Gio Ponti: maestro of tile and pattern

by clé tile | published: Jul 19, 2023

A terrace over the sea with a blue and turquoise patterned tile floor.

hotel parco dei principi in sorrento, italy — image courtesy of archilovers

if you're a fan of design — and tile — it's likely you've come across the work of Italian architect Gio Ponti and in particular, his luminous, vibrant, joy-inducing hotel, the Parco dei Principi in Sorrento. It's a tour de force of blue and white tile and a testament to the myriad ways in which tile can be the focal point of design. But what of the man behind the design?

A virtuoso of color and pattern, Ponti breathed life into each project by infusing them with both dramatic and whimsical elements, with each endeavor treated as a genuine work of art. His visionary approach to interior spaces transcended mere static layouts, instead embracing elements that introduced a sense of dynamism into even the most staid of contexts. At clé, we’ve always been enraptured by Ponti's design philosophy… and, of course, his love of tile.

tile as style

Though Ponti is known today for his vibrant modernist creations, his work was heavily influenced by neoclassicism. But like his contemporary carlo scarpa, Ponti refused to stick to the strict rules of tradition — rather, he reframed and reimagined it. However, where Scarpa favored subtlety, Ponti favored whimsy and exuberance. In 1923, he began an early foray into ceramics as art director of Richard-Ginori, a porcelain company whose output drew heavily from the ancient world. By adding bold stripes, colors, and patterns to Richard-Ginori’s classical forms, Ponti’s designs brought the company into the twentieth-century industrial world, while maintaining the feel of tradition and history. His work won the company the Gran Prix at the 1925 Paris exposition.

This early experience with ceramics had a profound effect on Ponti’s future work. He loved the plasticity of the material as well as it beauty and durability. Inspired by this, Ponti continually sought ways to incorporate ceramic tile into his mural projects as early as the 1930s. But Ponti was not just satisfied with using tile solely as a decorative element. Instead, he pioneered fresh ways to use the medium to achieve his ultimate vision — the total integration of art and architecture. He achieved this through numerous artistic collaborations, making art an integral part of his design. In addition, his seamless infusion of color and pattern throughout a space, especially across floors and walls, made his interiors joyous works of art in their own right.

A modernist chapel with a turquoise floor, white walls and windows and stairwell cutouts with triangular arches.

gio ponti cathedral in taranto, italy — image courtesy of wallpaper

A staircase with a different stone pattern on each riser.

staircase designed by gio ponti

A living room with geometric stone floors and an ochre yellow and white woven wall hanging.

villa planchart living room — image courtesy of architectural review

One of our favorite examples is the apartment building on Via Dezza in Milan, which he designed and lived in from 1957 to his death in 1979. Effectively a design manifesto, the building is the embodiment of the architect’s technical achievements to that time. Doors were mostly eschewed, except when mandated by building regulations. Instead, floating room dividers and collapsible partitions allowed interior spaces ultimate flexibility. Windowed walls were equipped with consoles and storage space, optimizing their status as focal points of a room — a feature he referred to as “furnished windows.”

In addition, Ponti used a single color scheme for each apartment, chosen by the occupants. This color extended to the floors and balconies, allowing residents to easily identify their own apartment from the street. The colors Ponti chose for his own were yellow and white — colors emphasized by tiles depicting vibrant yellow stripes that raced diagonally across the floor.

A mid-century modern apartment with diagonal lines on the floors and walls.
A mid-century apartment with diagonal lines on the floor with folding room dividers

via dezza apartment — images courtesy of luciforma

An artist's studio with a floor with diagonal lines.

The use of diagonal lines across floors and ceilings was a common practice for Ponti. Their sense of dynamism and optical effects is indicative of Ponti’s playful nature. Though his work often referenced tradition, he was not afraid to break it or bend it to his will. An example of this can be seen in the incredible terrazzo floors of Palazzo Bo at University of Padua, for which Ponti designed the interiors between 1934 to 1942. Here, he turns the tradition of terrazzo on its head, painstakingly creating diagonal stripes with color aggregate before covering the tile with white concrete.

A staircase with painted murals and patterned stair risers.
A mural wall and an arched ceiling.
A large room with red columns and painted mural walls.
Vertical bricks cover the lower quarter of a wall in a cafe.

palazzo bo – images courtesy of sight unseen

A long store with brick shelving and large landings in brick.

In another instance, the living room of Villa Arreaza in Venezuela features diagonal striped floor tiles juxtaposed against broad horizontal bands of white and blue on the ceiling, along with diamond elements on the walls and curtains. Dramatic and dynamic, it creates an engaging visual dialogue between each of the room’s six sides.

A living room with blue and turquoise diagonal stripes on the floor, larger light blue and white stripes on the ceiling and an accent wall with a triangular pattern in the same colors.

villa arreaza living room — image courtesy of design miami

a feast of blue

But no discussion of Ponti's mastery can be complete without mentioning his design for the Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento. Drawing inspiration from the coastal surroundings, Ponti curated a captivating blue and white color palette that permeated every facet of the design. He even purportedly asked the hotel chefs to serve blue pasta and blue roasted chicken for the hotel’s opening night. Though his menu request went unfulfilled, the hotel remains a masterpiece showcasing Ponti’s genius.

The extensive use of tile throughout the Sorrento hotel demonstrates Ponti’s imaginative, spirited approach to materials and his ability to seamlessly integrate art and architecture. For the project, Ponti collaborated with his old associates at Richard-Ginori to create 30 different custom-designed floor tiles featuring geometric patterns and abstract motifs. When arranged in different compositions, the tiles created a staggering 100 distinct patterned floors — one for each room of the hotel.

A hotel room blue and turquoise tile floor in a geometric pattern and windows that open to the sea.
A dark blue room is accented with a geometric tile pattern that runs through the middle of the floor and up one wall.

hotel parco dei principi in sorrento, italy — images courtesy of archilovers / the gilded owl

A hotel desk/vanity and a blue geometric tile floor.

For the walls, Ponti introduced a domed ceramic tile produced by Ceramica Joo in Milan. These tiles formed textured patterns that danced playfully with light and shadow. Playful and tactile, the tiles also intertwine a subtle homage to the rugged cliffs of the Sorrento coast.

A hotel lobby with turquoise seating, and a wall of light blue widely spaced tiles and a wall of domed dark turquoise tiles.

hotel parco dei principi in sorrento, italy — images courtesy of archilovers

Ponti’s work embodies that quintessential mid-century Italian spirit — and is a testament to his joyful willingness to buck convention and push boundaries — which continues to inspire and delight.