Gio Ponti: Modernist Master 

Pair of sofas, circa 1930. Sold for €39,000 via Artcurial (November 2019).

“The most resistant element is not wood, is not stone, is not steel, is not glass. The most resistant element in building is art. Let’s make something very beautiful,” Gio Ponti

Gio Ponti in the 1950s

Gio Ponti in the 1950s. (Image via Wikimedia Commons).

Gio Ponti was one of the most influential Italian architects and designers of the 20th century, and a leading proponent of Italian design after World War II. As a craftsman who seamlessly blended function with aesthetics, he was prolific in his production. He left a legacy of 200 building and urban planning projects with 40 in Milan alone, over 250 pieces of furniture, 17,000 drawings, and astonishingly more than 99,000 letters, until his death in 1979 aged 87.

This desire to create was evident in the young Gio Ponti from an early age. Born and educated in Milan, Ponti dreamed of being an artist, but enrolled as an architect at the Milan Polytechnic in 1913. His studies were delayed by the outbreak of war, but he made most of his time by drawing portraits of his fellow soldiers and sketches of life in trenches. 

Prolific career

After finishing his studies in 1921, Gio Ponti the architect emerged with a series of building collaborations. In these early years he was influenced by the Milanese neoclassical Novecento Italiano movement; art based on the fascism of Mussolini. Collaborations would be a feature of his career, as Gio Ponti worked with approximately 120 companies. His eclectic approach would also be a defining characteristic, as he experimented with a variety of styles and materials during his long and prolific career. He even founded the legendary architecture magazine Domus, which he edited until his death and used to convey his ideas for blending new and old styles.

It was within the pages of Domus that Ponti revealed his view that Modernism was the pinnacle of all design theories of the 20th century. This is clearly evident in Gio Ponti’s architecture, particularly The Denver Art Museum, where he conceived the exterior like a giant pattern, and the sleek and iconic Pirelli Tower in Milan, which stood aside from its concrete surroundings thanks to its elegant design and use of shimmering materials. It would later inspire the design of the MetLife Building in New York by architects that included the Bauhaus leader, Walter Gropius.

Denver Art Museum, designed by Gio Ponti.

The roof of Denver Art Museum, designed by Gio Ponti. Photo via Chris Bartle on Flickr.

Experimental fusion

Decoration and modern ideas were a duo that he liked to fuse and experiment with. Gio Ponti tiles were no exception as he experimented with modernism and patterns familiar to his buildings, as well as abstract, such as the one featured that’s decorated with multi-coloured side profiles of faces, each with a smoking pipe. Even when Ponti created a more traditional tile of Bacchus, the Roman god of agriculture, wine and fertility, it was mounted in a modern silvered wood frame, showing his fondness for incorporating different styles.

It was in the 1960s that Gio Ponti truly rose to prominence though, as he became a central figure to the wave of Italian sophistication and cultural renaissance that swept cinema and fashion. His hometown of Milan was the capital of cool and Fellini films, Lambretta scooters, and heavy-rimmed sunglasses epitomised this wave of European style, as did the Gio Ponti chair, known as the ‘super-light’ or Superleggera chair for Cassina (pictured above), which would become his best known work.

Modernist aesthetic

Gio Ponti furniture followed that same Modernist aesthetic, with lounge chairs, bookcases, writing desks, cabinets and even headboards reflecting Ponti’s desire to create something beautiful, while remaining true to the practical principles of modernism. If a piece of furniture blended function with aesthetics during this period then Ponti likely had a hand in it, either as designer or influencer.

His bibliothèque (bookcase, above) succinctly expressed this combination of style and practicality. The wooden partially lacquered white and brass bookcase made for Ariberto Colombo in 1945 makes an instant statement, while providing neat storage solutions. The same can most definitely be said of his desk, where bold styling combats practicality in an exciting and almost mesmerising fashion.

Prestigious recognition 

Not limited to working with wood, Gio Ponti’s mirrors also had their own unique style, which has led to affectionate imitation over the years – a sign of status in any art form! A true reflection (pun intended) of his ability and achievements though can be a seen in the numerous awards with which he was bestowed. He obtained the Accademia d’Italia Art Prize for his artistic merits, a gold medal from the Paris Académie d’Architecture, as well as an honorary doctorate from the London Royal College of Art.

Thanks to the sheer volume of his work and his eclectic approach to design and architecture, Gio Ponti’s unquestionable influence is evident across a broad range of interior and exterior design to this day. And, if you ever find yourself sightseeing in Milan, then his stamp on the city of 1960s cool will be unmistakable.