Ponti in Context
On the occasion of the new Gio Ponti monograph, specialist Brian Kish illuminates the market for 20th-century Italian design
Taschen's epic new Gio Ponti monograph has just hit bookstores, inspiring us to reflect on the state of the market for Ponti's work, along with that of his 20th-century Italian design contemporaries. The past year or so has seen some mega auction sales in this area, so we brought in an incomparable expert to put it all into context: Brian Kish, the esteemed 20th-century Italian architecture and design historian and dealer.
Over the past 20 years, Kish has earned an international reputation for his knowledge on Ponti, as well as lesser known Italian talents like Studio BBPR, Luigi Caccia Dominioni, and Ignazio Gardella. Kish, in fact, curated the very first Gio Ponti exhibition in the US, mounted at the Queens Museum of Art back in 2001. Since then, he’s contributed to numerous Ponti publications and projects, including the brand new monograph from Taschen. If you have a Ponti question, Mr. Kish is the one to ask.
Settle in and scroll on for some deep insights into the vigorous market for historic Italian design.
How did your expertise in 20th-century Italian design develop? How long have you been engaged with this market?
In 1973, I started working part-time at a contemporary art gallery in London, where the owner had Italian designs all over the place, from Pirelli flooring to Castiglioni lighting, Olivetti typewriters, Scarpa sofas, and one Ponti Superleggera chair. I was in charge of the library, where I soon discovered Domus magazine. I was 17 and still in high school, but that began my keen interest—though I should add that my mother had the children's playroom in our London townhouse furnished in Piretti Plia perspex chairs and desks. So that was influential as well.
Formally, my background is in 16th and 17th-century Italian art and architecture, which I studied at the Courtauld, but my profession became contemporary art dealing. In 2001, the Queens Museum in New York invited me to guest-curate a small Gio Ponti retrospective. With guidance from Lisa Ponti [Gio Ponti’s daughter], I not only gained access to the Ponti archives but immediately afterwards to the archives of Franco Albini, Guglielmo Ulrich, Ignazio Gardella, and Caccia Dominioni. As a result, I became a close acquaintance of Caccia from 2001 until his death in 2016, at age 103!
Carlo Mollino had been a close friend of Lisa, so I was given access to the Mollino archives at the Politecnico di Torino through Mollino's student and co-professor Elena Tamagno. She was brilliant in her interpretation of Mollino’s creations, and she helped me navigate through his documents, which she had organized after his death in 1973.
So after 2001, I pivoted to 20th-century Italian architecture and design studies, advising, dealing, and writing.
Can you share some trends you’ve noticed in the Italian market over the years? Where is the market now?
The market emerged in Milan and Rome during the early 1980s, when people started collecting designs from the 1920s and 1930s, especially Murano glass, Ponti ceramics, and Novecento and Rationalist furniture. The trend soon after spread to Paris, London, and New York. From the 1990s onward, interest in mid-century Italian grew rapidly thanks to Christie's South Kensington auctions produced by Simon Andrews. Within a short time, Wright of Chicago jumped in, followed by Phillips in 2008, when Domenico Raimondo became the Italian specialist.
In fact, the auctions have played an ever-increasing role in fostering trends and establishing record breaking prices, particularly for pieces by Ponti, Mollino, Scarpa, Sottsass, Borsani, BBPR, along with collectible lighting from Italian companies like Arteluce and Arredoluce. Of course, the design dealers who mount exhibits in their showrooms as well as the design fairs play a critical role in promoting these works too. Consequently, the price points have sustained or increased continuously.
Recently, there has been a spotlight on Radical Design of the late 1960s to the early 1980s. As well, the markets for Osvaldo Borsani and Ico Parisi have grown in the wake of catalogues raisonnés and retrospectives in the last five years. Since 2012, the retrospectives given over to Murano glass designers at Le Stanze del Vetro have been a catalyst for a reappraisal of their historical contributions, with competitive prices seen in Zecchin, Martinuzzi, Buzzi, Scarpa, and Bianconi.
