New York Celebrates an Italian Master: Giò Ponti

Recently Joseph Grima, the editor-in-chief of Domus, observed that Italian design as we once knew it—the super sexy, cerebral, fantastically fecund, utterly luxurious crucible of avant-garde creation in the domestic realm­—was “drawing to an end.” Some might say it earned a “R.I.P.” well before the end of the last century. However, what made Grima’s remarks so timely and bittersweet was that they came on the eve of a New York Design Week celebration of Giò Ponti (1891-1979), arguably the most seminal figure of modern Italian design, and ironically, the founding editor and guiding spirit of Domus. Through Ponti’s furniture designs, letters, family photographs and video documents, “Living Ponti Style,” a Molteni & C.-sponsored exhibition at the Italian Cultural Institute of New York, opening today and on until the end of May, reveals his lively questioning of what a modern domestic environment should look like. An installation of recently reissued mid-century Ponti furnishings by Molteni, which serves as extension of the exhibition, is on view at Molteni’s SoHo flagship until June 2.

Much is often made of Ponti’s genius as a designer, architect, educator, and editor. But as the Italian designer/critic Marco Romanelli has pointed out what Ponti was “first and foremost [was] an ‘inventor’.” He recognized early in his career that industry was “the style of the 20th century,” but knew that for Italians that meant not looking toward heavy industry, but forging alliances with artisanal companies. It was these connections which he made and encouraged with companies like Molteni and Cassina that gave birth to Italy’s distinctly humanist design. Among his masterworks are the “Super Leggera,” a wooden chair manufactured so light, strong, and Platonically ideal that Cesare Cassina, the company patriarch, used to take visitors into the factory courtyard to watch him throw the chair into the air and then bounce on the ground without breaking; the Pirelli tower, a building of such crystalline elegance that it redefined what a skyscraper could be; and the Taranto Co-Cathedral, which is not so much architecture as lacework rendered in concrete, a mystical transmutation of light into substance.  Even more extraordinary than his genius was the simple fact that Ponti was un uomo gentile, a kind man who was a generous supporters of friends, colleagues, and even younger designers who considered him old hat. As this exhibition reveals, his designs--and the ideas behind them--are as contemporary today as they are classic.