A Love Story
It all began in Paris in 1925, when the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts was in full swing, highlighting the new art deco style that was blooming in architecture, interior decoration and decorative arts throughout the world. At that time, Gio Ponti was artistic director of Richard Ginori, the famous Italian porcelain manufacturer. He was displaying his innovative and intricate porcelain designs, which gained him wide renown among his peers when he won first prize. Just across the Seine, Tony Bouilhet, heir and manager of Christofle, was in charge of the tableware section of the French pavilion.
The lively personality of the Milanese architect immediately fascinated the Parisian silversmith. Their friendship was instantaneous and happily thrived to the rhythm of the Parisian nightlife and jazz music at cabaret bar Le bœuf sur le toit, in the company of Jean Cocteau, Francis Picabia and Man Ray. Tony was 28 and Gio was 34.
During his long stay in Paris, the Italian architect developed strong affinities with the Bouilhet family who entrusted him with the construction of their country house on the outskirts of Paris. At the time, Saint-Cloud was a growing and lively area, attracting artists and socialites from the capital. It was also the testing ground for modernist architects such as Le Corbusier, who designed a villa for the Stein-de-Monzie family, and Auguste Perret for the Egyptian Numar Bey family.
Gio and Tony were thinking of calling the house Saint-Cloudienne when suddenly an event occurred that changed the whole course of things. One of the architect’s nieces by marriage, Carla Borletti, who was only 18 at the time, journeyed to Paris accompanying her father on a business trip. Gio introduced her to Tony. They immediately fell in love and got married a year later, in September 1928. For Gio, an angel had flown into Tony’s life; this is the reason why the villa was called L’Ange Volant (“the Flying Angel”).
A Family Jewel
Gio Ponti worked with his architecture partners of that time, Emilio Lancia and Tomaso Buzzi to meet the Bouilhet family’s expectations. This project was a unique opportunity for Gio Ponti to lay the cornerstones of his personal conception of Italian modern living. Revisiting Italian style is about making the most out of classicism and modernity. It is also about giving importance to sunlight, fluidity of spaces and theatrical and visual experiences through an array of colours and materials. A casa all’italiana(“Italian-style house”), as Ponti would coin it, must be bright, comfortable, welcoming and at the same time intimate and closed, with a majestic distribution of spaces.
The house is made of two balanced white sections. Above the entrance door, a gilded metal angel brandishing a model of the house greets visitors. Created by the Christofle workshop it embodies the spirit of the house: love and lightness. The living spaces are entirely designed in light and luminous tones that contrast harmoniously with dark marble floors, parquet and bright red linoleum. Ponti distributed the spaces in the house around a vast, double-height living room hall in order to meet all the comfort requirements of modern life. Conceived as the heart of the house, it gives majesty and a breath of fresh air to the whole building.
In this spectacular room, Ponti reinterprets a whole classical Italian repertoire with a facetious twist. The staircase, with a railing designed by Christofle, leads to a mezzanine that multiplies the viewing points on the inside and outside. Its painted ceiling, a blue and gold trompe l’oeil, was designed to be like a theatrical canopy. In its large cartouches, one can see the juxtaposed profiles of Tony and Carla Bouilhet. Angels, profiles and architectural patterns are also engraved in the small mirrors around the bay window. Made by Luigi Fontana, this commission was also the beginning of Gio Ponti’s collaboration with the Italian glassmaker, which would lead to the foundation of Fontana Arte.
The main hall extends on one side to a fireplace lounge and on the other side to the dining room. Gio Ponti is also the designer of some pieces of walnut furniture as well as the Flèche collection of lighting fixtures produced by Christofle.
In 2018, a major retrospective of Ponti’s work held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (MAD) in Paris drew the public’s attention to the exceptional testimony of L’Ange Volant. Indeed, together with the Villa Planchart in Caracas, L’Ange Volant is one of very few constructions by Gio Ponti that have been preserved with the greatest care.
© Photo Christina Vervitsioti-Missoffe
Gio Ponti, a creative visionary
"I am an artist who fell in love with architecture"
Gio Ponti was an outstanding creator with a remarkable lifetime career as an architect, designer, publisher as well as an author, and painter. His activity can be summed up in this interpretation of Ernesto Nathan Rogers’ motto, “From the spoon to the skyscraper”. Ponti devoted as much energy to creating over 100 buildings in 14 different countries: housing, villas, offices and schools as well as designing interiors, furniture, lamps, textiles and theatrical stage sets.
Ponti was an unconditional admirer of his country and the most enthusiastic advocate of Italian style. He was a major protagonist in the development of the post-war “Made in Italy” style in numerous places around the world, from Paris to Caracas, New York to Stockholm. He is considered today as one of the most active promoters of Italian design in the United States.
Since the construction of L’Ange Volant in 1928, Gio Ponti has been a lifelong champion of a house that is not a “machine for living in”, as would say Le Corbusier, but a place to unwind and to contemplate the essentials of life in a comfortable and happy way. A house should reflect the lifestyle of the occupants as much as possible. For him, an Italian-style house, where sunlight, bright colours, modernity and simplicity are combined, provides the best conditions to create a certain joie de vivre.
Ponti constantly reinvented furnishing solutions and new materials to give priority to beauty and functionality. From interior design, to furniture and objects, everything has to be conceived as a piece of art. This can be explained by the fact that he looked at the world with the eyes and soul of an artist.
During his 60-year-long career, Ponti published over 1,000 articles promoting his ideas about architecture and design for an Italian and a worldwide audience. Thanks to Domusmagazine – which he founded in 1928 and led for 50 years – he promoted Italian architecture, design and decorative arts abroad and advocated with equal passion international creation and innovation. His personal involvement in the interior design of famous Italian transatlantic ships – floating embassies of his country’s know-how and style – and the planning and participation in more than 40 exhibitions in Milan, Paris, London and the United States have all played a part in this promotion.
Famous art historians such as Fulvio Irace, Germano Celant and Pierre Restany have published important writings and arranged exhibitions or conferences about Gio Ponti to celebrate his significant role in the 20th-century history of architecture and design. Today the Italian architect’s design is more relevant than ever with 16 companies producing and distributing his furniture: lighting fixtures, ceramics, cutlery, as well as doorknobs, fabrics, mirrors and tiles. This activity reflects the growing interest of design enthusiasts in Gio Ponti’s timeless elegance.
Today, Gio Ponti’s heirs have patiently gathered an exceptional archive of drawings, blueprints, photographs and an extensive correspondence around the architect’s work. Based in Milan, the Gio Ponti Archives offers an abundance of documentation that can be consulted online on its website.
Courtesy Gio Ponti Archives - photo Paolo Gasparini