The interior decorating market essentially drives the middle price tier of Italian vintage design, which is wholly focused on the decades from the 1950s to the 1990s. And so online sales platforms have seen a notable increase in Italian 20th-century design items over the past few years.
A lot of people started to watch the Italian market around 2005-2008 (the early years of Design Miami), when there was a series of record-breaking Mollino sales. Last year, Mollino was in the auction news again. Why does Mollino so far outperform his contemporaries?
The May 2005 Christie's auction record for the Orengo table at $3,800,000 and the December 2020 Sotheby's $6,200,000 for the Brooklyn Museum table established new public benchmarks for Mollino prices. Privately there was an even higher price transacted in those years, while some other auction results soared above top estimates.
Mollino appeals to serious art collectors and those with intellectual curiosity about this most enigmatic polymath of 20th-century architecture and design. Of course, the scarcity of his output is the main reason for the astronomical prices, but his deep dive into architecture, engineering, literature, philosophy, and the esoteric episteme makes it compelling and desirable to discerning buyers. To top it all, his famous clandestine erotic polaroids add a somewhat risqué icing on the Mollino cake.
How would you characterize 20th-century Italian in relation to that of other countries, like France, Denmark, and Brazil?
With the exception of Carlo Scarpa, Italian design was almost entirely created by trained architects of the upper classes—both women and men—who had great command of the liberal arts. Being architects first, they systematically embedded elaborate tectonics into furniture typologies. These aspects gave their achievements throughout the 20th century a solidity and confidence that is unmatched in France or Denmark. After all, no less than two and a half millennia of traditions form the foundations of Italian design, and, strikingly, this can be discerned in the work of creators as diverse as Ponti and BBPR, Mollino and Gardella, Scarpa and Mongiardino in the 1950s decade alone.
France is mostly appreciated for its exalted ébénistes, with the exception of Prouvé who was trained as a blacksmith. In fact, mid-century French design can be seen as a by-product of the avant-garde milieu. Royère and Perriand are the best examples in that regard. Denmark is a smaller but highly relevant domain because of its honesty and respect for fine craft, which engenders a pleasant symbiosis of nature and fastidiously elaborated tectonics. It is an oasis of calm in the turbulent 20th century.
Brazilian design often confronts and combines the European idiom with its own natural conditions and traditions. It is a rich and inventive hybrid of both Italian and Scandinavian tropes, but mostly distinguished by its sensuous approach to the pictorial realm. It is encouraging to see that—along with a buoyant market—there is now a growing interest in studying Brazilian architecture and design, as it thrives on a confluence of diverse peoples and cultures.
Can you identify some Italian designers who remain undervalued?
The list is endless in a country of that size and history; where there were more graduates of architecture in the 20th century per capita than in any other part of the world. Undervalued designers are countless, but each offers very specific characteristics, from the exquisite, excessive refinements of Giovanni Gariboldi to the complex excursion into the phenomenology of form by Umberto Riva. In between, there is Gino Levi-Montalcini and Gabetti & Isola from Turin. Then there are many who emerged from Ponti's studio, such as Carlo De Carli, Renato De Angeli, Mario Gottardi, and Giulio Moscatelli.
The design contributions of women architects—for example Gae Aulenti, Cini Boeri, Raffaella Crespi, Anna Monti, and the artist Nanda Vigo—are the focus of a handful of collectors, mainly in Italy. Creations by Enzo Mari and Angelo Mangiarotti are also quite sought after, as well as those of unclassifiable artists from the late 1960s to 1980s, such as Mario Ceroli and Urano Palma. And finally Aldo Rossi is beginning to be re-examined amongst scholars this year, which will undoubtedly have market repercussions.
How long has the epic book project been in the works, and how did the project begin?
