As Design Week descended upon New York City, AN sat down with Francesca Molteni, project manager for the Furniture by Gio Ponti collection, to talk about an exclusive line of furniture produced by Molteni&C, how the collection came to be, and an accompanying exhibition about the life and work of one of Italy’s most renowned designers.
How did the collection come about?
Paolo Scenti, the nephew of Ponti, had his uncle’s large bookcase in his photography studio while I was there for a visit, and a lightbulb went off; I wanted to produce his designs industrially. We started talking with the family and Salvatore Licitra, the Ponti archivist and grandson of Ponti, and started researching pieces from the past, mostly pieces from the ’50s and those from his home, as those were the ones he chose intimately. We also went to another archivist in Parma, where a university there is holding his art and architecture archives. Ponti was so prolifically productive; he left thousands of drawings, sketches, writings, and we had so much material from this we decided to launch an exhibition as well. I was smitten with the information because now you can see the real Ponti, not just his most famous work. It’s a more private view on his life and work—a wonderful occasion to closer to the man and the architect.
How long did it take to fully realize?
It took about two and half years. We worked very hard with all the family. I went to visit his daughter Letizia, who is now 88 years old. She showed me private albums of the family, Ponti’s encounters with other artists, Milanese society, travel that he did in the U.S., Tehran, Caracas. I brought four of the albums to my office and digitized the photos, to share with the family and they graciously allowed us to use the photos in the exhibition.
How did you select the pieces that you wanted to recreate?
During this process we saw about 20 products that caught our eyes. Italian architect Pierre Luigi Cerri, who is very well known in the field, a good designer and knows the story of Italian design, served as art director for the Collection. He helped us choose from the twenty pieces that are most interesting for today’s audience and at the end we came out with eight pieces: two versions of the bookcase, the armchair, the Montecatini [aluminum] chair, the bigger and smaller chest of drawers, the small round table, the [area] rug, and the small wall mirrors. Ponti originally designed everything but most was never produced en masse. For example, the bookcase was only produced for his home and handcrafted by Giordano Chiesa, the artist who produced all his prototypes.
All of the pieces were from the ’50s, except the Montecatini chair, which was produced only for Ponti’s contract project [Montecatini headquarters where Ponti designed the building itself and all interior details]. The chair for that project is from 1935, but seems very contemporary today. We chose the pieces that showed Ponti’s style, proportion, materials, and his method of design the best.
We also selected those that would mix well with current Molteni production. They integrate well with our other contemporary designers. It’s unbelievable how they dialogue; the true sign of a master. They’re really classic pieces.
Which is your favorite piece in the collection?
I love the small table because of the perspective that it requires. It’s playful, color changing, particular, modern, and very Ponti. You can see he designed it in a different period. In the 30s he designed one similar but it was wood and heavier so [between the two] you can see the difference in the period of design. I imagine it was a piece important to him.
I also love the chest of drawers. The different woods, the proportions; it’s like architecture and not just furniture.
Why did you start this project of reproducing Ponti’s designs?
We are always looking for architects from abroad [to design for Molteni] but now we started a process of rethinking our Italian design heritage. It was very important in the ’50s, ’60s, and today. We’re not just dreaming about the past and the good old days but it’s really our culture today. So with this Collection we want to rethink Italian design and go into the future with conviction, consciousness, and the understanding that we have to look into the past to go into the future.
How has the traveling exhibition on the life of Ponti augmented the reissue?
The exhibition has been really interesting, because exhibitions of design or of the master often feature a single object, but this tries to put the objects into a bigger context. His life, work, way of living is all told through Italian design. We can say that a single sofa is not telling us so much, but if you can tell the story of that piece you can really understand why it’s so important or different. You can see the hand of the master in a bigger frame. When looking at the private life of Ponti, particularly the houses and offices he designed, we tried to put the Collection into social context, to better understand him as well as our history of design and the story of a single piece.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in recreating Ponti’s designs?
The relationship with the family was fantastic, they received Molteni enthusiastically. But the biggest challenge, as with every reissue, is being close to the original: Not copying but reinterpreting the spirit of Ponti and his design. This means, details, proportions, materials. These are quite different from the ’50s. We had to have a dialogue today about what is was in the past. The face of the products are the same but now the drawers for example now open with modern mechanisms. The technology is new but the aesthetic is the same. We introduced this so people could use it, furniture isn’t just a piece of art. They have to live with it, its not a painting to put on the wall. We wanted to find the best way to be very sincere but at the same time to be contemporary.
Price was also an a issue. A limited edition series would not be in the spirit of Gino Ponti. He thought design was democratic, and wanted to reach a larger audience, not just the elite. So, a mix of staying close to the original, incorporating new mechanisms and not increasing cost the mix was the hardest balance to achieve. We have arrived at that point at the end because the pieces are affordable and not much more expensive than any piece in other Molteni Collections. You don’t have to sell your car to buy them.
In the future, I’d like to do more reissues. Ponti also worked with Aldo Rossi, Luca Meda, and Tobia Scarpa so we would like to start the process of reissuing these masters for our collections. It’s a good mission for the future, working with the old masters and younger designers.