the bays and the floor tiling with more intense tones poetically unite the interior and exterior. The cathedral was supposed to be as if “attacked by the green”4 of climbing plants partially covering the curtain and, in a pantheistic conception, symbolically linking the Earth and the sky. This intent was grasped by the citizens of Taranto who, immediately following the inauguration, offered plants to supply the garden. Today, due to the chaotic development of the neighbourhood, the cathedral’s immediate surrounding no longer, unfortunately, transmit the architect’s vision. But the openwork silhouette, where material and light merge to become “metamaterial,” still drives to the extreme this tension towards transparency.
Surfaces and Colours : Ceramics Applied to Architecture and Interior Design
by Sophie Bouilhet-Dumas
Ceramic tile by the Ceramica D’Agostino factory for Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento Ceramica D’Agostino
Ceramics were for Gio Ponti a site of unparalleled experimentation that allowed him to reformulate elements of the Italian cultural tradition and integrate them into a system of industrial production, from the design of tableware, decorative objects and bathroom fixtures to the creation of tiles for floors and walls. He began to familiarise himself with this material beginning in 1923 when he became artistic director of the porcelain manufacturer Richard Ginori. (…)
After the war, Ponti once again drew from this world as he became, from 1946 to 1953, the artistic director of the Imola Ceramics Cooperative. Continuing his exploration into this material, in 1956–57 he created a line of diamond-point coloured tiles for the Milanese firm Ceramica Joo.
Passing from a flat surface to reliefs, he reinterpreted the diamond-shaped bosses of Renaissance palaces: applied to exterior walls, these tiles, thanks to their glistening texture, capture the changing sunlight and thus animate the facades. This finishing, which made its first appearance on the facade of the church of San Luca Evangelista in Milan (1955–60), was utilised recurrently for his religious and private structures; it was even responsible for the nickname of the Villa Arreaza in Caracas, “La Diamantina.” Even more complex, the facade of the Montedoria building (1964–70) in Milan combines four sorts of emerald-green tiles in various degrees of relief. With coloured tessellation in the shape of shingle, Ponti reinterprets, once again for Ceramica Joo, the traditional shingle mosaic of Liguria, which he used to cover both interior and exterior walls at the Villa Planchart (1953–57), the Villa Nemazee (1957–64), and the Parco dei Principi hotels (1960–64). (…)
He also renewed the repertoire of the Salerno ceramic producer, Ceramica D’Agostino, designing thirty-three motifs both geometric and vegetal, blues, blacks and whites, which, once assembled, gave rise to over a hundred different decors.
Thanks to this solution, Ponti personalised all the rooms of the Sorrento’s Hotel Parco dei Principi (1960). Fifteen years later, he designed a “hymn to colour” to dress the floors of the headquarters of the Austrian newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten in Salzburg. Polychrome geometric designs were employed and adapted to the irregular forms of the rooms. Thus the floor “stole the show” from the architecture and became the true protagonist of the building. A similar solution was adopted in Singapore to cover the facade of the Shui Hing department store in 1977–78.
Countless designers and architects are renowned today because of their designs for Venini and/or Fontana Arte but, surprisingly, Gio Ponti is rarely mentioned in connection with these prominent glass makers. The paradox is even more blatant when you consider that Ponti provided the impulse that shaped the evolution these two very different companies, leading to the prestigious status they enjoy today. (…)
In the six decades during which he worked with glass as a material, either with Fontana Arte or Venini, Ponti was first and foremost motivated by his obsession with architecture. It was also the driving force in transforming every material he came in contact with. His elaboration of an analogy to a pure architecture, to crystal as form is enumerated many times in his writings; “When architecture is pure, it is pure as a crystal – magic, closed, exclusive, autonomous, uncontaminated, uncorrupted, absolute, definitive like a crystal.” Standing discreetly behind these glass companies, he increasingly delegated to his colleagues and associates like Pietro Chiesa at Fontana Arte or Tomaso Buzzi at Venini and connected his students to the means of realizing their projects: Saul Steinberg to Fontana Arte and Massimo Vignelli to Venini, or his friend Piero Fornasetti to both companies. His combined endeavours opened the manufacture of glass into formerly unexplored aesthetic territory.
The Richard Ginori manufactory provided Gio Ponti with a place for training at the beginning of his career and not just in the field of ceramics. He gained experience during his time there and learnt more about the industry, the decorative arts and interior design. This fascinating period revealed his vocation as promoter of the arts and acted as a prelude to founding Domus magazine.
A strong defender of high-quality mass production, Ponti held the position of artistic director at Richard Ginori’s factory. He also had an outstanding sense of all things related to brand identity and marketing. Thanks to this first unique collaboration, he acquired a taste for ceramics at the beginning of his career and it stayed with him throughout his life in diverse contexts and different fields, whether it was working as a designer or journalist.
The 500th issue of Domus, in July 1971, was dedicated to the director, “whom we love as a man and as a mentor, and who has guided this magazine for a good thirty-five years.” Gio Ponti, who was nearly 80, was still overflowing with creative energy. In Domus he shared his enthusiasm for a new commission, a chair “that’s all back” or “narrow-seated,” which revived his irrepressible love for craftsmanship and industry: “These furnishings (what a passion!) comfort me at the age of 20 years times 4.”
The beginning of the 1970s witnessed the publication of Gio Ponti’s last works, light and airy architecture, designed to capture and reflect light. (…) It was a decade of celebrations and commemorations: in 1973, Domus was invited to look back on its forty-five years of activity at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue,1 Gio Ponti unveiled the secret to a success anchored “in the heart of those who make it, Domus is an art magazine that dreams of being a work of art.” The choice to published texts in the original language, Ponti added, brought with it a change: it transformed a periodical that was initially of typical “Milanese improvisation” into a “multilingual” magazine, a meeting point for different simultaneous expressions of a universal culture.