Gio Ponti was truly a renaissance man: his work spanned architecture, design, art, philosophy, and advocacy. He is perhaps most famous for his buildings and furniture, but his entire life and oeuvre of work is worth looking at. Join me in discovering some of his most famous, and perhaps most forgotten designs.
During his career, which spanned six decades, Ponti built more than a hundred buildings in Italy and in the rest of the world. He designed a considerable number of decorative art and design objects as well as furniture. Thanks to the magazine Domus, which he founded in 1928 and directed almost all his life, and thanks to his active participation in exhibitions such as the Milan Triennial, he was also an enthusiastic advocate of an Italian-style art of living and a major player in the renewal of Italian design after the Second World War. From 1936 to 1961, he taught at the Milan Polytechnic School and trained several generations of designers. Ponti also contributed to the creation in 1954 of one of the most important design awards: the Compasso d’Oro prize. Ponti died on 16 September 1979. His most famous works are the Pirelli Tower, built from 1956 to 1960 in Milan in collaboration with the engineer Pier Luigi Nervi, the Villa Planchart in Caracas and the Superleggera chair, produced by Cassina in 1957.
Gio Ponti’s Life & Career
Giovanni “Gio” Ponti (born November 18, 1891, Milan, Italy–died September 16, 1979, Milan, Italy) is considered one of the most important and influential Italian architects. He was successful as an architect, industrial designer, furniture designer, artist, and publisher. His influence on modern Italian architecture is incontestable, and he is often referred to as the father of modern Italian design. He worked in the design profession for over sixty years. During his prolific career, Gio Ponti produced several furniture pieces, decorative artworks, and industrial product designs, extracting old artisan skills while exploring modern production techniques. Additionally, creating critical architectural works in Italy and internationally.
The great designer graduated from Politecnico di Milano in 1921. In 1923, he began working in industrial design, designing ceramics for the Richard Ginori pottery factory near Florence. After two years, he convinced Richard Ginori to participate in the Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (a 1925 Paris exposition), where Ponti’s ceramic designs were very successful. During this time, Ponti forged a lasting relationship with the executive and shareholder of Christofle, Tony Bouilhet, who later in life would marry Ponti’s niece, and for whom he designed Villa Bouilhet at the Saint-Cloud golf club near Paris, one of Ponti’s first housing design projects. During his 15-year association with the Richard Ginori pottery factory, but especially during the early years, Gio Ponti collaborated with craftsmen and artisans to create rich designs with abundant colours, elegant shapes, and skilled craftsmanship, mainly in the neoclassical style. This style was out of favor with the functional and minimal approach of the then-prevalent Italian Rationalism, and it was distinctly present in Ponti’s work in the 1930s and 1940s and less and less so in the later years.
In 1928, Ponti delved deep into publishing and began Domus, architecture and design magazine, to energize and assimilate Italian architecture, interior design, and decorative arts. His leadership at Domus would allow him to express his ideas regarding the Novecento artistic movement, a counter-movement to Rationalism, and ensure recognition of top Italian design. He worked at Domus until 1941, when he moved on and founded Stile magazine (Lo Stile–Nella casa e nell’arrendamento), and asked several young architects and critics–among them Lina Bo Bardi, to collaborate with him. However, Ponti closed Lo Stile and returned to Domus in 1947, where he remained involved for the rest of his life.
Many books, magazine articles, and exhibitions have been attributed to exploring the influence and exceptionality of Gio Ponti’s work. Throughout his working life, he designed a considerable amount of ceramics, furnishings, and objects. He embarked on many of his designs alone, and some were created in collaboration with other artists and designers of the time. He produced some of the objects himself, while others were made in workshops by expert craftsmen, and some pieces were manufactured by some of the significant furniture manufacturing companies of the time. The diversified production of his work is a clear indicator of his interest in both industrial productions and artisanal production. In 1923, Ponti made his public debut as a product designer in Italy at the first Biennial Exhibition of the Decorative Arts in Monza, followed by his involvement in organizing the subsequent Triennale exhibitions of Monza and Milan. In 1933, Ponti exposed entrepreneurial spirit and invited Pietro Chiesa to join him and Luigi Fontana to embark on the venture of Fontana Arte, a company that would become a force in Italian furniture design that specialized in manufacturing furniture, lighting, and furnishing accessories.