More than a decade ago, discussions between Lisa Ponti and designer-curator Stefano Casciani started, but the project stalled around 2008 due to the worldwide banking fiasco. The idea was picked up again with the next generation—Salvatore Licitra, son of Lisa, and Marlene Taschen, daughter of [publisher] Benedikt Taschen—who began orchestrating this enormous endeavor in 2019.
I came in by late 2019 to do the image caption writing, which covers nearly one thousand items. I was aided in my task by Fabio Marino on the last leg of this long Ponti journey. It got the final approval (and rigorous critique) from Benedikt, who is Ponti's most steadfast supporter!
How does this publication differ from the Ponti books that came before? What can we find in this publication that’s new?
In art and architecture history, the literature is always changing, as old documents or new discoveries emerge. That is what is found in this new Ponti publication from Taschen.
The highly nuanced essays by Stefano Casciani are reflective of earlier and current contextual conditions. The 1990s project descriptions by Lisa Ponti, in her inimitable voice, are more relevant to read now and are threaded through the book together with remarks from her son, Salvatore. He added immense new insights in his project descriptions, because for the last 20 years he has been organizing and reorganizing the Ponti archives—where I have been on his scientific committee since 2006.
For this book, I got to do the more laborious task of writing nearly the majority of the photo captions. However it couldn’t have been completed without the assistance of Fabio Marino, who parsed through the last 20 years of Ponti’s oeuvre. The captions encompass updated new findings, corrections of past errors, and informed opinions.
Having dealt in Ponti objects, I tried to impart connoisseurship to update academics and collectors alike. There is an abundance of photos of his architecture facades, models, floor plans, and sumptuous interiors, which I relished in describing since many had never been published before.
Finally the task of whipping this into a compelling visual object rested with Kark Kolbitz, who also pushed for the comprehensive section on Ponti's ocean liners, the Giallo Fantastico printed cover, and endless other surprises hidden throughout this massive tome.
What is your perspective on the timing of this Ponti book—the most comprehensive to date? How has interest in Ponti’s work changed over the years? How might it change after this publication?
The timing is perfect for this creative genius, who was born in 19th-century fin-de-siècle Europe and kept on producing around the globe until the late 20th century. As we are entering the third decade of the 21st century, this wide-ranging book—offering a panoramic view across Ponti’s countless creations—should meet the expectations of many enthusiasts in the age of Instagram, judging by the early responses.
How would you categorize Ponti’s influence on design history? And do you think this influence is directly reflected in the market?
Gio Ponti in the end was a galaxy of ideas, and these radiate forth today, some more relevant than others. Interest has changed in his work, solely because he was never tethered to any single 20th-century ideology. This state of autonomy coupled with his confidence is so apparent in the overwhelmingly sunny and joyful works he has left us.
In the last eight years, the market for Ponti has come into a sharper focus, particularly with various aspects of his six decades of production being properly sorted out. The best example of this was the single Ponti sale titled Casa di Fantasia at Phillips London in March 2019. The 30-lot sale featured an extraordinarily 1951 commission for the Lucano family, where Ponti and Piero Fornasetti dreamed up a metaphysical, Surrealist interior without parallel in a domestic space. The sale was historic for the Ponti market, with all lots selling above estimates, many records shattered. One item neared the half-million-dollar mark.
Which Ponti work is your favorite?
This is difficult, but I will return to my own narrative in listing two Ponti creations. The Superleggera chair, which I first saw in London at the age of 17. The seat was in a clear cellophane, and it was the first time that I was awestruck by a piece of design.
My focus has always been above all on architecture though. Seeing the Pirelli Tower in Milan when I was 21, I was transfixed. As a native New Yorker, I knew the Pan Am Building; growing up in London, I knew the Centre Point Tower; and visiting Paris, I had seen the Tour Montparnasse. There was no doubt in my mind that the Pirelli put the others to shame.
Decades later I brought the question to Lisa: was her father aware of those inferior pastiches? Her answer was that he acknowledged that the three others had a “similar footprint.”
Thank you Brian! ◆
Gio Ponti is available for purchase now through Taschen and other international booksellers.