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Design Classics

Superleggera, 1957

Designer: Gio Ponti
Manufacturer: Cassina

As an architect, painter, product designer and the founder and long-time editor of the influential magazine Domus, Gio Ponti was the godfather of Italy’s post-war design renaissance. It’s surprising he is not better known, as his voluminous, versatile and dazzling design output touched everything from such buildings as the famous Pirelli Tower in Milan – one of Italy’s first skyscrapers – to ship interiors, Murano glass and inventive tableware for luxury ceramics manufacturer Richard-Ginori. But Ponti was wary of design trends and never espoused any particular stylistic movement. Instead he declared, Industry is the style of the 20th century, its mode of creation.”

One of Ponti’s most famous designs, the Superleggera (Super Light) chair, simultaneously pays homage to folk traditions and the possibilities of industrial mass production. Intrigued by the chairs manufactured by artisans near the Italian town of Chiavari (still the home of a thriving chair industry), Ponti’s version, with its ash frame and woven rush seat, is so light that early ads featured a small child holding the chair in one hand. At the same time, by retaining the rails and structure of its ancestor, the chair is incredibly strong and stable.

With its black frame and light-coloured woven seat, the Superleggera is physically, poetically and visually light. Typical of much of Ponti’s work, its graphic profile is both reminiscent of Shaker ladderback chairs and a perfect example Italian design of the “dolce vita” 1950s.

Andrew Jones, the well-known Canadian furniture designer and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, has long admired the Superleggera as a “brilliant and consummate chair that combines traditional form with the design potential of impossibly thin construction made possible by technology.” Writing in Domus, Ponti called the Superleggera “...a chair-chair, modest, without adjectives. Our chair, which has grown up alone as an anonymous, innocent virgin, has been progressively admitted ... as the true traditional chair.” Ah, those Italians! When was the last time you heard anyone call a piece of furniture an “anonymous innocent virgin”?

National Post, February 2, 2006.