In the 1940s, Ponti collaborated with Paolo de Poli to produce furniture, decorative panels, and new objects of design and animal motifs in sculptural forms, and in 1946, he started three years of involvement designing Murano glassware for Venini. During the early 1930s, Gio Ponti and Piero Fornasetti started a long, productive, and somewhat methodic collaboration, as it mainly consisted of Ponti-designed furniture decorated with Fornasetti paintings and engravings. During the 1950s, in line with the other influential Italian designers, such as Nino Zoncada, Gustavo Pulitzer, Paolo de Poli, Pietro Chiesa, and Gino Sarfatti, Ponti designed the interiors, including the furniture for ocean liners. In 1947, Gio Ponti established a long and strong friendship with the Italian architect and designer Ico Parisi and his wife, Luisa Aiani, collaborating in the design studio La Ruota.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Ponti became a bountiful furniture designer, his chairs and sofas of significant popularity. His work was portrayed with a joyful spirit and a sensitivity to modernism that are persistent. Among his important chair designs are the armchair model no. 811 for Figli di Amedeo Cassina (1950), with an inclined and angular wooden frame and a suspension system for the seat and backrest made out of elastic belts made by Pirelli; the Model 111, also for Figli di Amedeo Cassina (1950); the Diamond sofa, originally made for his house (Cassina,1953); the Mariposa, or butterfly, chair, which was originally designed for the Villa Planchart in Caracas (1955); the successfully omnipresent Superleggera chair, also for Cassina (1957), the crowning achievement of a long and fruitful work relationship designing furniture and objects for Cassina; the Continuum rattan chair for Pierantonio Bonacina (1963); the Dezza armchair for Poltrona Frau in 1966; and the Gabriela chair, or the Sedia di poco sedile, for Pallucco (1971).
In 1966, he invited lighting designer Elio Martinelli to showcase his lamps at the opening of the Eurodomus exhibition, which drove forward Martinelli’s career as an innovative light designer. Among Ponti’s architectural masterpieces of the 1930s are the Institute of Mathematics at the University of Rome (1934), the Catholic Press Exhibition in Vatican City (1936), and the first office block of the Montecatini company in Milan (1936). In 1950, Alberto Pirelli, the owner of the Pirelli tire company, selected Gio Ponti to design and develop a building to house his company’s offices. Gio Ponti hired architects Pier Luigi Nervi and Arturo Danusso to collaborate with him, and the team began the construction of the Pirelli Tower in 1956. When completed in 1958, the 32-story, 127-meter-high Pirelli Tower, with its unique hexagonal plan, became Italy’s first skyscraper and a symbol of the postwar economic recovery of Italy.
Two of his most renowned architectural works, though, were built outside of Italy. One of these works is Villa Planchart, or “El Cerrito” (1955), in Caracas, built for Anala and Armando Planchart at the top of a hill, or cerro, overlooking Caracas. For the Villa Planchart project, Ponti designed the 10,000-square-foot, six-bedroom house, and the furniture and decorative objects. Another of Ponti’s most famous works is Villa Nemazee (1957–1964) in Tehran. The Namazee family commissioned this home at the recommendation of Mohsen Foroughi, architect and dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Tehran University. For Villa Namezee, Ponti developed a design based on the traditional Iranian courtyard house. The Iranian regime has since revoked the villa’s heritage status, making its future uncertain. Italian artist and ceramicist Fausto Melotti collaborated on the interior design and furnishings of both villas.
In the 1970s towards the end of his career, Ponti was on an intense mission to explore transparency and lightness in his work. During this time, he designed and built facades resembling undulated and perforated sheets of paper with geometric shapes and unique patterns. In 1970, he finished the Taranto Cathedral, a white rectangular building with a huge concrete façade punctured with openings. In 1971, he contributed to the exterior envelope design of the Denver Art Museum in Colorado—the only Gio Ponti building in North America. He also submitted the project design for the future Centre Pompidou in Paris. In 1934, he was given the title of Commander of the Royal Order of Vasa in Stockholm. He also obtained the Accademia d’Italia Art Prize for his artistic merits, the gold medal from the Académie d’Architecture in Paris, and an honorary doctorate from the London Royal College of Art.
