Pair of 'Distex' armchairs, model no. 807, from a Villa, Liguria

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  • Provenance

    Private collection, Liguria, Italy, 1960s
    Thence by descent
    Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

  • Literature

    Domus, no. 293, April 1954, front cover; nos. 294, 295, 296, May, June, July, 1954, n.p. for an advertisement; no. 308, July 1955, p. 64; 'Accanto all'architettura', no. 312, November 1955, p. 20; 'Una porta, e nuovi mobili', no. 321, August 1956, p. 23
    Italian Trade Institute and National Agency for Small Trade Industries and Handicraft, Italian Design, Rome, 1958, p. 88
    Lisa Licitra Ponti, Gio Ponti: The Complete Works 1923-1978, London, 1990, p. 160
    Irene de Guttry and Maria Paola Maino, Il Mobile Italiano Degli Anni '40 e '50, Bari, 1992, p. 41, fig. 58, p. 241, fig. 37, for an advertisement and a period image
    Marco Romanelli, Gio Ponti: A World, Milan, 2002, p. 58
    Laura Falconi, Gio Ponti: Interiors, Objects, Drawings, 1920-1976, Milan, 2004, pp. 172, 182
    Gio Ponti, oggetti di design 1925-1970, exh. cat., Galleria Babuino Novecento, Rome, 2007, pp. 38, 79
    Ugo La Pietra, ed., Gio Ponti: L’arte si innamora dell’industria, New York, 2009, p. 226, figs. 466-67, p. 227, fig. 469, p. 232, fig. 487

  • Catalogue Essay

    GIO PONTI, IMPORTANT SUITE FROM A PRIVATE VILLA, LIGURIA, CIRCA 1958

    Many of Ponti’s most characteristic and famous works are villas. Among these are the “Ange Volant” (Villa Bouilhet) near Garches, France (1926) and the Villa Planchart in Caracas, Venezuela (1955), just to name two of the most prominent. In Ponti’s case the villa typology always has specific design implications: these invariably involve total schemes worked out to the smallest detail. The contents of the Ligurian villa near Genoa of ca. 1958 included in this lot—interior furnishings comprising chairs, sofas, small coffee tables--is no exception to this rule. Yet the ensemble has several features that make it stand out from other villas by Ponti. On the one hand, the set of furniture, which reveals a strong sense of coherence when inserted within its architectural setting, reworks precise prototypes that Ponti had been refining over many decades. On the other hand, even if they are viewed alone, on their own formal, functional and tectonic terms, the set strongly marks the space and in a certain sense, contribute to an intimate domestic signature that may be fruitfully compared with the interiors of Ponti’s other, more well-known villas in Italy, France, Iran and Venezuela.

    In both cases, an important consideration is relevant: the design objects from this villa belong to diverse formal and historical series made up of prototypes and their variants. This is in keeping with Ponti’s fundamental ideas concerning the relation of architecture and design, and in particular his provocative thesis of the “necessity of beauty”, which involves not only the maintenance of formal continuity between different epochs in the history of styles, but also the will to variation as it unfolds within a single epoch and a single style.

    Although the Liguran villa has never been published, its authorship is beyond dispute, since it has extensive archival documentation from the Ponti archive in Parma. The villa, in, fact, constitutes a unique instance of Ponti’s architectural ingenuity: in this regard one specific aspect—the corner articulation on the left side of the front façade, where a strict upright wall segment intersects with a folded roof plane—stands out as a pared-down, “domesticated” reading of Le Corbusier’s corner articulation of the chapel of Ronchamp, where the dough-like roof mass and the sloping wall intersect and overlap (1954). Even more clearly, it recalls Ponti’s own roof/wall relationship in the Italian Cultural Institute at Stockholm, which was designed in the same year as Le Corbusier’s pilgrimage church.

