Gio Ponti - Design New York Tuesday, December 11, 2012 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    ‘Augustus’ transatlantic ocean liner, Italy, 1950

  • Literature

    Paolo Piccione, Gio Ponti Le Navi: il progetto degli interni navali 1948-1953, Milan, 2007, p. 33, fig. 41

  • Catalogue Essay

    The 1950s were the heyday of the luxury liner, and the Italian luxury liner is no exception. Before the rise of a viable commercial airline industry towards the end of the 50s and early 60s, ocean liners were the chief, and in many cases the only, means of international transportation—a fact often obscured by the advances in modern air travel which relegated the ocean liner to a niche market in the tourist industry. Indeed, in the immediate postwar period it is due to the ocean liner’s wide popularity that its efflorescence as a vehicle for important design of interiors, furnishings and lighting, and for a coordination of a great number of arts and crafts, was virtually guaranteed. Gio Ponti played
    a decisive role in this development that has frequently been overlooked in the extensive literature on this architect and designer.
    Given its key role in international travel and tourism, Ponti appreciated the ocean liner as a means of representing the image of Italian design abroad. As no other Italian architect did, he understood that these great vessels, “with their intercontinental voyages, could become emblems of Italian art and culture, traveling the world as permanent exhibition-architectures for arts and crafts.”1 Ponti’s ideal was the coordination at all scales of every element of the interior architecture and design of a ship—one that very rarely occurred, and often only when ships that were decommissioned were retrofitted. 2 With the assistance of Nino Zoncada, a designer of navalinteriors and furnishings, between 1948 and 1953 Ponti created some of the most memorable interior ensembles for ocean liners ever made. Among these was the Augustus, a liner built by the Navigazione Generale Italiana as early as 1922–28, and refurbished by Ponti in the mid-1950s.3

    With his characteristic flair and versatility, Ponti, with Zoncada’s assistance, created an interior for the Augustus meticulously coordinated in its
    materials, palette, fittings, lighting, and detailing. These elements were combined to produce an ensemble in the true sense of the word, and, along with that, an effect of restrained luxury, all the more grand for its inventiveness. Never content with the repetition of overfamiliar formulae, Ponti created everything anew from top to bottom, in accordance with his will to organize a total interior, so that when trying to characterize the interior and its design components one might even speak of a kind of naval “Gesamtkunstwerk.” Each piece stands on its own in terms of formal integrity, exquisite craftsmanship and solidity of construction; yet none falls outside Ponti’s ideals of synthetic coherence, spatial integration, and functional efficiency.

    In the interior design of the Augustus, one notices the studied contrast, not excluding complementarity, that Ponti introduced between the individual pieces. The upholstered armchairs, which have their original gold velvet plush intact, offered a powerful counterpoint to the dining room chairs that revealed a high degree of their elegant walnut construction against the red velvet upholstery of their seats and backs. The dining chairs, of which 12 are extant and included in the lot, are significant in that they represent an earlier, heavier version of the Superleggera type, finally perfected in 1957, whose wide dissemination would make Ponti one of the most famous designers in the world. These chairs differ from the Superleggera not only in their bulky construction and impression of solidity; they also feature a prominent projection of the seat and an approximately square support system in profile unlike the Superleggera. Like many of Ponti’s chairs and tables from the 1920s onwards, however, they exhibit characteristic tapered supports with elegant brass shoes. The armchairs were arranged in pairs around tables with circular tops in yellow Formica which were echoed by walnut circular bases, thereby constituting the ensemble of the first class Salone della Festa, which had plush curtains of the same gold color and a large oval recessed ceiling whose lighting scheme featured a subtly placed, off-center design based on a constellation reminiscent of the Big Dipper. As for the dining tables, which were made of mahogany, they had circular bases and rectangular tops with slightly raised adjustable rims, made of oak, to prevent plates from slipping during rough seas. Some of these tables had two pedestals, others just one. Around each of these tables, which originally filled the dining room, were arranged four of the wooden chairs. A third set of smaller serving tables, similar in form and materials to the circular tables, also in yellow Formica and walnut, fills out the lot. Both the serving tables and the dining room tables had large brass cylinders inflecting the midpoints
    of their pedestals, forming a dynamic chevron-like pattern.

