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Rediscovering Gio Ponti

The father of modern Italian design finally gets his due.

Asked to pick a period that represents the high point of Gio Ponti's long career, architect and Harvard design professor Monica Ponce de Leon laughs. "You cannot," she says. "That's what is so incredible about Ponti—he is one of the very few designers and architects whose work was great from beginning to end." Such consistency was no small accomplishment. From the twenties to the seventies, Ponce de Leon points out, Ponti embodied every decade he worked in. "He managed to be totally fashionable and timeless," she says, "and maintain real integrity in his ideas and vocabulary."

In 1998 Ponce de Leon cocurated a show of Ponti's work at Harvard's Busch-Reisinger Museum, one of the first in the United States since the designer's death in 1979. At the time, Ponti was appreciated mainly by fellow designers and a few obsessive collectors. Now the rest of the world seems to be discovering the father of modern Italian design. Ponti exhibitions, like those at the Queens Museum of Art in New York in 2001 and the Design Museum in London in 2002, further piqued interest, and the market for his work, from every period and in every medium, is definitely heating up.

That trend was amply demonstrated in April, when Sotheby's in Milan auctioned off an important collection of Ponti pieces. Highlights included an urn created for the ceramics firm Richard-Ginori sometime after 1925, characterized by a beautiful mix of classical curves and sleek Art Deco lines. The decoration features stylized figures on a tiled plaza, surrounded by vases and architectural models on pedestals. You can already see hints of Ponti's signature diamond pattern as the tiles spiral to the top of the piece. One of only 30 urns the company produced in this design, it sold for $98,000. At the same sale, a circular burled-walnut coffee table with a diamond grid cutting across the center, made by Ponti in 1935, brought $45,500. Here, again, in the table's cross-hatch design, you can see the diamond motif that he would update throughout his career.

Chicago auctioneer Richard Wright, whose namesake firm specializes in 20th-century design, says the burgeoning interest in Ponti is only natural. "Whimsy and tough rationalism, the most important themes in modern Italian design, are absolutely embodied by his work," says Wright. He adds that he is seeing "contemporary art collectors, people who were never interested before, all buying Ponti."

If Ponti is just now gaining the recognition he deserves, it's certainly not because of a lack of productivity. In the twenties and thirties he not only designed the streamlined glass-and-metal Milan offices of Montecatini and worked as artistic director for Richard-Ginori but he also founded, edited, and wrote for the respected design magazine Domus. In the forties he designed costumes and sets for the opera and ballet, as well as gleaming chrome espressomakers for La Pavoni. He also started another magazine, Stile. After the war he helped rejuvenate Italian ship travel with a commission to outfit four ocean liners. In the fifties his collaborations with Piero Fornasetti resulted in a series of surreally beautiful residences in Milan, along with interiors for the ill-fated Andrea Doria, which sank in 1956. In addition he built one of the world's iconic skyscrapers, the Pirelli headquarters in Milan, and the Villa Planchart in Caracas, Venezuela, among the most exquisite houses of the modernist period.

These projects form only a sampling of Ponti's output. And there might have been more had his wife, Giulia, not rebelled when he brought a drafting table into their bedroom so he could continue working at night instead of wasting a rumored four hours sleeping. Somehow he found time to write, sketch, paint, and mentor an entire generation of designers and architects at the Milan Polytechnic.

Paradoxically, the scope, quality, and sheer volume of Ponti's designs may have been factors that slowed appreciation of his achievements. Zesty Meyers, co-owner of the New York design gallery R 20th Century, remarks, "Part of the problem has been that there's so much work—and at such a high level—that it's almost beyond comprehension. It has taken people years to start getting a handle on it."

The recent museum shows have served to advance scholarship and, in turn, ignite collector interest. Peter Loughrey, owner of Los Angeles Modern Auctions and himself a Ponti collector, says the market could begin to skyrocket now that "the same people willing to spend a million dollars on a piece by [Emile-Jacques] Ruhlmann are developing an interest in Ponti."

One point everyone agrees on: Ponti's unique pieces are the most coveted. They aren't easy to find, though. So what else to look for? His furniture and ceramics from the twenties and thirties combined neoclassical style, luxurious materials, and the finest craftsmanship. In the late forties and early fifties, he shifted between clean-lined modernism and funkier collaborations, creating furniture that shows the master at his peak.

While Ponti's prices are rising, his work remains relatively affordable in the red-hot modern design market, where seven-figure sums no longer seem far-fetched. In June, Christie's sold a table by Ponti's friend Carlo Mollino for a staggering $3.8 million. That result may be, as many believe, a case of auction fever. But there's no question: Ponti looks seriously undervalued by comparison.


Mass Appeal

One thing that distinguishes Ponti, says independent curator Marco Romanelli, is that he worked in two scales, devoting "the same passion" to designing for manufacturers as he did to his one-off custom pieces. Not surprisingly, mass-produced examples tend to be far less expensive than unique commissions. A vintage set of eight of the famed SUPERLEGGERA CHAIRS—which Cassina has made since 1957—recently sold for $12,500. And you can find Ponti's charming 1930 textile design I MOROSI ALLA FINESTRA, recently rereleased by Maharam fabrics (800-645-3943; www.maharam.com), for $120 per yard.


Who to Know

BRIAN KISH Gallerist, New York; 212-925-7850; www.briankish.com

PETER LOUGHREY Director, Los Angeles Modern Auctions; 323-904-1950; www.lamodern.com

ZESTY MEYERS Co-owner, R 20th Century Gallery, New York; 212-343-7979; www.r20thcentury.com

FRED SILBERMAN Gallerist, New York; 212-924-6330; www.fredsilberman.com

RICHARD WRIGHT Owner, Wright auction house, Chicago; 312-563-0020; www.wright20.com

NINA YASHAR Owner, Galleria Nilufar, Milan; 39-02/780-193; www.nilufar.com


Which Ponti Do You Prefer?

The designer's career can be broken down more or less into distinct periods, each marked by an evolutionary leap in style. Unsurprisingly, everyone has a favorite. For New York dealer Fred Silberman, it's the PREWAR PERIOD. That was when Ponti blended NEOCLASSICAL MOTIFS—elongated figures on ceramics, details on furniture that echoed arches—with materials such as burled walnut and marble. At the top end of the market, a pair of walnut and mirror cabinets crafted for a private residence in 1929 went for $128,000 at Sotheby's April sale in Milan. To Los Angeles Modern Auctions director Peter Loughrey, Ponti's work from the FIFTIES is the strongest. "It was the first time in his career that he had clients who allowed him to do absolutely what he wanted," Loughrey says. During these years, Ponti took what he had done before and made it fresh. He used burled walnut to create SCULPTURAL FURNITURE and embellished some of his pieces with Piero Fornasetti's SURREALIST DESIGNS. One example, a custom headboard from 1950, brought $32,000 at a Wright auction in Chicago in 2003. Brian Kish, curator of the Queens Museum of Art retrospective and owner of the eponymous New York gallery, is most interested in pieces from the SIXTIES and SEVENTIES, when the designer turned to curved ORGANIC SHAPES and ABSTRACT PATTERNS. Observes Kish, "His work from this period has been widely overlooked."

MORE ABOUT PONTI The 1990 catalogue raisonné of the designer's work, compiled by his daughter Lisa Licitra Ponti, is out of print, but you can find Marco Romanelli's catalogue for the London Design Museum show "Gio Ponti: A World." To see the work firsthand, book a room at Sorrento's Hotel Parco dei Principi, which he designed in the early 1960s. From $280 to $465. At 1 Via Rota; 39-081/878-4644; www.hotelparcoprincipi.com.

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