Model 699 – Superleggera (Super lightweight) Chair – Gio Ponti – 1957
Books, pottery, buildings, houses, cars, furniture, cutlery, fabrics, lighting fixtures. It’s hard to find a design field that this prolific italian architect had not worked with. Giò Ponti had a holistic design vision, combining a global modern mindset with a deep concern on local and vernacular culture, therefore it’s not a surprise to find out that the main inspiration for his 1957 chair “Superleggera” was a traditional type of chair produced by Ligurian craftsmen since the 19th century.
The city of Chiavari, in the Ligurian Riviera, was the birthplace of the chair that inspired Ponti. In 1807, the local cabinet maker Giuseppe Gaetano Descalzi started to produce the Chiavari Chair (“Chiavarina”) and within a couple of years the chair was already a popular hit. The chair design was a simplification of French empire style chairs with less decorative elements and thiner wood sessions, a strategy that Ponti would use more than a century after. By the time of Descalzi death in 1855, there were already more than 600 craftsmen manufacturing the chair in Chiavari region. The decadence of the product came only on the second half of the 19th century with the introduction of Thonet’s Chair, more affordable and flat-packed.
Ponti research on the chair design started in the post war period, in the beggining of the 50’s. The main goals were to create a democratic, simple, affordable and lightweigth chair in order to be sold for a market still in the post war recovering period. The archetipical Chiavari chair was closely analysed and then re-designed, with ergonomical improvements – a elegant bend on the backrest – and structural simplifications.
The first attempt to create a “simple and true chair” came after a close collaboration between Ponti, Cesare Cassina and Cassina’s factory staff, the result was the 1952 chair “Leggera”, but even with the success of the Leggera, Ponti wasn’t yet satisfied, he kept on developing and designing ways to simplify even more the project. The achievements of this second attempt, the 1957 “Superleggera”, included an ingenious slot-in connection system and a 18mm wide triangular section for the structure, stable and weighting only 1700g. A new paradigm of the Made in Italy was created.
Build in ashwood with India cane or upholstered seat, the chair receives various finshings from natural wood, stained wood to black or white laquered coating, resulting in dozens of combinations.
Giò Ponti, himself, acknowledged that the Superleggera is one of his “three masterpieces” along with the Pirelli skyscraper and the Co-Cathedral of Taranto. That’s a fair quote, the chair is one of the best examples of the architect’s ouvre, a classical and universal design yet local and humble. A statement of doric austherity with a shaker-like simplicity, something that could be definied as “critical regionalism” i.e. “a progressive approach to design that seeks to mediate between the global and the local languages of architecture” (and design). However, after sixty years of production (and like most of this chairs’ shortlist) the original goal of a affordable chair is somehow lost, the initial price for this Cassina’s chair starts from more than 1,000 euros.