Collecting guide: icons of Italian mid-century design
How Gio Ponti, Carlo de Carli, Carlo Mollino, Carlo Scarpa and Fontana Arte transformed Italian furniture and interiors. Illustrated with outstanding pieces previously offered at Christie’s and more featured in upcoming sales
Giovanni ‘Gio’ Ponti (1891-1979) was a modern Renaissance man. With a career spanning seven decades, his work as a designer and architect ranged from armchairs to cars to skyscrapers, while he also edited magazines for more than 50 years.
After training as an architect, Ponti began to design neo-classical villas while also, from 1923 to 1930, serving as art director for the Richard Ginori ceramics factory, creating classically inspired porcelain. His later furniture designs would come to epitomise post-war Italy’s design confidence — one of his most iconic pieces, the Superleggera
(‘super light’) chair was so strong and yet also so light that a schoolchild could lift it with one finger.
Ponti created his furniture for some 120 different companies, with a view to making his work as accessible to as many people as possible. Each manufacturer adapted his designs to fit their production — thus, Ponti’s designs tend to show subtly different proportions, construction and materials.
‘Gio Ponti was prolific across diverse media,’ says Christie’s International Design specialist Simon Andrews. ‘Probably the two most crucial periods of his influence were the early years of the 1930s, during which he supported the internationalisation of the Italian identity through the founding of Domus magazine, and then the post-war period of around 1945-1960. Works from these periods have become increasingly scarce, and are actively sought after by collectors. Ponti is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.’
‘Carlo Mollino and Gio Ponti were great friends and respected each other’s work,’ Andrews continues. ‘However as practitioners, the two could not have been more different: unlike Ponti’s more universal, international approach to design, Mollino preferred to remain active only within his immediate environment of Turin.’
Born into a wealthy family,
Carlo Mollino (1905-1973) could afford to be selective with his projects. Many of his furniture designs were one-off commissions for friends or private clients, such as the unique wooden cabinet for the Casa Albonico (below) in Turin and the record-breaking glass and oak table for the Casa Orengo (also below). The ‘Tipo B’ side chair was created as a wedding gift for Gio Ponti’s daughter, Lisa.
Mollino used his furniture to explore his interests in cutting-edge technology and new materials, as well as to indulge in his love of symbolism. Both a Modernist and a Surrealist, Mollino was a man of many eclectic passions — in addition to architecture
and design, he was a trained pilot and racing car driver, and
a creator of erotic Polaroids.
‘Many of the bespoke interiors Mollino created for his clients were dismantled in the 1970s and 80s, with works immediately entering private collections or museums,’ notes Andrews. ‘Consequently, the appearance of any of Mollino’s unique furnishings on the auction market is always met with enthusiasm.’
Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978) studied architecture but never obtained a professional license, although that didn’t stop him from later designing some of Italy’s most celebrated buildings. For the first 20 years of his career, however, he was a designer of Venetian glass, pushing the boundaries of Venice’s venerable glassblowing traditions.
Some of Scarpa’s finest work as an architect was the renovation and redisplay of Italy’s most historic museums and galleries. While working at the Correr Museum in Venice, Scarpa designed his famous easel, made of wood, steel and brass, fully adjustable
but with no screws or bolts. Scarpa liked these easels so much that he continued to use them throughout his career.
‘Scarpa occupies a legendary position in the evolution of the Italian design personality,’ says Simon Andrews. ‘He was both prolific and revolutionary as a glass designer between the 1920s and 1940s, revealing a ‘built’ or ‘constructed’ quality to many of his vessels, which was consistent with his training as an architect. Despite his broad and visionary talent, Scarpa designed relatively few furniture designs, which were mainly delivered for site-specific installations for private clients, or in the case of this rare easel, designed to integrate seamlessly within a gallery environment.’
Carlo de Carli
Carlo de Carli (1910-1999) was a practising architect, respected academic and writer, and prolific furniture designer. After graduating from the Polytechnic University of Milan in 1934, he worked for a while under Gio Ponti, before setting up a studio of his own.
As a furniture designer, de Carli worked with some of the leading manufacturers of his time, including Cassina and Tecno. He also worked on private commissions, such as all
the furnishings for Casa Galli in Milan, designed to fit around the inhabitants’ lifestyles. As he once stated: ‘A chair, an armchair or a table must be elements in which one can feel an individual presence.’
‘De Carli may be included amongst the new generation of post-war architects and designers who were instrumental in guiding the democratisation of good, effective modern design,’ says Andrews. ‘Prolific in his output, de Carli’s commissions included those for ocean liners and hotels (often in collaboration with Gio Ponti), in addition to serial-manufacturers and unique pieces for private clients, which remain amongst the most sought-after of his works.’
De Carli strived to create designs that incorporated the body’s movements and posture. The relationship between human form and design is particularly evident in his chairs and beds, which, to some extent, dictate the pose of their user.
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Fontana Arte was founded in 1932 by glass artisan Luigi Fontana, architect Gio Ponti and designer
Pietro Chiesa. More than eight decades on, the company is still considered one of the leading makers of glass lighting, furniture and home accessories.
‘Sophisticated in their design and of flawless execution, the furniture, lighting and objects produced by Fontana Arte have represented the very pinnacle of the skills of Italian craftsmanship and innovation,’ confirms our specialist.
Under Chiesa’s directorship in the 1930s, Fontana Arte expanded from decorative stained-glass products to tables, mirrors and lighting, with many of its early designs remaining in production today.
Simon Andrews explains that today’s collectors and decorators are increasingly drawn to ‘the dramatic and stylish chandeliers, appliques and lamps that represented the breadth of the often-bespoke production of the 1950s and early 1960s.’
In the 1950s, after Chiesa’s death, new art director Max Ingrand transformed Fontana Arte from a purveyor of exclusive, limited-edition pieces to producing affordable but high-quality designs, accessible to a larger market, while also collaborating with artists and artisans.