    Light fixtures on the ceilings of the dining room, partly recessed plafonieres, were ordered in a single row picking up the rhythm of the pilotis, around which the dining chairs and tables were arranged in syncopated fashion. The entire ensemble was evenly lit by the plafonieres, which had tinted glass and brass circular disks that diffused a warm light over the scene. The overall effect was one of discreet luxuriousness enhanced on the one hand by the grand proportions of the space and on the other by the select materials and their air of comfort. In all of these respects, alongside the other luxury liners Ponti designed in the same period with diverse collaborators including Gustavo Pulitzer, Lucio Fontana, Fausto Melotti, and Piero Fornasetti—such ships as the Conte Biancamano, Conte Rosso, Conte Grande, and Giulio Cesare—the Augustus exemplified Ponti’s desire for total synthesis without forfeiting any of his attention to craft and detail. 4 In this way Augustus represented Italy as well as, and probably in many cases better than her diplomatic staff abroad, in line with Ponti’s suggestion that these grand liners were Italy’s ambassadors of luxury, comfort, and efficiency, comparable in every way to the Cunard liners, the famed Hamburg-Amerika Linie, and the Elizabeth II, except for sheer size.

    Dr. Daniel Sherer
    Assistant Professor of Architecture (Adjunct)
    at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture,
    and Visiting Professor, Politecnico di Milano

    1. P. Campiglio, ‘Ponti’s Museum Ships,’ in G. Celant, ed., Espressioni di Gio Ponti, Milan, 2010, p. 54. On Ponti’s designs for ocean liners, see now the comprehensive treatment in P. Piccione, Gio Ponti Le Navi. Il Progetto degli
    interni navali 1948–1953, Milan, 2007; U..La.Pietra,Gio Ponti, Milan, 1995, p. 216; G. Roccella, Gio Ponti: Master of Lightness, Hong Kong and London, pp..41–43; L. Falconi, Gio Ponti: Interni Oggetti Disegni 1920–1976, Milan,
    2005, p..71. For Ponti’s own views on the importance of the design of ocean liners, see G. Ponti, ‘Recenti interni di nave. Arredamento di Nino Zoncada,’ Domus, 228, September 1948, pp..58–61.
    2. Campiglio, ‘Ponti’s Museum Ships,’ 2010, pp. 54–55.
    3. Piccione, Gio Ponti Le Navi, 2007, p. 13.
    4. Ponti designed the interiors of eight large ships, five of which were full-fledged ocean liners, between 1948 and 1953. In addition to the ones just mentioned, there were also the Victoria, Oceania and Africa (not liners, but
    smaller “motonavi”), and finally, the ill-fated Andrea Doria, which went down off the coast of Nantucket on July 25, 1956, struck by the MS Stockholm, in one of the worst naval disasters in American history. For detailed
    analysis of Ponti’s contributions to these vessels, see Piccione, Gio Ponti Le Navi, 2007.

  • Artist Biography

    Gio Ponti

    Italian • 1891 - 1979

    Among the most prolific talents to grace twentieth-century design, Gio Ponti defied categorization. Though trained as an architect, he made major contributions to the decorative arts, designing in such disparate materials as ceramics, glass, wood and metal. A gale force of interdisciplinary creativity, Ponti embraced new materials like plastic and aluminum but employed traditional materials such as marble and wood in original, unconventional ways.

    In the industrial realm, he designed buildings, cars, machinery and appliances — notably, the La Cornuta espresso machine for La Pavoni — and founded the ADI (Industrial Designer Association). Among the most special works by Gio Ponti are those that he made in collaboration with master craftsmen such as the cabinetmaker Giordano Chiesa, the illustrator Piero Fornasetti and the enamellist Paolo de Poli.

    View More Works



Pair of rare armchairs, designed for the First Class Ballroom of the ‘Augustus’ transatlantic ocean liner

Fabric, teak (2).
Each: 28 3/4 x 25 5/8 x 27 3/4 in (73 x 65 x 70.5 cm)
Manufactured by Cassina, Italy. Together with a certificate of authenticity from the Gio Ponti Archives.

$12,000 - 18,000 

Sold for $32,500


12 December 2012
New York