Gio Ponti is the biggest fish in Milan’s mid-century design pool; a prolific multi-tasker who worked incessantly from the 1920s to ’70s, producing everything from skyscrapers and ceramics to design magazines and doorknobs. His splashiest and best-known work includes whimsical furniture created with fellow Milan designer Piero Fornasetti, grand vacation villas he conceived for rich clients from Tehran to Caracas, and upholstered armchairs that now get hammered off at Christie’s at $90,000 for a set of two. Lesser known—but more intriguing—is how this architetto settled into his own armchair back home in Milan.
In fact, the three homes Ponti masterminded for his family in Milan offer the purest distillation of this architect and furniture designer’s radical 20th-century ideas. Compared to the sensational work for his deep-pocketed clients, Ponti’s personal apartments are modest in scope and peanut-like in their proportions. His first apartment in Via Randaccio 9, completed in 1925, was also his very first architectural commission. The elegant four-story building took its inspiration from a classic Palladian scheme (a Ponti favorite), however the architect cut its base into an unusual fan shape and warped the façade into a curve. Though he designed the interiors of Via Randaccio, it was his second home in Via Benedetto Brin that became the blueprint for Ponti’s ideas on modern living. Already, the geometric exterior of the building reflects his robust move into modernism, but inside the apartment, where he lived with his wife Giulia and four children from 1936 to 1943, his intrepid concepts took flight.
Milanese traditions, such as formal dining rooms with rigid high-backed chairs, were thrown out of the window as Ponti welcomed a constant flow of artists, painters, architects and critics on comfortable upholstered armchairs paired with low coffee tables. The relaxed setting allowed for drinks and conversation to move casually and effortlessly into dinner; and once the plates were cleared, out came the books and design blueprints for lively discussion. Other Ponti innovations include built-in bookshelves in every room, the use of poor materials such as hemp and linoleum, and cutting open the central living space with a spacious two-story ceiling. A precursor to contemporary loft-style living, this was completely anathema to classical Milanese architectural schemes based on a single, long, dark corridor from which small rooms protrude on a single side.
Ponti sliced open walls and let in light through skylights and glassed-in gardens, giving a view of nature in his cement-lined hometown. He treated floors like carpets, laying tiles in bold geometric formations, like stripes or triangles, and often replayed the same fashionable effect on the ceiling. A true artist, Ponti designed every single detail of his and his clients’ homes—from the outside structure, to the furniture in each room, to decorative arts like painted mirrors and particulars as microscopic as coffee pots, kitchen tiles and, our personal favorite, toilet seats.
The culmination of his life’s work came to fruition at his residence in Via Dezza, where he moved in 1957 and in which he opened his work studio— a space so big that, according to legend, his assistants literally rode up to their desks on scooters. Inside the home, however, his wife banned him from bringing his draft boards to bed. In any case, Ponti’s greatest inventions lived with them—including a free-space plan divided by wood walls that could slide up and close like accordions, and furniture that was covered with painted artwork. The entire home is dressed in cream and yellow, shades more attune to a shimmering seaside than a formal city, while the building façade consists of painted panels in shades of saffron, olive and brick that create a color-block puzzle effect. Ponti remained in this home until his death in 1979, continuing to welcome an electric mix of collaborators and friends who kept him working until age 87.
For more information on our favorite Milanese architect Gio Ponti, visit www.gioponti.org.
– J.J. Martin