Gio Ponti’s 10 Most Famous Designs
The Palace of Labour designed and built by Nervi and his son Antonio for the Turin exhibition of 1961 was the result of a competition held in 1959. The building—containing 85,000 square feet of exhibition space—had to be capable of conversion to a technical school at the end of the exhibition. It was erected in less than eighteen months.
Like Mies van der Rohe’s buildings, there is a subtle fusion of structure and space in Nervi’s buildings. But whereas Mies searched for free internal space, Nervi’s aesthetic is dependent on an energetic exhibition of the structural parts of a building. The Palace of Labour was no exception… the simple 525 feet square shape was divided into sixteen structurally separate steel roofed compartments each supported on 65-foot-high concrete stems. The external walls, entirely clad in glass, wrapped round the perimeter of the building and incorporated large 70-foot-high vertical mullions. Viewed as a symbol of integration between structural and architectural invention and presented in the most important national and international publications, the Palazzo del Lavoro has fascinated entire generations. This was achieved by emphasizing, with a certain mannerism, the overly exposed role of the structure, during the third phase of Nervi’s career, that of the important international commissions when the “Nervi Style” became a repertoire of solutions to be used around the globe.
The competitive tender for the construction of the 47,000 m² pavilion that, for the Centenary of Italian Unity, was to have hosted an important exhibition presided over by Giovanni Agnelli and designed by Giò Ponti, was issued in July 1959. In October of the same year the jury awarded the project to Nervi & Bartoli, and its designers: in addition to Nervi, his son Antonio and Gino Covre, one of the primary Italian engineers of steel structures. The project revolved around the subdivision of the square roof into sixteen independent ‘umbrellas’, each 40 meters per side, separated by continuous strip skylights and made from a sunburst pattern of steel beams fixed to a central column with a variable geometry, a recurring characteristic in Nervi’s work after the Corso Francia Viaduct (1960), the Savona Railway Station (1961) and ending with the vault of the Cathedral in San Francisco (1970). The perimeter gallery is instead constituted of Nervi’s typical isostatic ribbed slabs, realized using moveable ferroconcrete formwork, based on a process widely tested by Nervi in various buildings, including the Gatti Wool Mill (1951-53). The proposal was deemed convincing for its simplicity and structural legibility and, thanks to the modular solution and differentiation in materials, it was the only submission capable of guaranteeing completion within the limited time available.
2. The Denver Art Museum
The Denver Art Museum’s North Building was designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti, along with Denver-based architects James Sudler and Joal Cronenwett. Ponti lived in Italy while the North Building was designed and constructed, and the three men sent revisions of drawings back and forth between Denver and Milan. Ponti often referred to the trio as “we three architects.” The North Buildingopened on October 3, 1971, and is Ponti’s only building in North America. The form of the North Building provided an identity for the Denver Art Museum and became a symbol of the DAM itself.
Many visitors have said that the North Building looks like a castle or fortress. These comparisons complement how Ponti understood the function of art museums: to protect treasures. He asked, “If a museum has to protect works of art, isn’t it only right that it should be a castle?” Ponti was also interested in creating a building that would reflect light. “I asked the sun and the light and the sky to help me,” he said. He chose to cover the building with gray tiles (in several different shades of gray) because the neutral color picks up the sky’s reflections better than a strong color would. He described the DAM’s North Building as “an invitation to the sun.”
Otto Bach, Director of the Denver Art Museum at the time, envisioned a modern, visitor friendly museum where patrons could find the collection they wanted to see easily. Instead of walking through gallery after gallery on one floor, collections are divided into seven floors. Ponti emphasized this verticality in his building design. He overlapped vertical wall segments, arranged the outside wall tiles vertically, and used vertical, narrow windows. The walls within the galleries were designed so that they could be moved around to suit the needs of different curators and their collections. Because of this, there is great variety in gallery design among the different floors of the building. While coming up with new building designs, Ponti followed a six-step problem-solving process:
- He defined the problem.
- He looked through many sources for ideas.
- He sat and thought for a while to develop his own intuitive ideas.
- He made many quick sketches to explore all possibilities.
- He gathered all the sketches together and judged them.
- Finally, he dropped the rejected drawings on the floor until only the best idea remained.
3. Casa Racini
The Torre Rasini is the last building which saw the collaboration between Gio Ponti and Emilio Lancia.
