Architect, designer, artist and writer: Gio Ponti was a polymathic powerhouse whose mind-blowing output spanned everything from spoons to skyscrapers. His pioneering take earned him the mantle “the father of modern Italian design”. Ponti’s buildings can be found across the world, but left an indelible imprint on Italy – in particular on his hometown of Milan, where numerous landmarks still stand today, offering a glimpse into his life and work.
Ponti lived in several houses in Milan, but it is his final home, in an apartment block he designed on Via Dezza, that makes the best starting point for a Ponti peregrination – not least because it also housed his ground-floor model studio, which today is run as an archive by his grandson Salvatore Licitra. Some of Licitra’s fondest childhood memories are of gatherings at the family apartment on the eighth floor, where Ponti resided from 1957 until his death aged 87 in 1979. “It was a magical space full of curious and attractive objects: ornaments, sculptures and paintings,” he recalls. “Our grandparents were always happy and had fun joking around with us children.”
Ponti poured all his ideas about design and architecture into Via Dezza, a vision of modern living, constructed as stacked segments, housing customisable, open-plan apartments with “movable walls” to close off spaces. The homes also showcased Ponti’s “furnished windows” (a distinct feature of the façade underlined by colour, which inside became a “fourth wall” accessorised with drawers, cantilevered tops and shelving). In his own art-peppered apartment, the chairs and beds were identical throughout, and the floor and ceiling clad with handmade coloured tiles.
Licitra remembers how bright and welcoming it was. “The handmade striped ceramic floor united all the spaces as if it were a single stage on which to represent domestic life. Walkable, open and full of objects, it was so exciting,” he says. “It reflected my grandfather’s intense creativity but also proposed a simple life.”
Licitra admits that his grandfather, a workaholic who could be “inattentive” at times, made no distinction between work and home, where visitors constantly came and went. “Work was conceived as an expression of his personality, and family life was totally open to his business contacts.” But his enduring impression of his grandfather remains one of a man who was an eternal optimist. “His main working tool was enthusiasm, which he communicated to collaborators and clients who inexorably became friends and members of a sort of extended family.”
Licitra did not follow in his grandfather’s footsteps as an architect, instead studying philosophy before taking up photography. But fate decreed that he would become the custodian of Ponti’s legacy later in life – at Via Dezza. “My mother, Lisa Ponti, had kept both the photographic archive from his studio (a collection of images of Ponti’s work from the 1920s to the 1970s) and his correspondence for years, in order to work on the book Gio Ponti: The Complete Work 1923-1978 [published in 1990], which was entrusted to me in 1996, when I set up the archive.”
Imagery aside, the collection includes more than 100,000 letters written and received by Ponti, revealing relationships with fellow architects, artists, politicians and industrialists. Licitra, meanwhile, has continued to add to the trove with new photos and documentation, creating a historical resource available to researchers (by appointment) and loaned to museums and exhibitions. “The goal is to represent Ponti’s work against the background of the cultural history of the 1900s,” he says, as he unpacks boxes returned from the blockbuster Ponti exhibition at Rome’s MAXXI in 2019. He points to his collaboration with the furniture company Molteni&C, which has reissued pieces from some of Ponti’s most important houses using original drawings from the archives.
Why does he think his grandfather’s designs, so instrumental to the mid-20th-century Made in Italy movement, still resonate today? “Definitely luck: Ponti jokingly claimed to be ‘persecuted by luck’ for being able to live, work and exercise his creativity at a time of phenomenal technological innovation and social change,” Licitra says, adding that curiosity also played its part. “He loved and studied Italian cultural heritage, the arts and craftsmanship with a lively curiosity, not motivated by nostalgia but rather reworking these elements like an artist and illuminating them with a contemporary light.” Communication was the thread that bound it all together. “His work was constructed to communicate a message. It lived in the gaze of the public.”
I ask him which landmarks he would recommend to visitors making the pilgrimage to Milan. “It’s a very long list,” he jokes, but reels off a roll call of names. “Certainly the Pirelli skyscraper and the two buildings designed for Montecatini from 1936 and 1951. Then there’s the house in Via Randaccio from 1925, Ponti’s first house; Casa Rasini from 1933; an example of what Ponti called ‘typical houses’ in Via De Togni; and the church of San Francesco.”
