Gio Ponti was awarded the commission for the design of the Palazzo Liviano, or School of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Padova in 1934. From the architecture and its construction to the furniture, interior design and artistic decoration, the project allowed Ponti to realize a total integration of arts. The Stairway of Knowledge at the Palazzo Liviano, with its multi-colored marble steps and hall painted by Ponti, is one of his most widely known accomplishments.
Drawing of this bench by Gio Ponti
While the number of furniture pieces produced for the commission was not large by today’s standards, it was a substantial project for the time. Ponti designed sofas, tables, chairs and armchairs of different styles and shapes for the Palazzo Liviano. He worked with factories equipped for mass production, such as Melichiorre Bega’s company in Bologna and Meroni & Fossati in Brianza, as well as craftsmen in Lombardy, Veneto and Liguria to shorten the lead-time. The University of Padova project had a modest budget so instead of the exotic and rare materials that Ponti normally used for his wealthy clientele in the 1930s, he specified beech, walnut, cherry, oak and chestnut for the pieces of the commission. To ensure stability, Ponti’s designs included thicker woods and veneers. To meet his high standard for beauty, Ponti requested pieces be cut from the same boards with matched grain. Further, the designs featured invisible joinery and hidden hardware.
The Stairway of Knowledge, University of Padova.
Gio Ponti at the Palazzo Liviano, c. 1940.
The present sofa comes from this important commission. Though a solid and massive work, the sofa exhibits a graceful and slim elegance with its tapered and double-flared form, exemplary of Ponti’s mature style. Made of walnut by the craftsmen of Fratelli Scremin, Belluno, the sofa was completed around 1939 for the Palazzo Liviano. The University of Padova’s archives suggests that eleven examples of this sofa were ordered to accommodate the relatively small staff size (ten full-time teachers, eleven consultants and twenty-eight independent lecturers) while corresponding documents from the manufacturer’s archives confirm that only six examples were completed.
Laura Falconi, author, professor and Gio Ponti scholar, extensively researched this form. The above text cites facts from her findings as well as documents directly from the archive of the Museum of Archaeological Sciences and Art of Liviano, Padova.
The piece is considered to be the witness of a rare and unique accomplishment in the history of the decorative arts and of the rising national design.
Gio Ponti excelled at painting as a child and expressed a fervent interest in the arts. Feeling that a career in architecture was preferable to that of a painter, Ponti’s parents encouraged him to pursue the former and in 1914 he enrolled at the Faculty of Architecture at the Politecnico di Milano. His studies were interrupted by war, and in 1915 he was forced to postpone his education. He served as a captain in the Pontonier Corps until 1919, earning multiple military honors. After graduating in 1921, Ponti married Giulia Vimercati, the daughter of local aristocracy and started an architecture firm. During this time, Ponti aligned himself with the neoclassical movement, Novecento and championed a revival of the arts and culture. In 1928, Ponti founded Domus, a periodical tailored to artists and designers, as well as the broader public. A shift occurred in the 1930s when Ponti took up a teaching post at his alma mater, the Politecnico di Milano. In search of new methods to express Italian modernity, Ponti distanced himself from the sentiments of Novecento and sought to reconcile art and industry. Together with the engineers, Eugenio Soncini and Antonio Fornaroli, Ponti enjoyed great success in the industrial sector, securing various commissions throughout Italy. In the 1950s, he gained international fame with the design of the Pirelli Tower in Milan and he was asked to be a part of the urban renewal of Baghdad, collaborating with top architects from around the world. His 1957 book, Amate l’architettura, is considered to be a microcosm of his work —an incredible legacy spanning art, architecture, industrial design, publishing and academia.
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