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Gio Ponti, Ceramics and Richard Ginori

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Gio Ponti’s involvement in the ceramics industry was recently commemorated with an exhibition entitled “Gio Ponti and his Ceramics” held in the Pirelli skyscraper in Milan. His work in this field has always been much appreciated by the market and in major auctions both in Italy and abroad.
It represented a fundamental phase in his artistic development, beginning in 1923 as art director of Richard Ginori’s two factories: Milan-San Cristoforo, specialising in pottery and Doccia, where fine porcelain was produced.
Ponti’s work for Richard Ginori – officially until 1930, the year Augusto Richard died, but in reality continuing through later years – coincided with the company’s need to modernise its production, which despite a brief excursion into Art Nouveau at the turn of the century, was still largely traditional and based on the reproduction of models from the past. This was the same urgent need for change and modernisation, with styles closer to contemporary fashion that was soon to determine the hiring of Guido Andlovitz, as art director, by the Società Ceramica Italiana in Laveno.
The importance of this period in Gio Ponti’s professional development can be seen from his works in the 1920s, when he was better known as Richard Ginori’s art director (with 400 pieces currently on display in the company’s Doccia museum) and for his work as an interior designer than for his rare projects as an architect. In the field of interior design Ponti worked with “Il Labirinto,” a company he had founded in 1927 with his fellow architects Lancia, Buzzi and Marelli, and alone with Lancia, who he had gone into partnership with in 1923, together they designed the Rinascente department store’s “Domus Nova” line of furniture. In 1928 Ponti became editor of the newly-founded magazine Domus; this marked the beginning of his intense career as an academic and journalist. As an editor he was very much focused on promoting the Italian art industry; this policy had a positive effect on his parallel career as a designer, as can be seen from his work as an interior designer for transatlantic liners, particularly those carried out in the immediate post-war period with Nino Zoncada. Another important facet of his work as a theorist was the development of his concept of the Mediterranean home, the heritage of centuries of artistic traditions, a philosophy Ponti illustrated in 1933 in his book Italian Homes, published by Domus.
Getting back to his work for Richard Ginori, his first exhibition for the company was the Monza Biennial in 1923. The name Ponti does not appear in the official catalogue of the exhibition for Ginori, whereas he is listed among the “Book Adorners” (a field he began working in during the early 1920s, with works inspired by the figurative culture featured in The Studio magazine). However Richard Ginori’s work, which won the Grand Prix, betrayed those distinctive characteristics of form and decoration, which went on to be developed in several series amply linked by echoed themes that were to be a hallmark of Ponti’s future work for the company. Indeed Carlo Carrà, in his contemporary monograph on the exhibition, attributed Richard Ginori’s works directly to Ponti, christening the company’s art director with the singularly apt definition “Milan’s neo-classicist.”
Gio Ponti’s ceramic designs have to be seen against the historic background of the time in Italy, where a fierce debate was raging over the direction artistic manufacturing should take. In fact the Monza exhibition played an important role because Italian manufacturers had a chance to measure their work against the international scene. Ponti’s work was modern, but represented a syncretism of styles imbued with echoes from the past and classicism. Among his vast range of forms and decorations, comprising architecture, columns and classic vases, his signature obelisk occupied pride of place. Ponti himself in his essay “The Enigma of the Obelisk” (from his book Architecture is a Crystal published in 1945) used the following words: “The obelisk, sibylline, metaphysical ... it represents arcane, non-functional Architecture, the pure, the only plastic act, the accent ... The obelisk teaches Architecture; perhaps it is the very symbol, the essence, of Architecture, it hymns lines that are restless, awake, statically in movement.” While Ponti’s ceramics are clearly the forerunners of his later architectural work in form and style, they also represent a model for Italian déco in their classicism. At the “Exposition internationale des Arts Décoratifs et industriels modernes” held in Paris in 1925 at the height of the fashion for déco, later also known as Style 1925, Richard Ginori won two prizes, one of them was awarded to Ponti. The firm’s artistic success was mirrored in its commercial success, with growing sales especially in the international market. In a report written during the Paris exhibition Ponti remarked: “The creation of a market; a modern process ... to be absorbed and deliberately imitated.”
His interior design projects for “Il Labirinto” and the furniture designed together with Emilio Lancia for “Domus Nova” which he presented two years later at the third edition of the Monza Biennial, show how his grasp of the déco style which he was using in ceramics could be profitably applied to other spheres of design.
In the field of ceramics the series that marked his commitment to Neoclassicism – the modern interpretation of direct echoes of Roman, Etruscan, Greek and even Egyptian artefacts – was his Classic conversations, whose signature piece was undoubtedly Ponti’s modern version of the cista, a small casket generally used for toiletries or cult objects in the Etruscan and Greek tradition.
While Ponti’s “politely ultra-modern eclecticism,” to quote a definition of the time by the critic Ugo Nebbia, appears to fit perfectly into the contemporary atmosphere magically suspended between metaphysical painting and the Italian Novecento, his figurines, whether single pieces or groups against geometric or architectural backgrounds, always betrayed a strong sense of irony which leavened the rather ancient solemnity of their themes (Classic Conversations, The Triumph of Love and Death etc.). His melancholy, but lively, raised figures, such as his Tired Pilgrim and the dancing couple on The Dance (a comfit box in white and gold porcelain that was also produced in other colour combinations), or his allegoric scenes, such as his polychrome pottery panels Bacchus, Tobacco and Venus, all betray his own good-humoured, easy-going, view of the world in their airy design which harmoniously echoes their lightly suspended existential dimension. This awareness is also evident in his more animated series, such as Velasca (or Nautica) and Hunting, all produces in a variety of shapes, colours and decorative versions.
Ponti’s period as the art director at Richard Ginori provided him with the chance to experiment with his instinctive ability to create positive working relationships with other artists, an enduring characteristic of his future design work. Examples include Two figures (Joy and Hospitality), produced around 1923–25 from a model by Salvatore Saponaro, or the Triumphal Table Centrepiece, commissioned by the Italian Foreign Office to adorn prestigious Italian embassy dinner tables. The latter was designed with Tomaso Buzzi in 1926, modelled in white porcelain by Italo Griselli, and decorated with gold tracing using an agate-tipped stylus by Elena Diana. These fruitful forms of artistic collaboration also prompted the further development of his idea of a productive symbiosis between art and industry, in which, as he himself said while preparing the programme for the Triennial held in 1930: “Art is the type, industry the condition.” In his role as Richard Ginori’s art director, chosen by the firm with a stroke of brilliant insight because he was an architect, not a ceramic artist, he could give full rein to his desire to mate uncompromising artistic rigour with the productive needs of manufacturing. As he wrote in his Italian Homes: “Industry both makes and generates styles: industry is the manner of our times.” While the significant work he did with other manufacturers from the early 1930s onwards, after leaving Richard Ginori, undoubtedly sowed the seeds of the future of Italian design, his personal experience in ceramics can only be called, to quote Paolo Portoghesi, design prehistory.

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