Gio Ponti - Design London Thursday, May 12, 2022 | Phillips

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  • Stargazing at a Table


    By Brian Kish, Curator and Specialist in 20th Century Italian architecture and design 
    Associate member of the Gio Ponti Archives since 2006 


    This illuminated zodiac table, recently rediscovered, is an important addition to the canon of Gio Ponti’s early 1930s Rationalist furniture designs. It joins a group of unique tables that Ponti created for exhibition purposes only, which gave him creative autonomy and thus free rein to indulge in imaginative solutions. The first of these exhibition tables was made for the 1930 Monza Triennale, where Ponti presented a black mirrored top rectangular table with mythological figures etched onto the silvered glass perimeter apron and legs. One year later, he presented a striking centerpiece for Christofle's exhibition Les Arts Précieux: a circular table completely covered in etched mirrors with mermaids that Ponti titled Istoria delle sirene. It exhibited the latest Ponti silverware made by Christofle, which was arranged on his Fontana Arte table. The collaborative efforts between Ponti and Christofle continued for more than 40 years, into the 1970s. It is most likely that the present illuminated zodiac table was a follow-up to the successful 1931 Paris trade fair 1.


    Istoria delle sirene: Ponti’s centerpiece for Christofle’s Les Arts Précieux stand in at the Colonial Exhibition in Paris, 1931
    Photo: P10708, Patrimoine Bouilhet - Christofle 


    Ponti’s use of the zodiac goes back to a small series of mirrors for Luigi Fontana from 1931 with each stylized figure representing one of the 12 months set in a compartmentalised perimeter band. In these, Ponti is following the ancient Greco-Roman device of the zodiac wheel found in ancient floor mosaics. He repeated it in a slender profiled floor lamp, surmounted with an illuminated white opaline sphere, where these images are engraved onto a crystal disk that conjures up the ring of Saturn. 


    The figures of this glowing centerpiece in finely etched glass are bunched together and set along a path that evokes the Milky Way, as seen in the nocturnal sky. The symbols of Leo and Virgo are centered in a small field of stars in the middle of the dome and placed like all the others according to their historically assigned month. This captivating glass element exhibits Ponti’s knowledge of astrological signs within the celestial system of coordinates as defined in Ptolemy's treatise Almagest from circa 150 AD.


    Later, Ponti used the same Milky Way scheme again on a large etched crystal chandelier for the 1937 Paris World's Fair when, together with Pietro Chiesa they headed Fontana Arte’s division of furniture, lighting, and decorative objects. This turned out to be the last time Ponti used zodiac imagery, and it is comforting to think that the heavens did reward him for it on that occasion: Fontana Arte clinched no less than two Grand Prix awards, one for Art, and the second for Workmanship.


    Left: Zodiac imagery is finely etched onto the table's central illuminated glass dome
    Right: Fontana Arte's chandelier model with zodiac imagery, bottom right
    Photo: Archivio Domus - © Editoriale Domus S.p.A.

    The table was designed in the then current rationalist idiom and was almost certainly made by Quarti - Mobili d’arte, led by the ebanista Mario Quarti. This high-end medium-scale worksop was known for using Fontana Arte etched mirrored glass designed either by Ponti or his assistant at Ginori: Giovanni Gariboldi. The austere simplicity of the Ponti wooden construct is an ideal counterpoint to the intricate glowing central dome.


    The structure of this oak piece is understated at first sight. Yet, on closer investigation it reveals a hidden numerological and perhaps symbolic meaning. For ancient Romans, the oak tree transmitted strength and knowledge as a symbol of the god Jupiter. Using quartered oak veneers, the tabletop is divided into twelve equal parts that are aligned in a herringbone pattern. This very thick top surface rests on six square section leg supports that are placed at a 45-degree angle and can thereby read as diamond-shaped; they in turn sit on a deep, circular wooden base. Once aware of these design considerations, the mind begins to grasp in slow motion the surprising cosmic references built into disparate elements connected by tectonic forces: the power of gravity invested in the dark, blunt, inert support is engaged in lively contest with multiple orbital movements suggested in the sparkling glass dome incisions.


    Ponti’s approach to the esoteric is more often encountered in his porcelain for Ginori. This is quite evident in three free standing disks with holes in the center, that have the titles Esorcismo or Sortilegio, from 1928. However, in the present display table he brings together utilitarian and artistic concerns with an emphasis on the latter. 'The judgment of a work of art is one and always one: Is it beautiful or not beautiful? Is it art or not? Does it or does it not fascinate us?'2  


    While elaborating a new humanist perspective in tune with the mid-20th century architecture debate, Ponti also confidently cued his design practice to the Renaissance, when architects treated their clients as spectators for whom spatial inventions were being staged to provide inexhaustible divertimenti. Over the last few years there has been a palpable surge of interest in Ponti’s poetics of the unexpected and in the novel overtones obtained when formal wit is fused with a reassuring sense of blissful calm.

    1 For a discussion on Ponti and Christofle, see Brian Kish, 'Gio Ponti, behind the Mirror - Venini and Fontana Arte' in Gio Ponti: archi-designer, Paris, 2018, p. 105

    2 Gio Ponti, Amate l'architettura, Genoa, 1957, p. 54

    • Provenance

      Private collection, Verona

    • Catalogue Essay

      Phillips wishes to thank Brian Kish for his assistance in cataloguing the present lot.

    • 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


Unique monumental illuminated table

circa 1931
Oak, partially acid-etched glass, coloured glass.
85.4 cm (33 5/8 in.) high, 229.5 cm (90 3/8 in.) diameter
Executed by Quarti-Mobili d'arte and glass produced by Fontana Arte, Milan, Italy. Together with a certificate of expertise from the Gio Ponti Archives.

Full Cataloguing

£35,000 - 55,000 Ω

Sold for £44,100

Contact Specialist

Antonia King

Head of Sale, Design
+44 20 7901 7944


London Auction 12 May 2022