Gio Ponti's Iconic Wing Chairs

Perri Roberts

With this rare pair of matched lounge chairs, Gio Ponti cleverly reinterprets and modernizes the traditional wing-chair. Introduced into the repertoire of European craftsman in the seventeenth century, the wing-chair was designed to provide a warm, comfortable seat by the fireside. It derives its name from the “wings “attached to the back of the chair intended to trap the heat from the fire and offer protection from drafts.  

The classic form of wing-chair is usually fully upholstered, including the wings and armrests. In a bold departure from its traditional form, Ponti creates a sculptural structure of burled walnut that frames the sides of the chair in a seamless ribbon-like loop. From the solidly planted front legs of the chair, the wood framework swells ever-so-slightly as it climbs upward to create the bold curve of the arms, declining gradually to join the slanted seatback, and rising again to form the trapezoidal wings. From the top of the chair it descends vertically until it reaches the junction where the two ribbons of the frame join to provide a solid support for the slanted lower back of the chair; from there, it divides again to form the base of the seat and canted back legs.

While Ponti radically redesigns the form of the wing-chair, he retains its original function as a comfortable piece of furniture. The broad expanses of upholstery, slanted back, and flat headrest demonstrate the designer’s concern for and command of ergonomics. These are chairs that invite people to sit down, lean back, and relax as they enjoy the company of family and friends.

At the same time, there is decidedly something whimsical about Ponti’s design. The trapezoidal shape of the wings clearly echoes their traditional form however he undermines their original purpose by replacing the solid surface with a void. Viewing the profile of the chair from the side, it almost appears to be animate—the contours of   dark framework takes on the appearance of a seated human being.

Ponti typically produced a series of prototypes for his furniture which he reworked thereafter, creating numerous variations of the original design. In this case, his initial version of the wing-chair dates to the early years of his career, c. 1927-29. While it conforms to the traditional form of the wing-chair, Ponti customized it by adding curved wood, post-and-lintel-style armrests. In 1933 he significantly altered this prototype for the wing-chair in the bedroom of the V Triennale Exhibition in Milan, replacing the upholstered wings with a continuous wood framework which defines the open form of the wings and rounded arm rests. When furniture production in Italy began to revive after the war in the late 1940s, Ponti re-introduced the wing-chair to the design world. From then on through the mid-1960s, he invented a dozen different versions of the wing-chair for private clients and the furniture manufacturers, Cassina, Dassai, and I.S.A. Bergamo. The designs basically fall into two categories—those that are fully upholstered and those that incorporate a wood or metal framework and upholstery. Among the fully upholstered versions, Ponti varied the size and shape of the solid wings and armrests, as well as the fabrics. Lounge chairs of this type were produced in great numbers to provide comfortable public seating in three of Ponti’s major design projects, the Conte Grande cruise-ship, the Hotel Royal, Naples, and the Parco dei Principi Hotel, Rome. Whereas Ponti employed the traditional form of the wing-chair in his designs for the upholstered versions, he was far more inventive in the series of variants with a wood/metal framework. From one version to another, he altered the shape, size, and profile of the wings, armrests, and legs, as well as the configuration and proportions of the upholstered parts of the chair in relation to the framework.*

Among Ponti’s experiments in reinventing the wing-chair, this pair of matched lounge chairs are unique, not only for their rarity, but for the singular contemporary character of their dynamic design. In comparison with his other wing-chairs, they are distinguished by the fluid elegance of the sculptural framework which define the graceful contours of the upholstered seat and backrest. In keeping with Ponti’s usual high standards of production, the furniture’s clean-lined modernism is executed with superb craftsmanship that excites visual interest.

Created in Ponti’s most productive years in the fields of both architecture and design, these beautiful chairs embody his theory of “the finite form,” wherein the perfected object displays its essential form and function: “Reconstructing the original purity of the form-function relationship does not derive from functionality: it derives from a real need of ours . . .  to restore a harmonious relationship between form and function in an essentiality that excludes any memory of other formal origins.” Gio Ponti

I believe that each piece of furniture, though always functional . . . should engage the imagination of the person who designs it, and the person who looks at it.

—Gio Ponti

Gio Ponti

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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