Via Randaccio, the first of four family villas Ponti designed and lived in, is certainly worthy of an Insta snapshot – just don’t use a long lens, as it’s also Licitra’s home – and lifts a curtain on Ponti’s early style influences. “It’s an elegant tribute to Palladio’s architecture. All the pieces by Ponti are somehow special,” he says of the pale‑green villa replete with neoclassical details. Ponti did not begin life as a modernist and his aesthetic continually blurred into the eclectic.
By the time the four-storey building was completed in 1925, Ponti, having married Giulia Vimercati (in 1921), was part of Italian high society and working in partnership with Mino Fiocchi and Emilio Lancia at their architectural firm. A chance meeting with the owners of the Richard Ginori ceramic factory landed him the role of creative director – and solidified what became a lifelong love of ceramics. His work here, also influenced by neoclassicism, flew in the face of the modernist “functionalists” of the time, earning critical acclaim.
A compulsive collaborator, he produced projects thick and fast: he conceived cutlery and candlesticks for silversmiths Christofle (and designed the famed L’Ange Volant house for its director Tony Bouilhet on the outskirts of Paris in 1926), and chandeliers for Murano glassmaker Venini. His furniture designs were diverse: luxe creations for Il Labirinto group (which he co-founded in 1927) were countered by affordable pieces for the department store La Rinascente. As a flag-flyer for democratic design, he showed examples at the Venice Biennale and Monza Triennale, and tirelessly promoted the work of others, particularly new talent. Ponti not only used his social connections to this end, but in countless articles (he somehow found the time to launch the design and architecture magazine Domus in 1928 and the art title Lo Stile in 1941) documented fresh thinking as an important aspect of Italian culture. A mouthpiece for modern living, he aided Italy’s transition into the design hub of the world.
Casa Rasini – the red-brick tower, which was the last Ponti designed with his friend Emilio Lancia in 1932 – hints at a gear change towards full-throttle modernism, as do his “typical houses” or Domuses, built between 1931 and 1936: simple externally but new and modern inside. FontanaArte, the lighting and furniture company he founded with designer Pietro Chiesa, provided other creative outlets (iconic designs ensued, such as his Bilia and Pirellone lamps and the Tavolino 1932 table, which are still in production today).
Ponti’s work took a decidedly modernist turn when he established his own architectural firm in 1933, bringing in the engineers Antonio Fornaroli and Eugenio Soncin as partners. The Montecatini office building on Via della Moscova – its façade punctured by grid-like rows of windows – offers a glimpse of their vision.
By the time Ponti conceived his most famous building in 1955 – the Pirelli Tower – he was at the zenith of an incredible career. An early example of a skyscraper, overlooking Piazza Duca d’Aosta, his glinting edifice – some 127m high and wafer-thin when viewed from the side due to its bevelled edges – was Italy’s tallest building until 1961. “She is so beautiful that I’d love to marry her,” Ponti declared when Pirellone (“Big Pirelli”), as she became known, was completed.
These were Ponti’s golden years, symbolised by arguably his most iconic design, the Superleggera chair for Cassina (1957) – a new take on a traditional ladder chair, where the superfluous was subtracted to produce the lightest design. He called it his “chair-chair devoid of adjectives”.
Of course, his work rarely fitted neatly into boxes, and for much of his career he explored a love of decoration with the artist Piero Fornasetti. Their decades-long partnership intensified in the 1950s – Ponti’s designs became canvases for Fornasetti’s graphic patterns and motifs as together they aimed to bring art into more people’s homes.
Obviously today, only those fortunate enough to own or rent a home in one of Ponti’s buildings can immerse themselves in his vision. But the rest of us can experience it – even if only for a short spell – by leaving Milan for the Parco dei Principi in Sorrento. Licitra believes Ponti would be immensely flattered that his vision for the five-star hotel (which he designed in 1960) remains largely intact. “He worked hard on hotels and wrote texts on what they should be like; he wanted them to be desirable places.” For Licitra, the hotel represents “a new brisk and modern use of an ancient tradition”, given that Ponti was commissioned to build atop an existing Gothic dacha on the Bay of Naples. He created a buzz with his modernist extension, which appeared to hover over the clifftops, and lavished attention on the interior finishes, using pebbles and ceramics.