    A number of non-Pontian stylistic features have infiltrated the lower portion of this façade. In any case the upper zone is more powerful, and reveals the hand of the master, in its diverse treatment of blue surrounds of the upper windows, which in its symphonic use of this color recalls in a much more modest way the Villa Arreaza (“La Diamantina”) interior in Caracas, Venezuela, of 1954-8, even as they anticipate certain textural aspects of the handling of wall surfaces of the Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento of 1961. It is also possible to observe other parallels between the language of folded roofplanes in this villa and similar features in the Diamantina in Caracas and in the Villa Nemazee in Teheran of 1960-65.

    Besides its rather remote affinity with Le Corbusier, there is another reason to pay attention to the corner articulation of the façade: the analogy it establishes with the treatment of the folded double couch in the living room, and more precisely its provision of a “space within the space” firming up the corner of the room. The corner of the external façade and the corner condition created by the furniture arrangement in the main reception room in the interior thus engage in one of those famous Pontian “conversations” which is a hallmark of his approach to the unity of design and architecture at different scales.

    The groundfloor areas where the two sets of furniture were situated, the dining and the living room, are joined by a single spatial flow. This is divided only by a curtain hung from a suspended wooden beam that facilitated its opening and closing. In both of these spaces on either side of this divider, two different “islands” of furniture were created. The first centered around the dining table; the second centered around the coffee table. Ambient light entered through the large windows that opened onto the backyard garden and patio.

    The set of ten dining chairs, designed for Cassina in a light walnut with upholstery, belong to the Leggera series model #676 which Ponti designed in 1952 for the Villa Planchart. This model was a prototype that was thicker and heavier than the more famous Superleggera of 1957, which involved an increasing thinning of the wood components to attain the desired lightness. Although they have a sturdier, more robust profile, they share with the Superleggera a characteristic feature of Ponti’s chairs, the sharp inflection of the backrest. The chairs are also formally quite similar to model *835 of 1954 designed for the Diamantina, with the exception that the braces have a different articulation. This lends the piece a distinct visual impact which would have made a vivid impression when seen against the lively three-tone patterning of the tiled floors of the villa by Fausto Melotti. This set of ten chairs is sold along with a set of four similar chairs made of the same material, and which represent another set of variants of the Leggera, model #687, with an acutely diagonal brace that would have produced a sharper and more distinctive shadow line.

    The dining room table is a unique piece made of mahogany. Whereas the chairs are rather robust, the table itself is more attenuated, in a studied and unexpected reversal of bourgeois and haut bourgeois design conventions. Like many postwar domestic dining room tables in middle and upper middle class homes both in Italy and internationally, this table had an extendable top able to accommodate large groups of diners and guests. Made of mahogany veneered wood, it has finely tapering legs with elegant brass sabots that have the form of large disks that puddle onto the floor. Lending the table a grounded feel and a lively, yet anchored profile, this detail represents a refined exaggeration of the usual convention adopted for Ponti’s table and chair legs, and makes the piece stand out with a certain dignity. The table itself is a variant of an earlier table designed for Joseph Singer and Sons in 1950, in which some of the features had a more conventional profile.

    The next piece in the dining room (though it could be moved easily to any room as it is mounted on small reversible wheels) is a unique chest of drawers and storage unit, equipped with tamboured drawers made of mahogany veneered wood. This pattern, reminiscient in some ways of architectural louvering, represents a characteristically ingenious Pontian maneuver that exploits a strategy of aestheticization of what would otherwise be a simple functional feature, the pull of the drawers themselves. The piece also stands out because it prefigures the more famous Apta series of rolling furniture, designed for the first time around 1970, by almost two decades.

