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.
US suspends tariffs on UK exports in Airbus-Boeing trade dispute
The US will temporarily lift punitive tariffs on £550m worth of UK exports such as Scotch whisky and Stilton cheese, imposed as part of a row with the EU over subsidies to Boeing and Airbus, in an attempt to de-escalate one of the longest trade disputes in modern history.
The move follows the UK’s unilateral decision to suspend tariffs against the US from January 1, which took both Brussels and Airbus by surprise. Brussels has disputed that the UK had the right to act unilaterally in a trade dispute between the EU and the US when it has left the bloc.
Liz Truss, UK international trade secretary, said she was delighted that US president Joe Biden had agreed to suspend tariffs on UK goods for four months. The move would help to improve transatlantic relations, she said.
The US trade representative’s office confirmed that it would temporarily suspend the tariffs, to allow time to negotiate on settling the aircraft dispute.
The Johnson government has come under heavy fire over the tariffs in particular from the Scotch whisky industry, whose exports to the US plunged 30 per cent last year.
“The easier it is for Americans to buy a bottle of Macallan, Talisker or Glenmorangie, the more money those producers will have to invest in their businesses, their staff and futures,” Truss said. “Trade equals jobs.”
The US-EU aircraft subsidies dispute is one of the longest-running cases in the World Trade Organization’s history, reflecting the importance of the industry to each side and the intense competition between Boeing and Airbus.
The battle dates back to 2004, the year after Airbus first overtook its US rival in terms of deliveries. Both sides have been found guilty of providing billions in illegal subsidies to their aircraft makers.
Brussels was last year given the green light by the WTO to impose tariffs of up to 25 per cent on $4bn worth of US products, after Washington announced duties on $7.5bn worth of European imports.
Both Boeing and Airbus welcomed any move that could help to bring the two sides together. “We welcome USTR’s (US Trade Representative) decision to suspend tariffs for allowing negotiations to take place,” Airbus said in a statement. “Airbus supports all necessary actions to create a level-playing field and continues to support a negotiated settlement of this longstanding dispute to avoid lose-lose tariffs.”
Boeing said: “We commend this action by the US and UK governments creating an opportunity for serious negotiations to resolve the WTO aircraft dispute. A negotiated settlement will allow the industry to move forward with a genuinely global level playing field for aviation.”
However, Britain’s departure from the EU has raised questions about how effective any UK-US suspension can be. With no precedent to follow, trade lawyers have said it is unclear whether the UK still had a right to impose or suspend tariffs that were granted to the EU.
Whitehall officials insisted the UK had the right to revoke retaliatory tariffs. One individual close to the process said: “This whole issue shows the benefit of being an independent trading nation . . . if we can get this done, it paves the way to a deeper trading relationship with the US and will help free trade deal negotiations.”
Despite this, there appear to be very few signs of progress in the trade talks between the US and UK. In January, White House press secretary Jen Psaki indicated that securing a deal would not be a priority for the Biden administration.
Last month, Biden’s nominated top trade adviser Katherine Tai told senators that she would “review the progress” of the talks that had taken place between the two sides over the previous two and a half years.
Both the EU and the US have long argued for a resolution to the dispute, but have remained far apart on the terms of any agreement on how to fund new aircraft development.
After Biden’s election as US president, there was a feeling in Europe that a deal could be within reach. There has been growing speculation that talks were progressing.
However, in late December, the US further raised tariffs on European goods, specifically targeting French and German products.
The EU has said it is in intensive talks with the US in a bid to quickly secure a deal to remove punitive tariffs.
“We have proposed that both sides agree to suspend tariffs for six months,” a European Commission spokesperson said. “This will help restore confidence and trust, and thus give us the space to come to a comprehensive and durable negotiated solution.”
A US administration official said that while he could not indicate whether there were plans to imminently remove the EU tariffs, the Biden team was continuing to review the dispute. “The goal is to resolve the dispute and create a level playing field,” the official said.
Both Brussels and Washington are keenly aware that the rules need to be set before China becomes a significant competitor to Boeing and Airbus.
China is expected to be the fastest-growing market for commercial aircraft over the coming decades and Beijing has made it a strategic priority to break the global duopoly in an attempt to claim some of that market for Chinese industry. Later this year, China’s Comac is expected to have fully certified its first major commercial aircraft, the C919 single aisle.
FC Barcelona and Real Madrid will be forced to pay back illegal state aid
FC Barcelona and Real Madrid will be forced to pay back millions of euros in illegal state aid after the EU’s highest court ruled Brussels was right to declare that beneficial tax arrangements they enjoyed for a quarter of a century were illegal.
The decision by the European Court of Justice upholds previous rulings by the European Commission and comes as Barcelona, the world’s highest-earning football club, is enduring one of the biggest crises in its history.
This week police arrested the club’s former president, its current chief executive and its general counsel, in connection with a separate legal case ahead of a vote on Sunday to decide its next president. Barcelona, which recorded a loss of €100m last year, also has to contend with a debt pile of more than €1bn.
