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The master from Milan

Gio Ponti's mid-century creations, which symbolize futuristic Italian design, are living la dolce vita again.

March 25, 2004|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

"Love architecture, be it ancient or modern. Love it for its fantastic, adventurous and solemn creations ... that enchant our spirit and enrapture our thoughts."

Thus spake Gio Ponti, an artist and poet who loved architecture so much that he used it to revolutionize Italian design. From diamond-shaped office towers to Jetsons-esque chairs, the late Milanese Modernist was a 20th century master.

"He is typically Italian in that he brought an avant-garde edge to his work," says Peter Loughrey of Los Angeles Modern Auctions, a major Ponti dealer. Indeed, along with Fellini, Mastroianni and the Vespa scooter, as well as the chrome La Pavoni espresso machine he designed, Ponti and his work symbolized the 1950s Italian notion of la dolce vita.

Like Prouve and Parzinger, Ponti is hot again. This weekend alone, Loughrey is co-curating a show of Ponti's 1950s furniture at the L.A. gallery Acme, and several important Ponti designs go up for sale at Wright's "Modern Design" auction in Chicago.

"I've never thought his work was as recognized as it should be," says Loughrey, who is taking an unusual step to remedy that -- lending several never-before-displayed Ponti pieces from his own collection to Acme (6150 Wilshire Blvd., [323] 857-5942), which is normally a showcase for contemporary painting. Among them is a two-legged, wall-mounted display center consisting of a floating credenza and shelves, with a backboard hand-painted by Italian decorator Piero Fornasetti.

Throughout his life, Ponti was a synthesist, merging form and function, simplicity and luxury. Fascinated by aviation, he used his signature diamond and triangle design elements to reference classical forms as rendered by the latest manufacturing techniques.

From the height of Art Deco to the advent of the Memphis movement, Ponti excelled in whatever medium he tackled. Though trained as an architect, Ponti made his first impression in clay, as art director of Milan's Richard-Ginori ceramics. In 1928, he became the mouthpiece for Italian design as founder and editor of Domus, one of the most influential shelter magazines in Europe, until his death at 88 in 1979. In a career spanning more than 50 years, Ponti designed glass for Venini, lighting fixtures for Fontana Arte, silver cutlery for Reed and Barton. He designed eye-grabbing interiors for trains, ocean liners and hotels, and invented headboards with built-in night tables and lamps. He even crafted a line of sinks and toilets that were hailed as domestic sculpture. His most iconic creation, however, was the Superleggera for Cassina. This chair, based on one Ponti had seen in a fishing village, took him six years to develop. The result: a sturdy chair so light a child could lift it with one finger.

Despite his prolific and innovative output, few of Ponti's products were distributed in the U.S. This, says auctioneer Richard Wright, accounts for the high-altitude price tags on the current market.

Although there were some mass-manufactured Pontis imported to New York showrooms in the 1950s at "accessible prices" (a dining table from that period may now sell for $1,000 to $1,500), most of the items being auctioned at Wright (www.wright20.com, [312] 563-0020) this Sunday are rare and have distinguished provenance. A 24-bulb brass chandelier designed for the Parco dei Principi Hotel in Rome is expected to sell for $25,000 to $35,000, and a vitrine designed by Ponti and Pietro Chiesa may top six figures before the hammer falls.

"Ponti's work has never been inexpensive because it has always been classic," Wright explains. "It has the exuberance of Italian design, but it is always refined and balanced, so it never looks kitsch."

The rarity of Ponti's work has created a seller's market in Los Angeles. Loughrey first noticed a spike in prices in 2002, when a 36-piece Ponti sterling silver cutlery collection sold for $15,275. At Emmerson Troop Inc. (8111 Beverly Blvd, West Hollywood, [323] 653-9763) a similar set is tagged at $7,000, and the store offers a reproduction of Ponti's classic Jack Table ($1,400), the base of which looks like playing pieces from a game of jacks.

Pegaso International (812 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, [310] 659-8159) has a substantial portion of the city's stock of Pontis, ranging from a brass and wood tea cart ($1,950) to a 1930s vanity ($18,500). "Ponti was always in touch with the time that he was living in," says proprietor Eugenio Manzoni. "He was always changing his attitudes, which is why he is the greatest designer Italy has every produced."

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