    The final piece in the dining room is a mounted wall unit made of solid mahogany with internal glass shelves of angled, trapezoidal form. If the exterior appearance of the piece is that of a “magical” floating box with Surrealist overtones, the asymmetry of its interior organization lends a sense of the unexpected to the ordinary gesture of opening the cabinet—a characteristic feature of Ponti’s understanding of domestic design, part ludic, part radical in its intentions. It is, quite literally, a “boite à miracles” in keeping with the fundamental choices that are inherent in Ponti’s design aesthetic, which shares more than one point of contact with his disciple Albini’s poetics of suspension. Yet it also, in a more specific sense, constitutes a novel response to Ponti’s own idea of the “furnished window”—the suspended box being, in this respect, a kind of “closed” version of the furnished window floating above and behind the dining room table and chairs, on the opposite wall. This observation acquires a new significance when one recalls that for Ponti, the idea of the “furnished window” presupposed the transformation of the traditional spatial and visual logic of fenestration: rather than constituting a glazed or open aperture to be looked, through, the window becomes an object to be looked at, almost a piece of furniture, and in any case an object in its own right. In this respect Ponti’s suggestion of an analogous condition within the tectonic logic of actual works of furniture reveals a further level of complexity in the developing “conversation” he always fostered between architecture and design.

    The central piece and primary focus of the living room was the low coffee table with a sunken glass top. This piece, a more dynamic variant of a prototype exhibited at the 1936 VI Milan Triennale of more Rationalist stamp, exhibits a broken zigzag form consisting of an interlocking set of pinwheeling compartments with alternating closed and open elements. It was surrounded in the original arrangement by five Distex armchairs and by the bipartite sofa, the two parts of which were perpendicular to each other. As already noted, this “edge” made by the right-angled sofa reads as a corner defining the interior space of the area around the coffee table with its satellite-like armchairs, while offering an analogical condition to the corner on the exterior of the house joining its front and side facades. In this way design and architecture “communicate” with each other across scales.

    The coffee table exhibits remarkable dynamism and considerable complexity. On the one hand, the glass top and open side elements guarantee maximum visibility inside and easy storage of magazines and small objects. On the the other hand, it exhibits a unique almost sculptural and abstract feel in its pinwheeling, rotatory motion, which was emphasized by the broken zigzag form of the wooden beams that meet towards the center. Like the dining room table, the coffee table has large disk- like sabots which puddle onto the floor. This lends the table an “anchored” quality, that in this case, however, due to its greater abstraction, and rotatory effect, gives the design object the feel of some kind of space-age moon lander, ready to extend its instruments to study the soil of an alien satellite or planet which it has just begun to explore.

    The pair of Distex armchairs are variants of a prototype, model #807, that Ponti initially designed for and originally marketed through the Altamira shop in New York City in 1953. The two here originally formed a stellate or satellite-like pattern along with the other three (not in the lot) that were located around the coffee table and in this sense may be said to respond to its dynamic form in their placement within the space. These prototype of this armchair had a strongly facetted profile, and elongated, distended back for greater repose and comfort; it also originally had a harlequin-like bicolor pattern that presented pronounced formal affinities with the Diamantina Car that Ponti designed for Alfa Romeo in 1952-3 that was never realized.

    The sofa is a variant of the one used in the Villa Areaza (“La Diamantina”) and the Villa Planchart, which are variations on the theme of the diamond, here manifest in the blue and off-white upholstery pattern, and the facetted quality of the fabric, that was a leitmotiv of Ponti’s aesthetic. It has a distinctly spatial quality and corresponds with a certain analogical logic to the Distex armchairs to form a “unity in diversity”. This logic is accentuated by the space-enclosing function it exhibits by closing the corner of the room near the dining room.

    Also included in the collection are four more items by Ponti from approximately the same era: a dining table, a desk, an illusionistic figural painting and an abstract glass sculpture. The table is a dramatic instance of Ponti’s design of the late 1950s, and is a variant, in some ways a superior one, of another table made for the Time-Life Building interior in New York City of 1958-9, made of limed ash. The table from the Ligurian villa has a strong tectonic feel, and gives the impression of measuring the space around it, and it too is made of walnut like the dining room table, adding a sense of material unity that joins the furnishings in the separate rooms. The angled diagonal braces supporting the top have an organic “skeletal” feel which is not unrelated to certain table designs by Carlo Mollino, an architect and designer who Ponti published many times in Domus and Stile, and whose aesthetic Ponti admired. This table, in fact, along with the Time-Life variant, represents one of the only times in Ponti’s career that a muted “citation” of the style of Mollino can be verified.

