No average Gio Ponti (Financial Times How to Spend it)

It’s the end of the season at the Gio Ponti-designed Parco dei Principi hotel in Sorrento, sitting stark, white and angular on the very edge of Italy’s most rugged and spectacular coastline. A group of women in OndadeMar swimsuits and Chanel sunglasses are making their way up from the beach to get ready for dinner in the Gio Ponti Restaurant where the primi and secondi are served on the richly patterned plates inspired by the Melotti majolica tiles around the hotel that have been used ever since it opened in 1962. Each bedroom in the Parco dei Principi is decorated with 30 different kinds of geometric blue-andwhite tiles in a myriad of combinations, all echoing the Mediterranean outside, as well as the groovy era in which they were conceived. This hotel is strikingly “modern”, from a time when “modern” looked just that bit more exciting than it does today, in a world that had been turned on its head by technology, politics and rock ’n’ roll. Like a lot of Ponti’s most instantly recognisable work, its furniture – right down to the swimming pool’s diving board – has the stark but futuristic lines of the space race. Many a visitor to the Parco dei Principi goes home with every intention of injecting their home with some of its style.

ponti2So it’s not surprising that the market for vintage Ponti interior treasures is gathering momentum. When Sotheby’s in Milan sold 79 lots of Ponti in 2005 the interest was unprecedented, with a pair of 1930s armchairs going for over £31,000. At Themes & Variations in London’s Notting Hill, 1950s vintage Ponti is some of the most in-demand stock; the buyers can’t source enough of it. Richard Wright of the Wright auction house in Chicago believes that the year of the Sotheby’s auction in Milan was a turning point for the designer’s work: “The market has become hot now. The Ponti customer now tends, for us, to be the international buyer and we sell a lot to Europe. These are serious collectors. We had a consignment in May from his own Milan apartment which he created in 1953, and one coffee table went for $135,000.” In tandem with the resale market, reissues are fuelling international interest for the undisputed master of 20thcentury Italian design, and yet Ponti remains much more affordable than some of his French peers, such as Jean Prouvé. “Ponti has
got more expensive, but it’s not overvalued,” says Wright. “Now is a good time to buy.”

While Gio Ponti’s name may not be as household as some of his American or French peers, his work is unique in that it covers the breadth of the best of 20th-century modernism in Europe from the 1920s to the 1970s. He was extraordinarily prolific, as his daughter Lisa Licitra Ponti details: “Sixty years of work, buildings in 13 countries, lectures in 24, 25 years of teaching, 50 years of editing articles in every one of the 560 issues of his magazines, 2,500 letters dictated, 2,000 letters drawn, designs for 120 enterprises, 1,000 architectural sketches.”

From his early days in the 1920s creating ceramics for Richard Ginori (which now produces the plates for the hotel in Sorrento), through his work with designer and illustrator Piero Fornasetti on interiors and furniture in the 1950s, to his cathedral in the commercial port town of Taranto, Ponti’s genius had longevity as well as ahead-of-its-time impact. “He brought a warm and emotional touch to architecture and design at a time when rationalism prevailed and he created many of the icons that shaped modern Italy; it’s all about good food, sunshine and ‘the table’,” says Deyan Sudjic who, before becoming director at the Design Museum in London, was editor of the design magazine Domus in Milan, founded by Ponti in 1928. “I sat at the desk he designed for his own use. It was like having the keys to a classic Rolls-Royce.”

Ponti is sexy, chic and an “insider label” but none of his work is overdesigned. “As Frank Lloyd Wright grew older his work teetered on the edge of kitsch,” says Sudjic. “Ponti was better at modern.” If there is a definitive Ponti motif, it is the diamond pattern that he began incorporating into his work from the very start of his career, on the surface of ceramic urns that have been known to achieve almost $100,000 at auction. If there is a Ponti style, it is a certain sense of excitement about modernity and the future that flirted with Jetsons kitsch at the hands of Stateside designers but, as Sudjic says, remained credible under Ponti’s direction.

At Moss in New York, the most influential interior design store in the US, the sleek, super-light black lacquered Superleggera chair manufactured by Cassina ($1,390, and from £580 in the UK), which can be held aloft with one hand by a child, has been a bestseller for years. Now it’s joined by Ponti’s bold but simple cutlery, reintroduced by Sambonet ($172 for a five-piece set). If the Pirelli Tower in Milan, built between 1955 and 1958, is his most famous landmark, it’s his classic coffee machine for La Pavoni, designed a decade earlier, that is his most omnipresent design classic, still churning out espresso in cafés up and down Italy.

Ponti belonged to an age where to design meant to turn your hand to anything and, frequently, everything. Michael Maharam of the Maharam Design Studio, which has reissued two of Ponti’s 1930s textiles, sees him as a forerunner of today’s more exclusive interior designers: “He came from a time of mul ti disciplinarians. The shift is going back to that now. People hired the likes of Ponti to create holistic environments. If you were a person of substance and wanted to create a highly orchestrated environment, you needed a genius like him who could do things with ceramics, silver, furniture, textiles… And
what he was doing was explicitly different from what was on the market those days.”