“Ponti wrote that a hotel had to be visually exciting. Colour was a fundamental tool of his work, and here the colour of the sea was the protagonist,” Licitra says of the interior’s striking blue-and-white scheme. “He played a game with ceramic tiles, taking advantage of the handicraft tradition of nearby Vietri, while creating 33 tile designs that could combine to generate different decorative motifs. This gave every hotel room a different floor design, but also the very precise geometry combined beautifully with the imprecision of Vietri’s hand-painted ceramics.”
A 243km detour to Taranto brings the Ponti story full circle to 1970, when he was approaching 80. Here stands the Concattedrale Gran Madre di Dio, a skeleton-like cathedral perforated by slits and apertures, including what Ponti called a “door to the sky”, that celebrates its 50th anniversary on Sunday 6 December. It is an exceptional work of art in a drab port city. But then, that’s the point. “Ponti always said he was an artist in love with architecture,” Licitra concludes.
GIO BRIO: A TIMELINE OF ICONIC DESIGN
Ponti’s family home, 9 Via Randaccio, Milan
The first of four villas designed and lived in by Ponti, and reflecting his early influences in its neoclassical detailing.
Villa Bouilhet “L’Ange Volant”, Garches, near Paris
Ponti became friends with Tony Bouilhet, owner of the Christofle silver factory, who asked him to design a villa. According to Licitra, the project was to be “an elegant competition with French culture”, a distinct “casa all’Italiana”.
Founder and editor, Domus
Ponti edited the design and architecture magazine until his death, only taking a hiatus between 1941 and 1948, when he launched a second title, Lo Stile, an art magazine that also promoted craft.
Casa Rasini, Milan
This was to be Ponti’s last building designed with fellow architect Emilio Lancia. In 1933, he established his own architectural firm and took a decidedly modernist approach.
The D.151.4 was conceived (with slight variants) for the interiors of several ocean liners designed by Ponti, and has now been reissued by Italian furniture brand Molteni&C (£3,792).
Produced by Molteni&C using original drawings kept in the Gio Ponti Archives, the D.655.2 features hand-painted white drawer fronts with applied handles in elm, Italian walnut, mahogany and rosewood (£5,915).
The D.153.1 armchair was part of the furniture designed for Ponti’s private Via Dezza house. This re-edition, produced by Molteni&C, is based on the original drawings from the Ponti Archives (£4,192).
The D.154.2 armchair was originally designed for Ponti’s Villa Planchart in Caracas, and has been re-issued by Molteni&C (£4,130).
Pirelli Tower, Milan
Italy’s tallest building at the time, this early skyscraper, designed for the Pirelli tyre company, is Ponti’s most famous building. It was radical, with its diamond footprint, tapering silhouette and modern, airy interiors.
Apartment building, Via Dezza, Milan
This building showcased all of Ponti’s architectural and design ideas, and was his final home – he lived on the eighth floor until his death in 1979. It is now the site of the Gio Ponti Archives, run by Ponti’s grandson Salvatore Licitra.
Hotel Parco dei Principi, Sorrento
The Ponti-designed hotel still welcomes guests to this day. It is a showcase for his love of tiles and colour – its blue-and-white scheme inspired by the intense hue of the sea and sky that frames the Amalfi coast.
Concattedrale Gran Madre di Dio, Taranto
A religious man, Ponti designed several churches, but this cathedral stands out for its sail-like structure referencing the city’s maritime history, and a façade of slits and apertures that gives it a weightlessness.
Marine Le Pen falls short in French regional vote
Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National party fell short of expectations in the first round of France’s regional elections on Sunday, leaving the Les Républicains party and other centre-right politicians in a strong position for the second and final set of ballots next weekend.
The relatively poor results for the anti-immigration RN — in a record low turnout of about 33 per cent — will also provide some comfort for Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to face Le Pen when he seeks re-election as president next year.
Le Pen described the low turnout as a “civic disaster” that gave a false impression of the political situation. “If you want things to change, you must vote,” she said in a short speech as the results began to emerge.
Xavier Bertrand, the centre-right leader of the Hauts-de-France region in the north, was on course for re-election and received a boost to his own presidential ambitions, with early estimates from BFMTV after polls closed giving him 44 per cent of the vote, against 24.4 per cent for Le Pen’s RN.
Recalling that the RN had been ahead in the region after the first round in 2015, Bertrand boasted in a speech of “breaking the jaws” of his far-right rivals in this year’s electoral battle. Le Pen had campaigned in the north and hoped to flip the region to her party in Sunday’s vote.
