Review: Italian modernist Gio Ponti’s whimsical designs are show’s focus

A midcentury modern master with a European flair, Italian architect and designer Gio Ponti is featured in the Georgia Museum of Art's travel-worthy show "Modern Living: Gio Ponti and the 20th-Century Aesthetics of Design." For lovers of 20th-century design and the clean lines of midcentury modern, this survey of an often unsung hero's output is required viewing.

In a career spanning nearly 60 years, Conti designed buildings at home and abroad in some 13 countries (the Denver Art Museum being his most noted local work). He designed furniture, china, an espresso machine, a tea service, flatware, the interiors of a luxury ocean liner currently resting on the floor of the Atlantic, art and decorative objects in often whimsical, covetable designs that send off heat waves of fun and joy, reaching out across the decades.

Less known outside of Italy, Ponti was considered a master of Italian modernism who spent decades as an editor at Domus and Stile magazines, designed Italy’s first skyscraper and offered up a cheeky, colorful, history-infused Continental take on midcentury.

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Ponti’s designs are often a collision of old world meets new. He was as influenced by the ancients as he was by fellow modernists Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto and in turn influenced a new generation of Italian designers like Ettore Sottsass. Added to that time-tripping impulse, Ponti injected a healthy infusion of wit into his work. As the designer said of his frolicsome and ever-curious sensibility, “a degree of amusement should not be excluded from interior design.”

That tendency to inject humor into his work is exemplified by Ponti’s circa 1942 wood and enameled copper tile console table on display at the Georgia Museum of Art whose surface features illustrations of playing cards, glasses of wine, cookies and sugar cubes that suggest a party in progress: just add people.

A gorgeous 1941 corner cabinet with painted glass doors shows the streak of invention and artfulness in Ponti’s designs. For that and other creations, Ponti collaborated with the artist Piero Fornasetti, who hand-painted a colorful array of butterflies, moths, flowers and fruit onto the glass doors. When combined with the long, spindlelike feet that support the cabinet, they give the piece an ethereal, magical quality. It’s as much a piece of sculpture as a functional object.

Ponti was particularly enamored with the ancient art of the Greeks and Romans. The animated, lively figures he used to ornament his ceramics early in his career were inspired by the Greek vessels of antiquity. Ponti rendered the figures that decorated his vases and plates in intense blues and elongated forms, bringing a new graphic, animated look while still referencing those classical forms. His circus-themed dinner service “Il Circo” ornamented with lion tamers and ringmasters suggests the influence of the ancient married to a distinctly fresh, modern sensibility that sparkles with imagination and playfulness.

But just as often, Ponti could bring sensuality and a sculptural quality to his work as in perhaps his most famous design, the 1957 "super lightweight" "Superleggera" chair. A paragon of refined functionality, the chair, in ebonized ash and cane, was so light that advertisements showed a little boy balancing it in the crook of his pinkie finger. Remarkably, that iconic design is still manufactured by Cassina today.


“Modern Living: Gio Ponti and the 20th-Century Aesthetics of Design”

Through Sept. 17. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays; 1-5 p.m. Sundays. Free. Georgia Museum of Art, 90 Carlton St., Athens. 706-542-4662,

Bottom line: A remarkably versatile and resilient figure in Italian design, Ponti gets a local audience in this visually appealing show, a crash course in this influential modernist.