One of Ponti’s two original bespoke textiles (£166.35 per metre from Kvadrat) that Maharam has reissued is I Morosi alla Finestra (“The Lovers at the Window”), a charming, whimsical print with small, colourful figures with arms stretched at a series of louvred windows. When Paul Smith saw the print he immediately approached Maharam for permission to use it as a coat lining. Maharam agreed and Smith later designed a print for him in return: “That textile is somewhat impractical to be used consistently in interiors because it’s a lightweight silk mix, but be cause of that it speaks of a certain opulence during a certain time” – something the British designer recognised. Similarly whimsical and decadent are the ceramics Bardelli still produces, including Costumi tiles (from about £13.50 per tile) with illustrations that were originally costume designs for ballets and operas Ponti worked on at La Scala and La Triennale in Milan.

Ponti also produced work for the Italia luxury shipping line including designs for the legendary and doomed Andrea Doria, which was lost after colliding with an ocean liner in 1956 and was one of his most major collaborative projects with Piero Fornasetti, along with the interior for the San Remo casino in 1950. No expense was spared on this mid-century modern floating palace, with everything exclusively commissioned, and the walls hung with notable artwork, including pieces by Bragalini and Predonzani.

Ponti’s collaboration with Fornasetti was at its most prolific in the 1950s; pieces from this decade, particularly the originals, fetch the highest prices. The most famous piece they produced, the “architettura” Trumeau cabinet covered with Fornasetti’s distinctive monochrome architectural façades and vaulted interiors, is still available new from the Fornasetti showroom in Milan and international resellers including Themes & Variations (£14,000). When the original came to auction at Wright recently, it fetched $168,000.

Many have their favourite Ponti period, but in reality all of Ponti’s furniture can “work” together, following the ethos that if something is truly well designed it can sit next to anything. FontanaArte produces several of Ponti’s lights, selling over 1,000 of the Pirellone floor lamp (£1,320) every year. His 1931 Bilia table lamp (£300) is a simple geometric sketch of a lighting fitting, a glowing white blown-glass orb on a dove-grey conical base that has become something of a cult object. “The products designed by Ponti are the first examples of ‘democratic design’,” says FontanaArte’s Grazia Innocenti. “In terms of the lights that we produce, they represent the first mass production of a certain quality of design.”

Montina, one of Italy’s biggest furniture companies, has kept several Ponti pieces in production and they have never dated stylistically. The beechwood Ponti 940 chair has slim, spiked lines and a pinched hourglass silhouette, while the 969 chair is more whimsical with broad, laced, looped backs, though it still has a stark simplicity. The total Ponti look can be seen in archive pictures of his domestic interior projects completed as far afield as Caracas and Tehran, as well as in records of his work on the 1958 Alitalia offices in New York and the designs for the sister hotel of the Parco dei Principi in Rome, the original furnishings of which sold for a small fortune through Wright.

At the Royal Continental Hotel in Naples a whole floor has been restored to its original mid-1950s Ponti glory and guests can sit at his iconic vanity tables on his Superleggera chair. Ponti’s work is linked very much by a common sense of situation. He tailored his work specifically to each commission, which is why the cathedral in the commercial port of Taranto resembles a sail and why the Parco dei Principi in Sorrento is saturated in Mediterranean blue and uses glossed Melotti pebbles in frescoes all over the hotel. It is the vibrancy of Ponti’s work that enamours so many newcomers to it, whether it’s a chance encounter at auction or through a week at the Parco dei Principi; vibrancy and an amazing freshness. “Not only has the hotel in Sorrento aged incredibly well,” says Hip Hotels author Herbert Ypma, “but it’s still adventurous, even for something that is getting into its sixth decade.” Such is the reverence that the Italians have for Ponti’s work that the hotel was painstakingly restored between 1999 and 2002 for its 40th anniversary by its current architectural guardian, Fabrizio Mautone: “I catalogued everything and, as far as possible, had pieces remade by the same factories, ceramicists etc that produced the originals. This is a living museum.” The hotel has become an essential stopoff for design aficionados, alongside Ponti’s other existing landmarks across the country. It’s a functional work of art by a genius. As Mautone says, “Gio Ponti was an artist who really just happened to become an architect.”

Bardelli (003902-902 5181; Cassina, 003903-623 721; and see Simon Joy & Associates. FontanaArte, 003902-45121; and see The London Lighting Co. Fornasetti, Via Manzoni 45, 20121 Milan (003902-659 2341; and see Themes & Variations. Kvadarat, 62 Princedale Rd, W11 (020-7229 9969). The London Lighting Co, 135 Fulham Rd, London SW3 (020-7589 3612). Maharam, and see Kvadarat. Montina (003904-3274 9207; Moss, 150 Greene St, New York (001212-204 7100; Parco dei Principi, via Rota 1, 80067 Sorrento (003908-1878 4644; http://www., from about £195. Sambonet, 003903-2187 9711; http://www.sambonet. it. Simon Joy & Associates, 301 Clerkenwell Workshops, 31 Clerkenwell Close, London EC1 (020-7138 3956). Royal Continental Hotel, Via Partenope 38-44, Naples (003908-1245 2068; http://www.hotelroyal. it). Themes & Variations, 231 Westbourne Grove, London W11 (020-7727 5531; http://www.themesand Wright, 1440 West Hubbard, Chicago (001312-563 0020;


One Response to “No average Gio Ponti (Financial Times How to Spend it)”

  1. it’s great ! very great !!

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