A History of Aesthetic Innovation

At Fontana Arte

The extraordinary quality of form, color and production associated with Fontana Arte is exemplified by this sequence of three masterworks: a cocktail table with deep aquamarine crystal, an occasional table with vivid green concave crystal with engraved leaf and an extraordinary mirror in bright pink crystal. Fontana Arte has an impressive lineage of art directors and artisans who developed some of the most strikingly novel applied art of the twentieth century. The names Gio Ponti, Pietro Chiesa and Max Ingrand are all synonymous with Fontana Arte, and directors of the firm at key moments in its history: Ponti was invited to be art director in 1931, Chiesa was appointed in 1934, and Ingrand appointed after the war years in 1954. They all contributed an enormous amount of talent and expertise in glass making and design innovation to the design firm, and the company benefited greatly by such talented designers, bringing the firm international recognition.

The combination of Chiesa’s creative vision as director of the company, and Fontana Arte’s extraordinary technical production techniques led to the creation of iconic designs in furniture, including two of the present lots. Gio Ponti’s term Italianità, (“Italianity” or “Italianness”) was famously exemplified by Chiesa’s design approach marked by an attention to classical forms, sophisticated craftsmanship, and cutting-edge technology.

Set of samples of colored mirrored glass used by Fontana Arte, 1950s

The saber-legged cocktail table with mirrored glass top is executed with great technical skill and demonstrates the company’s technological advancements in glass production as well as fine woodworking. The flared saber-leg form is evocative of designs from classical antiquity, namely ancient Greek furniture and the Klismos chair developed in the 5th century CE. The delicately engraved leaf motif of the occasional table harks back to ornamentation associated with classical plaster work or naturalistic architectural friezes. Chiesa’s furniture and lighting designs for Fontana Arte in the 1930s and 1940s were strikingly innovative and he developed a body of work including hundreds of designs for furniture, lighting, and decorative elements at a time when Italy experienced significant changes in production models away from craft toward highly industrialized methods of production.

Pietro Chiesa occasional table illustrated in Arredamento, c. 1936

With the use of vibrant blue mirrored glass and vivid green in the tables, Chiesa introduced what became two of the firm’s signature colors. The rarity of the colors today speaks to their luxury. The intensely radiant pink glass in the present mirror also references this association with innovative colors and developing iconic glass recipes to achieve an even broader range of vibrant hues.

Ingrand, who was deeply inspired by the medieval period and the communal efforts of historical craft guilds, placed primary importance on the symbiosis of quality craftsmanship and technical innovation. As the successive creative director of Fontana Arte to Chiesa, his design approach also took inspiration from classical motifs viewed through a modern eye. The present design in transparent pink with geometric triangular facet-cut decoration has been attributed to Ingrand, however this example features a Luigi Fontana & C. label, dating the work to the late 1940s or early 1950s, predating Ingrand’s tenure at Fontana Arte.

Chiesa’s parallel interest in historical motifs related to his career of glassmaking and design, a field that was considered a significant point of national identity in Italy. Chiesa’s use of mirrored glass in the design recalls historic discourses of mimesis and glass production; the use of mirrored surfaces can be read as an application of philosophical liminality, or in-between planes of existence, evoked through the mimetic, concave surface of the material. This table with classic line and proportion, and precision of the mirrored glass make this work an absolute masterpiece, redolent of high modernism.

Writing for Realtà in 1931, Chiesa pinpointed the significance of aesthetic innovation that was integral to the notion of progressive design. These ideas were embodied by the environment of Fontana Arte, namely that “art is creation, art is progress, art is to overturn the canon deemed certain, it is to achieve a new combination, unseen, and to reveal an unknown sensibility, and to substitute, for a belief in today, a belief in tomorrow.”