The complex consists of two distinct houses, rising next to each other. The ensemble benefits from a noteworthy environmental location, as they are located in close proximity of the gardens. The lower building features a white marble facing, and is mostly designed by Ponti. With this construction Ponti testifies to the traditional urban concept of high-class residential buildings. The higher building owes Lancia a predominant architectural contribution. It is a twelve-story tower which unfolds in a vibrant rhythm and is characterised by prestigious
apartments fitted with hanging gardens and terraces lined with plants. Those buildings are representative for Ponti and Lancia’s architecture. With their approach to planimetric solutions and infrastructures which are accurately designed to offer the upper-middle class a house model up to their standing.
4. Table lamp model “Bilia”
Gio Ponti ‘Bilia’ table lamp for Fontana Arte. Executed in a brushed metal frame with a mouth-blown white glass diffuser, transparent cord with dimmer, and plug. One of the first and most iconic designs for what would become Fontana Arte. The Bilia went into production in 1932 and remains as timeless today as a signature piece of both Fontana Arte and the incomparable Gio Ponti. In 1931, Gio Ponti and Pietro Chiesa approached the Luigi Fontana Company to manufacture their designs for the home which could be mass-produced but with Italian artisan craftsmanship. This light would exhibit many of the defining characteristics of the Fontana Arte aesthetic: ultra-refined minimalism, modern and Classic materials, geometry, and the transformation of Italian glassworking traditions and craftsmanship to the modern age.
5. Armchair model «BP 16»
This bamboo ‘Continuum’ lounge chair model BP16 designed by Gio Ponti, was manufactured by Bonacina, Lurago d’Erba, in Como Italy in 1963. The chair is completely made of bamboo and rattan and has upholstered cushions. The chair is a similar shape to many of Ponti’s other designs, yet takes more curving connected lines with the use of bamboo. His armchairs have a classic silhouette, with a slightly reclined back, side headboards at the top, and four (usually outward leaning) legs. This particular model is quite unique within his oeuvre, however, because of his use of bamboo. The other pieces tend to be in traditional MidCentury fashion, with wood frames and upholstered seats and backs, or entirely upholstered with metal legs. Bonacina, the company that produced the chair, specializes in rattan and bamboo. They have a long history of working with rattan to create beautiful furniture. Their collaboration with Gio Ponti was perhaps one of their most famous works, and is still being produced to this day.
6. Pirelli Tower, Milan
Pirelli Tower is a 32-storey skyscraper in Milan, Italy. The construction used approximately 1,100,000 cu ft of concrete. Characterized by a structural skeleton, curtain wall façades and tapered sides, it was among the first skyscrapers to abandon the customary block form. After its completion it was the tallest building in Italy but in 1961 Mole Antonelliana recovered priority after rebuilding of its pinnacle. The architectural historian Hasan-Uddin Khan praised it as “one of the most elegant tall buildings in the world” and as one of the “few tall European buildings [that made] statements that added to the vocabulary of the skyscraper”.
In 1950, Alberto Pirelli, president and owner of the giant Pirelli tyre company, ordered that a skyscraper be built in the area where the corporation’s first factory was located in the 19th century. The project was developed by architect Gio Ponti, with the assistance of Pier Luigi Nervi and Arturo Danusso. Construction of the tower began in 1956 when Italy was experiencing an economic boom. The tower was to be surrounded by low lying buildings on a pentagonal plot of land. Upon its completion in 1958, it became a symbol not only of Milan, but also of the economic recovery of Italy after the devastation of World War II.
7. Dezza Sofa
Designed in 1965, the Dezza is a comfortable, light-weight and adaptable armchair, that has accurately been reproduced in a refined re-edition that enhances its formal beauty and stylistic uniqueness. The feet are available in ash-wood painted white or black with open-pore paint. The upholstery is available in Pelle Frau® leather from the Color System range, Heritage leather, Soul leather “Pony Skin” or a combination of leather and non-removable fabric. The number 12 armchair boasts slender armrests, which make it possible to place two or more armchairs close together. Armchair number 48 is fitted with a goose-down headrest that is incorporated into the backrest.