In 2016 Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition chief supremo, ordered four Spanish football clubs to pay back tens of millions of euros received since the 1990s in the form of sweetheart property deals, tax breaks and soft loans.
FC Barcelona subsequently contested the decision before the General Court, the EU’s second-highest tribunal, which annulled the commission’s judgment. However, after a final appeal from Brussels the ECJ ruled in favour of the EU.
In its decision on Thursday — which is final — the ECJ deemed the tax scheme “liable to favour clubs operating as non-profit entities over clubs operating in the form of public limited sports companies”, holding that it could therefore qualify as illegal state aid under EU rules.
The General Court had previously annulled Brussels’ decision over what it said was lack of sufficient evidence that the tax arrangements offered to the four football clubs, which also include CA Osasuna and Athletic Bilbao, were illegal.
But the commission had questioned the court’s “heavy burden of proof” on regulators in its appeal, arguing that a lower tax rate was obviously more favourable than a higher one.
The ECJ argued that the difficulty in assessing the extent of state aid — because of the complexity of tax deductions — did not preclude the commission from banning government practices that it considered gave sports clubs unfair advantages.
It said: “The impossibility of determining, at the time of the adoption of an aid scheme, the exact amount, per tax year, of the advantage actually conferred on each of its beneficiaries, cannot prevent the commission from finding that scheme was capable, from that moment, of conferring an advantage on those beneficiaries.”
The Spanish government said on Thursday it had “absolute respect” for the court’s decision. FC Barcelona and Real Madrid did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The judgment will be seen as a big win for regulators in Brussels who have for years been trying to stop highly successful commercial clubs from freeriding on the back of taxpayers.
The European Commission said on Thursday it noted “the judgment by the Court of Justice to follow the Commission’s arguments”.
Thursday’s ruling is the second time Brussels has won an appeal of its state aid decisions in recent weeks. Last month judges at the General Court rejected a legal challenge by budget airline Ryanair to state aid given to rivals on discriminatory grounds.
At present Barcelona is dealing with the fallout of what the Spanish media dubs Barçagate — allegations, denied by the club, that it corruptly hired outside groups to defame former president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s adversaries on Facebook.
Bartomeu was temporarily detained by the Catalan police earlier this week. He, the club, and other individuals in the case, which is being investigated by a Barcelona court, have all denied any wrongdoing.
Italy raises €8.5bn in Europe’s biggest-ever green bond debut
Investors flocked to Italy’s inaugural environment-focused government bond offering on Wednesday, allowing the country to raise more than €8bn.
The banks running the issuance chalked up around €80bn in orders for €8.5bn of debt. It was the biggest debut sovereign green bond from a European issuer to date, according to Intesa Sanpaolo, which worked on the deal.
Other recent Italian bond sales have also attracted strong demand, after former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi became prime minister last month.
Demand for the debt highlights the popularity of green bonds, which provide funding for environmental projects and require borrowers to report to investors on how the funds are used.
Tanguy Claquin, head of sustainable banking at Crédit Agricole, which was a co-manager on the transaction, said the sale was met with “very strong support” from investors, particularly those that are required to consider environmental factors in their portfolios.
The bond, which matures in 2045, was issued with a yield of 1.547 per cent. The underwriters were able to reduce the premium against a normal Italian government bond maturing in 2041 to 0.12 percentage points, a slimmer premium than the 0.15 points initially mooted.
Italy follows several European countries, including Poland, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands, into the green debt market. France has issued 11 green bonds since 2017, totalling $30.6bn according to Moody’s Investors Service. Germany joined the market last year with two green Bunds. In its budget on Wednesday, the UK announced plans to sell at least £15bn of green bonds in two offerings this year.
Italy is the first riskier southern-European government to tap the green market. The spreads on Italian debt relative to the eurozone benchmark German bonds fell to a six-year low of less than 0.9 percentage points in early February in a sign of investors confidence in Draghi’s leadership of the EU’s third-largest economy. The spread widened during last week’s volatile bond market trading but remains low by recent standards.
Spain plans to follow Italy with a green bond offering in the second half of 2021. Analysts expect an initial €5-10bn sale at a 20-year maturity. Johann Plé, senior portfolio manager at AXA Investment Managers said the demand for Italy’s sale “should reinforce the willingness of Spain and others to follow suit.”
Plé said the price investors paid for the Italian green bond “remained fair” and that this “highlights that strong demand does not necessarily mean investors have to pay a larger premium”.
Green bonds often command higher prices, and therefore lower yields, than their conventional equivalents from the same issuer. The German green Bund currently trades with a “greenium” around 0.04 to 0.05 percentage points, roughly double the gap when it was initially issued, according to UniCredit analysis, while French government green debt is roughly 0.01 percentage points lower in yield than conventional bonds.
Italy’s pitch on the environmental impact and reporting of its green projects drew positive reactions from some investors. Saida Eggerstedt, head of sustainable credit at Schroders, which invested in the bond, said the details provided on projects including low-carbon transport, power generation, and biodiversity were “really impressive”.
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