It’s hard to believe that an architecture style can be dominant for 100s of years, especially one that was based on the ideas of Classic Rome. But this was the case with Palladian Neo-Classicism. Named for Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), and characterized by symmetrical monumentality with Classic detailing. This is what architecture was, and this is how it was taught to Giò Ponti (1891-1979) at Milan Polytechnic in the early 1900’s. Lucky for us tides were about to turn and Gio Ponti was a true original.
He was born in Milan Italy in 1891, the only child of a middle class family. Ponti suffered a sickly and lonely childhood, but credits this for focusing him on his immediate environment and cultivating a work ethic and attention to detail.
In the early ‘20s Giò participated in and helped organize Triennial exhibitions of art and design in Monza and Milan. These exhibitions were instrumental in ushering in the Italian avant-garde. Though he was around its players, he never joined the Futurist movement or Group 7. His dedication to the immediate and concrete kept him on the edges of the theoretical debates. He was in love with the practice of architecture, reportedly working in his studio up to 20 hours a day. He busied himself with the search for the finite form; not ruminating on the need for radical or sweeping changes.
In 1928 he founded Domus magazine, an architecture and design publication that is still in print today. He did not shy away from using Domus as his soapbox, lecturing on everything from family lifestyle to his theories of architecture as crystal, but his pluralist stance, and love of life always kept him from being overly self-referential or dogmatic. He was Editor-in-Chief of Domus almost continuously until his death in 1979.
Ponti wanted a modernism that was his own, site specific; functional with a lightness and elegance, saying, “the public wants the fantastic, the comfort of the fantastic.”
He was a friend and admirer of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus masters, but he was not, as Frank Lloyd Wright once said, one of “those glass box boys”. Ponti’s rationalist yet decorative tendency takes more aesthetic cues from the Viennese masters whom he admired than any International Style heavy hitter.
Looking at Ponti’s oeuvre you would be hard pressed to classify him as belonging to any particular style or camp. He was dedicated to the assignment at hand. He cared about human scale, sense of entry and ritual. He was a humanist, but did not consider Brutalism or socialist modernism to be anti-humanist; he was simply dedicated to his own form of humanism. His early work for ceramicist Richard-Ginori is neo-classical in motif, colorful and whimsical, it predicts some of the postmodern gimmicks of the 1970s and ‘80s.
His penchant for and mastery of faceted, angular, elegance in architecture and industrial design foreshadows the clumsier and teched-out work of Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind. His furniture designs in wood, particularly the dinning collection for Cassina (still in production) and tables for M Singer & Sons show the influence of Danish modernism.
Ponti voraciously pursued a life that celebrated living and an architecture that captured the spirit and complexity of modern life, he was in search of finite form.