In 1927 Gio Ponti formed Il Labirinto (The Labyrinth) as a way to bring architects and designers into association with manufacturers. In the case of these two table sculptures, he joined forces with two members of the Labyrinth group, designer Pietro Chiesa and Murano glass manufacturer Paolo Venini, to create exhibition pieces for the 1928 Venice Biennale. Still, it is Ponti's hand that we see in the overall pictorial scheme behind the design of both the stained glass panels and of the bronze supports. Pietro Chiesa fabricated the actual objects at his Bottega di Chiesa with the coloured glass sourced from Venini.
While essentially repeating the same motif, Ponti generates a vibrant dialogue between contrasting but closely related daylight and nocturnal iterations. This paradigm turned out to evolve over time into his positivo-negativo method, a recurring trope in his architecture and design projects throughout his career.
Here the images are highly schematic, with a centrally placed angel figure set into a labyrinth that is drawn axonometric mode. Five symbols are configured around the angel: a shooting star, a rainbow, a leaping dog, a bisected planet, and a crescent moon. These symbols were to reappear later under other guises in designs for Ginori ceramics, Ferrari silk textiles, and even in Fontana Arte products. The labyrinth motif resurfaced in Ponti's 1928 graphic logos that promoted the group’s furniture designs for Rinascente. In short these glass tabletop sculptures can almost be read as an emblem of Il Labirinto.
In the execution details of the stained glass, Pietro Chiesa developed a more painterly look on the nocturnal panel, dappling and blending colours on the five symbols, the angel's wings and arms, and the labyrinth walls. This was meant to demonstrate the availability of at least two techniques, either a solid graphic colouring or a more expressionist, “ombre” surface treatment. An example of freestanding sculpture was placed in Hall 33 of the main Venice Biennale pavilion, a room with Ponti-designed plastered walls whose low relief Novecento designs are echoed in the bronze urn-like socles that artfully support the two glass panels.
Ponti essentially began his 1928 Venini collaboration with these two, non-utilitarian art objects, displayed alongside the functional glass vases by Martinuzzi in the XVI Biennale. When he returned to Venini 38 years later he had greater autonomy and a different perspective that led him to design purely abstract glass sculptures. These objects, his last Venini designs, were again rectilinear and also freestanding. But they were irregular coloured glass blocks contained in folded bronze bases that he exhibited in Milan at the Ideal Standard showroom in 1966. From the time he gravitated in the Italian Futurist orbit of Fortunato Depero, he gradually moved towards non-objective concerns akin to Lucio Fontana’s, but Ponti always used art as his fundamental inspiration. In Domus he wrote numerous essays and reviews about art and artists, with a sharp insight that came from being a painter himself. He essentially always looped art into his industrial practice and writings by aiming at a particular synthesis. "The most resistant element is not wood, is not stone, is not steel, is not glass. The most resistant element in building is art. Let's make something very beautiful.”
– (Gio Ponti, Amate l'architettura, Genoa, 1957)
Brian Kish, October 2020
Curator and Specialist in 20th century Italian architecture and design. Since 2006 he has been an associate member of the Gio Ponti Archives.