Italian Design Through the Eyes of Gio Ponti

The works of Milanese architect Gio Ponti offer a bold way to explore 20th-century design in Italy.

WORDS Mark O'Flaherty
November / December 2019
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The Parco dei Principi hotel in Sorrento. / Photography by Matthew Hranek / Art + Commerce

Italy remains a place defined for many by the filigree and elongated shadows of the Renaissance and baroque. It is Stendhal syndrome, duomos and Vatican kitsch, washed down with a bicchiere of Barolo. Devout modernists, however, see it through a different, sharper lens. It’s been 40 years since the Milanese architect, designer and writer Gio Ponti died, and still no individual has come anywhere close to defining the contemporary look of the country—nor are they likely to in our lifetime. When Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs exhibited a definitive retrospective of Ponti’s work this year, it was a revelatory experience for anyone unfamiliar with him: He had a hand in a diverse range of design projects that covered most of the 20th century. From ceramics for the Richard Ginori 1735 brand, founded in Tuscany in the year its name suggests and bought by Gucci in 2013 (creative director Alessandro Michele has been refreshing his classic designs), to Milan’s Pirelli Tower, Ponti’s radical, linear, graphic style was a bold riposte to the froth and curlicues of all things Italian that predated it. Connecting the dots of Ponti landmarks and points of interest in Italy creates a unique way to experience a country you think you know well.
Milan's Pirelli Tower. / Getty Images
Much of Ponti’s work remains visible today—most obviously that landmark tower. His legacy is extraordinary and deeply revered, with much of his furniture still in production, including the Bilia lamp from the 1930s—an elegant arrangement of a frosted globe atop a brushed-metal cone—and his Ginori ceramics. The flagship store in Florence, on Via dei Rondinelli, is one of the most ravishing shops in the country. His colorful designs from the 1920s depicting hunting scenes and other figurative imagery mix classicism with art deco, but these aren’t historical artifacts: They still look as fresh as they do rich. In a city full of identikit luxury it is unique, and you will almost definitely want it.

Ponti is perhaps best known for his 699 Superleggera chair, so light it can be held aloft with a single hand. One is in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and others create a focal point in the new Museo del Design Italiano in Milan, an essential stop in the most design-conscious city in the country. Another essential: one of the varied Gio Ponti Store-arranged tours, each led by a Ponti relative. One of the most interesting focuses on the houses the architect designed and/or lived in, including one of his very first projects, from 1926, on Via Randaccio. It’s significant for many reasons, not least because it shows how Ponti’s style evolved over the century. This house has the muscular geometry he would become celebrated for, but also borrows heavily from neoclassical tropes. By the late 1950s he had honed a look that would become immediately recognizable—a certain mid-century modernism with angular flair, often subverted playfully by his fantastical collaborations with Piero Fornasetti, the artist best known for his radiant monochrome sun illustrations and surrealist portraits of the opera singer Lina Cavalieri.

Giulia and Gio Ponti in Via Dezza, Milan, 1957.  / ©Gio Ponti Archives
Away from Ponti’s hometown of Milan, there are several significant sites to add to a Gio-themed architour of Italy. One of his most substantial projects was a restoration—perhaps better described as a “reimagining”—of the historic Palazzo Bo at the University of Padua. It’s a great example of how sensitive Ponti was to Italian heritage, bringing modern flair to existing architecture dating back to the 15th century. It also demonstrates how close he was to his commercial collaborators: One hallway is embellished with architectural illustrations and portraits of former students of the university by Fornasetti. Today, guests can visit Palazzo Bo between Monday and Saturday on guided tours conducted in either Italian or English.

It’s easy to think of Gio Ponti as synonymous with urban style, creating interiors for the wealthy of Northern Italy for several decades, but his mastery of color allowed his shapes to segue into something breezy and coastal. It’s a shame that more of his hotel designs haven’t survived intact. The silhouette and skeleton of his Parco dei Principi in Rome are still there, but all the furniture he designed for it has long passed through 1stdibs for a tidy sum. Likewise, all that remains of the interior he designed for the Royal Continental Hotel Naples is a tribute “Gio Ponti floor” with themed suites. The only holistic hotel experience available today is at the Parco dei Principi in Sorrento, a perfectly preserved 1960s time capsule. With its vivid blue-and-white palette, pristine tiling with graphic depictions of leaves and abstract lines, and vast, deep, seawater pool with a modernist diving board, it’s like walking into a 20th-century visionary’s idea of the future.

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