Thursday, July 06, 2017

Giò Ponti's Functional Designs Anticipated the Tiny House Movement

Giò Ponti, hotel bedroom for the Ninth Triennale, Milan, 1951. Image: Giò Ponti Archives

If you’ve ever flipped through late night television, you might have come across the show “Tiny House, Big Living” on HGTV. In one episode, Trevor and Mary, a young couple from Dayton, Ohio, explores the multifaceted features of their new tiny home. The legs of a table double up as scratching posts for their cats, and a rope bridge made with their furry companions in mind runs from the couple’s shelving unit to the stairs. Lofted beds are placed towards the top of the home, barely an arms length away from the ceiling. Every part of the architecturally inventive house serves more than one purpose, the floorboards included. At the end of the episode, Trevor gets down on one knee as he procures a diamond ring from inside one of the stairs (which, of course, doubles as a storage unit) and proposes to his girlfriend Mary.

The Tiny House movement is, according to some, a social one. People are seriously downsizing for many different reasons: a desire to live simply, to go on more adventures, to make environmentally conscious decisions, and to cut down living costs. The average tiny house is 100 to 400 square feet — that is about 2,200 square feet smaller than the average American home. People like Mary and Trevor are getting on board with this trend and making drastic changes in the way they approach their living space. 

It could be argued that Giò Ponti’s interior designs are precursors to the Tiny House innovations of the 21st century. On view here at the Georgia Museum of Art until September 17, “Modern Living: Giò Ponti and the 20th-Century Aesthetics of Design” exhibits Ponti’s knack for creating sleek, functional designs that seem to expand space and transcend time. 

Ponti, like tiny house builders, understood the concept of less is more. His minimalistic designs are nonetheless as visually appealing as ornate antique furniture; in fact, his minimalism is what appeals to most people. The modern aesthetic of smooth lines, clean design and functionality resonates with homebuyers today. This might explain why the tiny house trend has flourished in the last few years. The appeal of Ponti’s work and tiny houses is like that of a multipurpose tool: countless functions in one object. 

Tiny house sensibilities manifest in pieces such as a coffee table he designed in 1937, made of burr-walnut-veneered wood, walnut, and glass. Perri Lee Roberts, author of the comprehensive essay found in the exhibition catalogue, writes of the piece that the “glass top serves an aesthetic purpose, creating a sense of relative weightlessness and helping blend the piece into its surrounding while providing a proper surface for the functional requirements of the table.” Not only does Ponti’s design of the table, with its smooth, transitional quality that could expand a space (potentially a very small space, such as in a tiny house), compare to the design tactics implemented by tiny house designers, Ponti also proved his resourcefulness by employing only Italian materials on this piece. 

Giò Ponti, coffee table, ca. 1937. Made by Giordano Cheese. Image: Wright

Another innovation that stands out as particularly apt — and this is a trend that carries into the design of many tiny houses — is Ponti’s “organized wall.” Exhibited in instances such as the hotel bedroom Ponti designed for the Ninth Triennale in 1951, this feature makes storage space integrated as well as aesthetic. For Ponti, shelves offered a way to merge interior and exterior spaces when placed flush against windows — a tactic that makes outside foliage or decor accessible and also creates fascinating shadows that transform depending on the time of day. Organized walls, and the pleasure they bring aesthetically as well as the additional storage space they offer, fit seamlessly into both Ponti’s designs and tiny house developments. 

Tile and chair designed by Giò Ponti.
Image: Daici Ano
Ponti’s affinity for striking elements is not limited to just furniture; in fact, some may argue that his most vibrant work is that of his ceramic tiles. These tiles, patterned with intricate motifs, create the illusion of space in an area that lacks just that. The blue and white tile shown right employs optical elements that shift the eye around the room, creating the sense of an enlarged area, while the colors echo the serenity of Santorini. Ponti was a master at making the most out of the space he was given, and were he alive today, he surely would be enthralled by the challenge of crafting a tiny house.

Roberts writes that Ponti wished to bring order to a chaotic world ravaged by WWI and that “the key to this sacred mission was the home, which Ponti saw as the epicenter of family life… His concept of the home encompassed more than its physical structure, extending to include interior design, furniture, furnishings, decorative objects, and art. Ponti regarded the design of furniture and decorative art as equivalent artistic undertakings to architectural design; whenever possible, he planned domestic and public spaces as integrated ensembles.” Ponti’s approach to design transcends both time and location, and his lasting impact on architecture and interior design becomes manifest especially when considering living arrangements such as the tiny house. The next time insomnia strikes, make HGTV your first stop on the train of late-night shows — see if you notice pieces reminiscent of Ponti and his innovations as the tiny house builders and owners look to make the most of their new small spaces. 

Sarah Dotson and Stephanie Motter
Communications Interns

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