There is no doubt that Gio Ponti was one of the true masters of Twentieth century Italian design. His personal contribution goes way beyond objects, furniture and buildings. The enormity of his involvement cannot be underestimated. He was the founder and editor of the world's most influential design magazine, Domus, for over four decades (from 1928 to 1941, then again from 1948 until his death in 1979). As a designer he had a penchant for colour, ceramic tiles and historical references. He graduated in architecture from the Politecnico di Milano in 1921, but worked across a myriad of disciplines simultaneously - working as the artistic director of the ceramics company Richard Ginori from 1923 to 1930 while in an architecture practice with Mino Fiocchi and Emilio Lancia. He also collaborated with Piero Fornasetti for many decades, beginning in the early 1940's and it was this type of interest in neo-classicism, pattern and colour that set him apart from many of his purely modernist contemporaries.
He was also capable of producing intensely minimalistic designs as the 'Superleggera' chair illustrates. A number of his most important furniture pieces have been reissued by Molteni & C over the past two years and his ground breaking Pirelli tower in Milan from 1956 was restored in 2005 after surviving being ploughed into by a light plane a few years before. But it is the origins of his best selling chair, the 'Superleggera' that fascinates me most. For as long as I can remember I have worshipped the brilliance of a designer who could reduce the form of a chair to it's most essential elements and produce a virtually indestructible but highly refined chair that weighed just 1.7kg. Elegant, strong and lightweight, it was the perfect chair against which all others should be measured.
Earlier this year I attended the launch of an installation by a company called Segno Italiano in a hidden courtyard in the Tortona district of Milan and was totally taken a back by what I saw - dozens of what appeared to be fancy variations of Ponti's 'Superleggera' chair. Intrigued I asked about the similarity to Ponti's famous chair and the response was quite startling. It appears that in the late 1940's Ponti had visited the town of Chiavari on the Ligurian coast - a traditional fishing and wood carving town east of Genoa. The town was famous for a particular chair design called 'Chiavari' that was developed by a master joiner by the name of Guiseppe Gaetano, in 1807. The chair was a commission from the Marquis Stefano Rivarola based on a delicate Louis XV chair he had brought back from France. The resulting 'Campanino' chair style was a huge success and was added to over time with a number of similar 'super-light' chair variations being produced by a host of local makers. As a style they became known collectively as Chiavari chairs.
In the 1950's the general style was given a number of modernist interpretations - the most well known being Gio Ponti's 'Superleggera'. While it's plain to see that Ponti took his inspiration for the 'Superleggera' from the 'Chiavari' chair, for reasons of cost his chair was never made by the artisans of the town but instead was made industrially in Meda, outside of Milan. The chair went through several variations between Ponti's first drawings in 1949 and its final incarnation but has been in continuous production by Cassina since 1957.
Ponti continually simplified the design, changing the wood from the original wild cherry and maple to the more readily available but equally lightweight ash. The leg profile was also changed from round to triangular. Cross struts were reduced to extremely fine oval battens and the backrest changed to just two curved bars. The most critical change was to rake the top of the back legs to make the chair ergonomic.
The resulting chair weighed a mere 1.7 kilograms. Legend has it that to put the chair to the test, Ponti threw it from the fourth story of an apartment building and watched it bounce like a ball as it hit the street. Most importantly it didn't break. Of the design Ponti said, "I have applied an eternal technical process, that strives to move from weight to lightness. By subtracting inert matter and weight, finding the 'limit' of the form with the structure, wisely without virtuoso gestures, respecting utility and the exact solidity".
Segno Italiano is a young company founded in 2010 by Fabio Don, Domenico Rocca, Alberto Nespoli and Paolo Tarulli. Their goal is to honor Italian artisans by curating collections of historical and artistic significance from areas of Italy famous for that craft. Segno Italiano's first endeavour was to reintroduce the 'Chiavari' chair. They work with artisans on a core collection of products but also on special projects.
Working with Adriano Podestà, one of the last remaining master craftsmen capable of reproducing the chair using traditional materials and techniques, they created ten variations that were shown at the 50th Salone del Mobile in Milan. The following year they partnered with Giannina and Luisella Sanguineti and released a limited edition collection of 30 'Tingullina' chairs. This variation of the classic 'Chiavari' chair won the prestigous Compasso d'Oro award in 1956 and was patented by GB Sanguineti & Figlio in 1958.
Chiavari is just part of the Segno Italiano story. Aside from the exquisite hand made chairs they have released ornate white glazed ceramics made in the northwestern coastal town of Este, hand blown green glass from Empoli in Tuscany and copper cookware from the artisans of Trento, in the eastern Alps. The videos by the company are a fabulous insight into the type of small manufacturers that helped make Italy the design power house it became after WWII through the collaboration of artisans and industrial processes.