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.

Ponti designed Rome’s School of Mathematics, built between 1932 and 1935.

As an architect, designer, and intellectual, Ponti loomed large. Perhaps more than anyone he embodied the maxim of his colleague Ernesto Rogers, who believed that designers should be engaged across all scales of design, “from a spoon to a city.” Courageously—from buildings and urban planning to stage sets, sewing and espresso machines, to lighting, ceramics, flatware, and textiles—Ponti shaped the look of postwar Italy.

Ponti embodied the maxim that designers should be engaged in all facets of design, “from the spoon to the city.”

His furniture—remarkable wall systems, cabinets, “dashboard” headboards that incorporate radios and lights—is distinguished by attenuated angles, jaunty boomerang shapes, and splayed legs poised on delicate points. One of the rare 20th-century architects to embrace pattern, color, and a sense of theatricality, Ponti designed public and residential interiors that are stage sets for living the good life. Now Ponti is the subject of a new exhibition at MAXXI, “Amare L’Architettura” (Loving Architecture), which conveys his sculptural and spatial sophistication.

Ponti’s home, of his own design, in Milan.

Ponti’s legacy, however, is larger than the astonishing body of work he left behind. As a founder of Domus magazine, which he directed for most of his life, and as an influential teacher, Gio Ponti firmly established Italy—particularly Milan—as the heart of international design culture, where it continues to flourish. —Abbott Miller