In an advertisement from the 1950s, a photograph shows a boy, around 10 years old, with his arm fully extended. Dangling from his little finger, without apparent effort, is a chair that has the tensile construction of a box kite. Its designer, the Milan-born polymath Gio Ponti, said he wanted to design a “chair-chair, devoid of adjectives.” Basing its silhouette on humble chairs produced by anonymous craftsmen, Ponti distilled his version to the point where it approached the rigor and precision of a letterform. Originally released in 1952 as the Leggera chair, Ponti made further refinements that brought its weight down to just over 3.5 pounds. In 1957 it was re-christened the Superleggera, or “super-lightweight.”

Ponti seated on his Superleggera chair.

The European avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s reimagined the chair as a machine for sitting—a three-dimensional manifesto for new materials, new geometries, and new production techniques. Ponti’s Superleggera represented a departure by turning to the intelligence embedded in vernacular craft, but leveraging machine production to achieve a radical economy of form and materials. This is what defines good design today.