Early estimates suggested that Le Pen’s party might be within reach of a first-round lead in Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur in the south. But even there the performance was less impressive than predicted by opinion polls, which had suggested the RN would take control of the region after the second round in the first such victory in its history.
That now looks less easy to achieve for the RN, since other parties have in the past tended to unite in a so-called “republican front” in second-round votes to keep the extreme right from power.
Nationwide, centre-right lists were forecast to receive about 29 per cent of the votes cast in the first round, against 19 per cent for the RN, 16 per cent for the Socialist party, 13 per cent for the Greens and 11 per cent for Macron’s centrist La République en Marche party.
Incumbent parties performed well, with LR politicians in the lead in the Grand Est region in the east, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in the south-east and Ile-de-France around Paris. The Socialists expected to hold Occitanie and Brittany in the west.
Gérald Darmanin, interior minister, said the record low turnout was “particularly worrying”, adding: “Our collective effort must be to mobilise the French for the second round.”
The low turnout did not fulfil the fears of Macron’s ally François Bayrou by benefiting the extreme right or the extreme left, and may have been the result of voter weariness with politics and a desire to enjoy themselves after more than a year of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The French have their minds on other things completely,” Brice Teinturier of polling group Ipsos told a webinar last week. “We are coming out of the pandemic . . . and the outlook for the economy is getting much better.”
Delta variant begins to spread, threatening EU’s Covid progress
The Delta coronavirus variant that swept the UK has become dominant in Portugal and appeared in clusters across Germany, France and Spain, prompting European health officials to warn further action is needed to slow its spread.
While the new strain, which first emerged in India, still only accounts for a fraction of the total coronavirus cases in mainland Europe, it is gaining ground, according to a Financial Times analysis of global genomic data from the virus tracking database Gisaid. It accounts for 96 per cent of sequenced Covid-19 infections in Portugal, more than 20 per cent in Italy and about 16 per cent in Belgium, the FT’s calculations show.
The small but rising number of cases have raised concerns that the Delta variant could halt the progress the EU has made over past the two months in bringing new infections and deaths down to their lowest level since at least the autumn.
“We are in the process of crushing the virus and crushing the pandemic, and we must in no way let the Delta variant get the upper hand,” France’s health minister, Olivier Véran, told reporters at a Paris vaccination centre on Tuesday.
Véran said that 2 per cent to 4 per cent of virus samples being analysed in France were showing as the Delta variant: “You might say this is still low but it is similar to the situation in the UK a few weeks ago.” The FT’s analysis of Gisaid’s data suggests this figure could be higher.
In Portugal, community transmission of the variant has been detected in the greater Lisbon area, where more than 60 per cent of the country’s new coronavirus cases in the past week have been identified. Non-essential travel to and from the city has been banned in an effort to prevent the spike in cases spreading to the rest of the country.
Scientists across the continent are now looking to the UK — where Covid-19 cases have tripled in the past month and the Delta variant accounts for about 98 per cent of all new infections — for clues about what may happen next and which measures may need to be taken.
After official data showed the Delta variant appeared to increase the risk of hospitalisation by 2.2 times compared with the Alpha variant, the UK government this week imposed a one month delay to the removal of its remaining coronavirus restrictions.
“The decisions the UK makes to reopen life and society will serve as a laboratory for us in Europe,” said Bruno Lina, a virologist in Lyon who advises the French government and helps co-ordinate variant sequencing in the country.
Whether the clusters of Delta infections peppering the EU turn into bigger outbreaks will depend in part on how many people have been fully vaccinated, scientists said, as well as people’s behaviour now that many restrictions on life and business are being lifted.
Recent UK government research has highlighted the need to complete vaccination programmes as quickly as possible. According to data gathered by Public Health England, the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine is generally less effective against the Delta variant than with the previous strains. Two doses increases protection against symptomatic infection with Delta from 33 per cent to 81 per cent.
While in the UK about 46 per cent of the population has been fully immunised, vaccination rates in most countries in mainland Europe are hovering at between 20 per cent and 30 per cent. About 26 per cent of the population in France has been fully vaccinated.