    The desk, made of walnut, has attenuated diamond patterning articulating the drawers, and is close to an earlier model made for Altamira in 1954. It is also a variant of another model designed for the Uffici Vembry Burroughs in Genoa in 1950, but is distinguished from both by the inclusion of a large horizontal of space between the drawers and moving beneath the desktop. In all three variants the desktop has a minimally cantilevered parapet on one side. The hanging drawers, symmetrically disposed, nonetheless recall the dramatic cantilevered and hanging drawer units of BBPR’s desks with which Ponti was certainly familiar.

    The oil painting, in actuality a work on paper, laid on a board, represents Ponti at his most playfully illusionistic. It centers on one of his favorite themes: the depiction of femininity, and more precisely, of the feminine presence. The woman is shown as an off-white nude bust emerging, at an odd angle, and with an awkward, child-like expression on her face, from a grayish, enclosed cloud-like space, almost a virtual niche, which she inhabits as if she is some sort of divinity, yet also just a plain woman. She seems to be tearing away a sort of veil with a gesture that moves upwards, and her gaze as well is directed in a vertical direction. It is not clear whether she is shielding her eyes from the sun, or looking heavenward for inspiration: perhaps both? There is also the hint of a children’s facture in the way the face is drawn, almost like the face of a stick figure—a sort of Pontian homage to the 20th century modernist cult of the child, evident in such areas of aesthetic experience as poetry (e.g., Gertrude Stein’s language games) and Paul Klee. In any case, the ambiguity between child, woman, and Madonna emerging from a cloud is quite conspicuous. Ponti seemed to revel in the way his works of art (like his works of design and architecture) generated multiple readings through the production of such visual and referential ambiguities. One should also note that the ludic indeterminacy of the piece is accentuated by the fact that Ponti himself made the frame out of off-white painted wood, so that the space of the illusion and the framing element blend into each other after the fashion of a Mannerist or Baroque trompe-l’oeil.

    Comparable ambiguities, yet on an abstract plane, are found in the glass sculpture made of brownish, gray and whitish inclusions in a vitreous rectilinear volume mounted on a tall black pedestal. This kind of work was inspired by Ponti’s experience of the glass foundry of Venini in Murano, where the discarded elements of the glassmaking process drew his attention as inspirations in the manner of objets trouvés. The cultural climate of this piece is provided by the pictorial explorations of Burri and Fontana, though the idea of the objet trouvé ultimately derives from Duchamp (in this sense the Ponti sculpture is a kind of distant, cloudier cousin of the French artist’s Large Glass.) The piece exhibits close affinities with lamps that Ponti made in the same period which employ the informe aesthetic as well as the idea of the objet trouve to create complex luminous effects. In these cases, which draw on the precedent of sculptures of this kind, Ponti transforms the functionality of the lamp into a supremely ambiguous experience, thereby aestheticizing what would otherwise have been a simple utilitarian object.

    Dr Daniel Sherer
    Assistant Professor of Architectural History (Adjunct)
    Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation/
    Lecturer in Architectural History, Yale University School of Architecture

  • Artist Bio

    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

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Gio Ponti

Pair of 'Distex' armchairs, model no. 807, from a Villa, Liguria

1960s
Fabric, brass.
Each: 86.2 x 79.4 x 108 cm (33 7/8 x 31 1/4 x 42 1/2 in.)
Manufactured by Figli di Amedeo Cassina, Meda, Italy. Together with a certificate of authenticity from the Gio Ponti Archives.

Estimate
£16,000 - 22,000 

sold for £52,500

Contact Specialist
Meaghan Roddy
Head of Sale
New York
+44 20 7318 4027

Design Evening Sale

London Evening Sale 28 April 2015 6pm