Last weekend my family, great old friends and I visited various design exhibitions at La Triennale in Milan. There, we enjoyed Chinese design (surely the most impervious for us), Italian design, and photos of Pierpaolo Pasolini.
“Espressioni di Gio Ponti” has been by far the most impactful of all these exhibitions for me – so much that it got me reasoning why, and how deeply.
The first reason is that I feel I get Gio Ponti more than I do most artists.
I am used to going through fine art museums across cultures and art forms with moderate appreciation, little understanding and few moments of true emotion. Gio Ponti’s works are an exception: they have consistently struck me as meaningful, rich and moving – including many that I had ignored being his.
Casa Rasini is a case in point: I have long felt and very recently restated it is the most beautiful and impactful building in Milan: it projects novelty and modernity rooted in architectural tradition to a key spot, where a long high street (Corso Venezia, Corso Buenos Aires), a pivotal square (Piazza Oberdan) and a large, central park (Giardini Pubblici) connect. At this very exhibition I discovered that Gio Ponti designed it.
[Ironically, the most visible and impressive tower in the twin building is mostly ascribed to his partner Emilio Lancia.]
Another reason is how I have felt Gio Ponti capable of shaping his world, impacting environments – Milano perhaps mostly – by injecting meaningful shapes and designs in them. The sheer list is impressive, and the map produced for the exhibition is even more; I hope organizers will make this map available online.
Then there is the sheer personal coincidence of how often his work has engulfed and touched me in my daily life: I had the privilege of working in at least two buildings he designed – Primo Palazzo Montecatini and Palazzo Savoia Assicurazioni, and only realized this at this exhibition, facing artworks of him that I had seen there many times casually. This makes me understand how one person can help so much shaping a business environment that many people and organizations were still catering for and leveraging dozens of years later in this town.
Last, a double lesson for myself and Italian businesses and people these days; a lesson on how we make decisions based on our past, and how we set about to shape our future.
Gio Ponti founded Domus, a design and architecture magazine still active. Its early issues strike me almost physically as a Fascist magazine and cultural tool. More generally, Gio Ponti flourished from the mid 1920s and obviously contributed to development of Italian culture and design during Fascism, effectively supporting and contributing to Fascism. He contributed to the new town plan of Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia that Italy conquered in 1936, and even designed furniture for a Krupp silverware shop in Milan in 1943!
He continued working and achieved some of his greatest results, including designs in the Americas, after the Second World War. He is then an example of creating significant business, cultural, technical value through very difficult times and irrespectively of deep ideological barriers and concerns.
It is difficult to argue against what happened – to argue for instance that he should have refrained from creating during Fascism, or that our community should have banned from doing so after its fall.
Here is what I see as the more relevant impact of this lesson today: Gio Ponti’s works look to me as making a clear, deep difference from routine work in the same domains in the same periods. This was through easy and difficult times, also by engaging very rich individuals and organizations in deeply unjust, unequal, even ideologically revulsive communities. Creating similar value is probably just as possible and beneficial now, in very difficult economic conditions, as it must have been in the early 1930s and late 1940s.
How can each of us, with what little talent we have, go beyond routine and do something that impacts activity and drives value in our own environment?