French authorities are currently trying to contain an outbreak in the Landes region, near the Spanish border, where 125 cases of the Delta variant have been confirmed by genetic sequencing and another 130 are suspected, representing about 30 per cent of recent infections in the area. Clusters of the Delta variant have also been identified in recent weeks in the southern suburbs of Paris and an art school in Strasbourg.
In each case health officials have responded with the same formula: increased contact tracing and a renewed push to vaccinate people in the affected areas.
“If we keep vaccination going at a good pace, and some non-pharmaceutical interventions like masks indoors, we can still repress the circulation of the virus this summer,” said Lina, the French virologist. “This variant will displace the other ones — we must keep that in mind — but it doesn’t mean that it will lead to a new epidemic wave.”
Some scientists fear the Delta variant may have already spread further but gone undetected given that less of the genomic sequencing needed to identify variants has been completed in mainland Europe. While the UK has sequenced more than 500,000 Sars-Cov-2 genomes, Germany, France and Spain have sequenced about 130,000, 47,000 and 34,000 respectively.
“It’s costly, it’s time consuming and it was neglected,” said Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva.
Denmark, however, has sequenced a high proportion of cases and still only identified a small number of Delta infections, even though the variant arrived in the country at approximately the same time as in the UK.
This could be explained partly, experts said, by differences in demographics and movement, including the number of cases imported into the country from regions with a high prevalence, such as India, and the living conditions in the communities into which it is seeded.
The difference in the pace of Delta’s spread across European countries remained “a little bit of a mystery”, said Jeff Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge.
Still, many experts believe that wherever the Delta variant is introduced, it will eventually become dominant. The key, they say, will be to increase the proportion of fully vaccinated people, while slowing transmission of the virus as much as possible.
“We have to keep the messaging very clear,” said Lina in Lyon. “This is not over.”
Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey, Peter Wise, Guy Chazan and Clive Cookson
EU fails in legal bid to speed up AstraZeneca vaccine supply
The EU has lost a legal bid to force AstraZeneca to speed up delivery of Covid-19 vaccines or risk billions of euros in fines, the latest round in a bitter battle between the bloc and the UK-Swedish pharmaceutical company.
In a ruling on Friday, a court in Brussels criticised AstraZeneca for a “serious breach” of its contract with the EU after repeated shortfalls but refused to impose a new schedule demanded by Brussels that would have required the company to deliver 120m doses by the end of June or pay fines of €10 per dose per day.
The dispute between the European Commission and AstraZeneca has severely damaged the company’s standing on the continent and in February spiralled into a diplomatic row when Brussels threatened to exercise an emergency provision of the Brexit deal to stop vaccines entering the UK via Northern Ireland.
The Brussels court ruled that AstraZeneca should provide 80m doses by the end of September. However, in practice this should have no impact on AstraZeneca, which has already delivered 70m doses and plans to provide the remaining 10m before the end of this month.
The commission insisted that the court judgment would nonetheless put pressure on AstraZeneca because it had “laid the tracks for the delivery of future doses on the basis of clear contractual principles”, including supply from British manufacturing sites.
“The company will have to follow these tracks and it can no longer argue that it cannot use the UK plants for the production of vaccines for the European Union,” the commission said.
The ruling found that the pharma company’s failure to send the EU vaccines manufactured in the UK was inconsistent with making the “best reasonable efforts” on supply required by its contract. But it did not order AstraZeneca to use UK production to fulfil the EU order.
A UK plant operated by Oxford BioMedica is nonetheless expected to start manufacturing for the EU, according to a person familiar with the matter.
AstraZeneca was originally expected to supply up to 300m doses to the EU in the first six months of this year but that forecast was cut sharply after production problems.
With the pace of the EU’s vaccine rollout improving, using mainly Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs, and some countries imposing restrictions on the AstraZeneca vaccine after the discovery of rare blood clots, there is less practical need for the doses.
Jeffrey Pott, AstraZeneca’s general counsel, said: “AstraZeneca has fully complied with its agreement with the European Commission and we will continue to focus on the urgent task of supplying an effective vaccine, which we are delivering at no profit to help protect people in Europe and around the world from the deadliest pandemic in a generation.”
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the commission, said: “This decision confirms the position of the commission: AstraZeneca did not live up to the commitments it made in the contract. It is good to see that an independent judge confirms this.”
The court is due to hold hearings in September on a second case brought by the Commission seeking judgment on whether AstraZeneca failed in its duty to deliver on the supply contract.
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