One of the most influential designers of the mid-20th century, Gio Ponti (1891-1979) helped to establish Italy as a global design center through a diverse career that spanned architecture, industrial design, art, and even publishing. However, his was a career that might never have begun if history had intervened only a bit more. Born and raised in Milan, Ponti decided upon a career in architecture as a young man and enrolled in in the architecture program at Politecnico di Milano University. However, his studies were postponed when World War I erupted throughout Europe.
From 1916 to 1918, Ponti served his country as a captain in the Pontonier Corps. Despite the frustration of having to postpone his studies, Ponti served proudly and became a decorated veteran. During the war he earned both the Italian Military Cross and the Bronze Medal. After successfully serving his time in the military, Ponti returned to school and earned the architecture degree he had selflessly postponed several years before. He graduated university in 1921, and in the same year married Giulia Vimercati. The couple later celebrated the births of four children and eight grandchildren.
To begin his career and establish his earliest influences, Ponti entered into a partnership with architects Emilio Lancia and Mino Fiocchi in 1923. During this time his accomplishments included the house on Via Randaccio in Milan (1925) and the Bouilhet villa in Garches, Paris (1926). After 1927 he partnered only with Lancia at Studio Ponti e Lancia PL. It was an arrangement that worked for the next seven years, during which time Ponti was heavily influenced by the neo-classical Novecento Italiano artistic movement. In 1929 Monument to the Fallen debuted, on which Ponti collaborated with architect Giovanni Muzio. Subsequent projects included the Casa Rasini apartment buildings in Milan as well as the Domus Julia-Domus Fausta complex in 1930. During this time, in 1928, Ponti also established the Domus magazine. The publication Ponti dedicated to architecture, art, and design became one of the world’s leading magazines of its type, and is still being published to this day.
Unbelievably, architecture was not the only area in which Ponti excelled during the 1920s. During this time he was also working in the field of industrial design after his debut at the first Biennial Exhibition of the Decorative Arts in Monza. In addition to his work in architecture, Ponti also worked for the porcelain manufacturer Richard-Ginori in Milan. Ponti served as the artistic director of this centuries-old company and was responsible for renovating their entire production output. These early jobs in the industrial design sector served as a springboard for further work in the field throughout Ponti’s career. Other design projects Ponti later pursued included ceramic objects and beautiful glass bottles such as those he designed for Venini. He also designed furnishings under the name Domus Nova, and a series of chairs which were considered highly innovative for their time. Among his famous chair designs were the Superleggera and Distex. Ponti also created a variety of lamps for companies like Artemide, Venini, and Fontana Arte, showcasing his diverse abilities by achieving distinct design goals for each project. One of the most famous lamps of this period is the Billia lamp which is well-known even today.
Between the years 1933 and 1945, Ponti saw a shift in his career when he moved on from his partnership with Lancia and began working with a couple of engineers, Eugenio Soncini and Antonio Fornaroli. Together they established Studio Ponti-Fornaroli-Soncini, and found great success with projects in the industrial sector. During this time the trio was involved in the creation of Fiat’s offices as well as the headquarters for Montecatini, an Italian chemical company. Together they also secured projects with universities, one of which was the Palazzo del Liviano at the University of Padua. The Palazzo became a particularly personal project as it was decorated with frescos painted by Ponti himself.
Also during this time, Ponti returned to the Politecnico di Milano University in 1936, where he served his alma mater as a professor until 1961. As a professor of architecture, he lectured all over the world and delighted in inspiring a new generation of designers. In 1941 Ponti also returned to the publishing world, helping to create Stile magazine where he continued as editor for the next six years.
At the height of Ponti’s career, along with Pier Luigi Nervi and Arturo Danusso, he earned the commission to design the Pirelli Tower in Milan. Construction began on the 32-story tower, the second skyscraper built in Milan, in 1956. Also during this time Ponti was involved in the design of many other important Italian landmarks, such as the Hotel della Citta et de la Ville and the Centro Studi Fondazione Livio e Maria Garzanti. As the Perelli Tower was completed, Ponti’s grand achievement was lauded internationally. At the height of his career he was invited to collaborate on projects all over the world, such as the Villa Planchart in Caracas, Venezuala and the Denver Art Museum in the United States. Other projects were completed in Hong Kong, Baghdad, Eindhoven, and San Francisco. Clearly, Ponti had achieved international fame for his innovative and eclectic modern designs.
Ponti’s dedication to architecture and design earned him not only international fame, but also many awards for his accomplishments. Throughout his career Ponti was honored with the Art Prize from The Accademia d’Italia and a gold medal from the Paris Academie d’Architecture. The Royal Order of Vasa, a Swedish order of chivalry, bestowed upon him the prestigious title of Commander. Later in his career Ponti was awarded an honorary doctorate at the London Royal College of Art for his contributions to the art and design world. Ponti was known amongst his international circle of friends and colleagues as a charming, generous man who had great passion not only for his own work, but for encouraging younger artists to pursue their goals as well. In fact, he was well known for his tendency to celebrate and promote the work of other designers, even those whose ideas challenged his own.
To this day, Ponti’s influence is still evident throughout the design and architecture fields to which he dedicated his life. Ponti’s career was so diversified that he left his mark on the world not only through buildings which are still standing, but also within the art community, the industrial design sector, and even publishing houses. He was involved in the design of structures in 13 different countries, collaborating with over 100 different companies. Ponti’s international influence did not end with his building projects, as he lectured in 24 different countries during his academic career. He also contributed to 560 issues between the two publications with which was involved, not only establishing and editing the magazines but writing for them as well. He even spent his spare time creatively, indulging in painting and writing poetry.
Clearly, Gio Ponti was not simply a man who worked in design, but a true artist whose talent and passion emanated from his core. It is through this legacy that Ponti continues to inspire new generations of artists and designers well into the twenty-first century.