Gio Ponti simplified the traditional forms associated with flatware. The fork—actually a “forchetta-cucchiaio,” also known as a spork—is one of Ponti’s innovations. Its prongs have been shortened and its bowl deepened to create a scoop to catch sauce, an essential part of Italian cuisine. The short, wedge-like blade of the knife corresponds to the actual usable cutting surface of the utensil. The questing intelligence Ponti brought to Domus is reflected in his work: as protean as he was prolific, Ponti’s style can’t be pegged to a specific genre. In the 1920s, as artistic director for the Tuscan porcelain maker Richard Ginori, he fused old and new; his ceramic forms were modern, but decorated with motifs from Roman antiquity. In pre-war Italy, modernist design was encouraged, and after the conflict, Ponti — along with designers such as Carlo Mollino, Franco Albini, Marco Zanuso — found a receptive audience for their novel, idiosyncratic work. Ponti’s typical furniture forms from the period, such as the wedge-shaped Distex chair, are simple, gently angular, and colorful; equally elegant and functional. In the 1960s and ’70s, Ponti’s style evolved again as he explored biomorphic shapes, and embraced the expressive, experimental designs of Ettore Sottsass Jr., Joe Colombo and others. Importantly, there is a dialogue between Ponti’s architectural style, ever-present as visitors walk through his halls, and the character of his work in furniture, flatware, ceramics, and glassware. Whether a candlestick or a large desk, Ponti understood the importance of recognizing classical tradition while innovating for the future, and he advocated for industrial design that could be mass-produced without losing a sense of imaginative self-expression.
9. 516 Model Armchairs
This chair is one of Gio’s most iconic, and frequently seen. It has somewhat classical lines, a sleek yet comfortable finish, and comes in many different materials. It was produced and made by Cassina: Established in 1927 by Cesare and Umberto Cassina in Meda, Italy, Cassina launched industrial design in Italy in the 1950s, based on a totally innovative approach that marked the transition from artisan production to mass production. With a mindset focused on research and innovation, Cassina combines technology and long-standing artisan craftsmanship. With the separation of its design and production areas, the company took a new direction , thanks to partnerships with outside architects-designers intent on exploring innovative concepts. Postwar, the company worked closely with Gio Ponti, relying on his creative genius to revamp its aesthetic image.
10.Hotel Parco dei Principi, Sorrento
When the villa was bought by the Neapolitan engineer Roberto Fernandes, its remarkable historical heritage, the extraordinary site and its natural vocation to warm hospitality and enchantment, seemed to inspire the new landlord to transform the property into a hotel. The demanding fitting of a structure whose mission was that of conjugating the fundamental practically of modern times with the enchantment of ancient tradition, urged Fernandes to entrust the delicate job to one of the most enlightened figures of contemporary architecture, Gio Ponti.
The hotel rose upon the ruins (never completed) of the Dacha, and its extraordinary adapting to the morphology and its original dynamic relation among the overhanging objects and the same structure made its fitting unique. Perched high on a cliff overlooking the turquoise waters of Sorrento, Italy, Parco dei Principi is more than a luxury design hotel—it’s a 1960s architectural masterpiece. Built in the mid 1960s, the Parco dei Principi hotel is a structure of marvel and wonder—it’s also the very first “design hotel” of its kind, which truly set the stage for many of today’s modern boutique hotels. Interestingly, in an effort to give each room its own unique personality, Gio Ponti personally designed an astounding 96 different geometric floor tiling patterns for the building—one for each of the 96 rooms, meaning there’s a bit of unique style and personality behind every door. The furnishings of the Parco dei Principi hotel are masterpieces themselves. Each lounge chair, vanity, and lamp are original works of Ponti himself, who meticulously designed every room to stand alone as its own cohesive piece. Although each is decorated primarily in shades of blue with an artistic regard for clean lines and geometric patterns, no two are alike!
Parco dei Principi is a stylish design hotel with an incredible location right on the water. Designed by Gio Ponti, Italy’s most iconic 20th century architect, the 96 room resort featured wonderfully preserved rooms that are true to their original design and custom furnishings.
As if all of his design work wasn’t enough, Gio Ponti was also prolific in publishing and writing. In 1928 he founded Domus magazine. In 1941 he resigned as editor of Domus and set up Stile magazine, which he edited until 1947. In 1948 he returned to Domus, where he remained as editor until his death. From 1936 to 1961 he worked as a professor on the permanent staff of the Faculty of Architecture at Politecnico di Milano University. Safe to say, his work, which spanned so many disciplines, had a major impact on design, and thinking about design.