De Poli has endeared himself to me...his exceptional experience to create those colours of masterly invention which enchant us all...with which he has covered animals and vases I have devised for him, transmuting them into sheer poetry.

Gio Ponti

A Modern Take on an Ancient Art

Smalti di De Poli

After visiting museums and ancient archaeological sites in the 1930s, Paolo De Poli, trained as a traditional landscape painter, turned his focus to the venerable tradition of enamel. Through collaborations with other artists and architects and committing himself to meticulous standards and constant experimentation, De Poli brought the ancient craft into the modern era, becoming one of the greatest artists of the medium.

De Poli began his work in high-fired enameled metal in 1934 and his studio's initial output were colorful, jewel-like decorative objects such as cigarette cases and powder boxes. Though the studio was made to create small production runs, the popularity of these items quickly caught on and the studio steadily grew in both size and ambition. Smalti di De Poli, the company under which he produced his more widely-distributed designs, was officially established in 1937 and it offered a range of vases, tableware, frames, candlesticks and jewelry.

De Poli in his studio, circa 1950

De Poli began his prolific collaboration with Gio Ponti in 1944, debuting a collection of decorative panels and furniture with enameled surfaces at Ferruccio Asta in Milan. For the next decade, they worked together on numerous architectural projects, including buildings at the University of Padua and several ocean liners for which Ponti designed the interiors and De Poli created mosaics.

In the 1950s, after the war, Ponti and De Poli designed a collection of animal figures—Ponti folded and cut paper to create the angular and expressive forms and De Poli translated them into enameled copper in bright and captivating hues. Selections from this series were included in the influential exhibition Italy at Work: Her Renaissance in Design Today at the Art Institute of Chicago (it was also shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art) in 1950, bringing their charming appeal to a wider audience. The following year, De Poli received his third gold medal at the Milan Triennale for his recent works, including his and Ponti's lively animal sculptures.

Curators at the Art Institute of Chicago, reviewing De Poli's works for the exhibition Italy at Work, circa 1950; Catalog for De Poli's and Ponti's enameled animals, circa 1955. Photos: APV, De Poli photo archive

If we can speak of an Italian art of enamel, it is thanks to De Poli, to the road he opened up and followed faithfully...and we should be grateful to him for...a sincere artist's life, a vocation which has found its modern expression in a difficult, ancient and exquisite art—the art of enamel.

Gio Ponti

Gio Ponti

Gio Ponti excelled at painting as a child and expressed a fervent interest in the arts. Feeling that a career in architecture was preferable to that of a painter, Ponti’s parents encouraged him to pursue the former and in 1914 he enrolled at the Faculty of Architecture at the Politecnico di Milano. His studies were interrupted by war, and in 1915 he was forced to postpone his education. He served as a captain in the Pontonier Corps until 1919, earning multiple military honors. After graduating in 1921, Ponti married Giulia Vimercati, the daughter of local aristocracy and started an architecture firm. During this time, Ponti aligned himself with the neoclassical movement, Novecento and championed a revival of the arts and culture. In 1928, Ponti founded Domus, a periodical tailored to artists and designers, as well as the broader public. A shift occurred in the 1930s when Ponti took up a teaching post at his alma mater, the Politecnico di Milano. In search of new methods to express Italian modernity, Ponti distanced himself from the sentiments of Novecento and sought to reconcile art and industry. Together with the engineers, Eugenio Soncini and Antonio Fornaroli, Ponti enjoyed great success in the industrial sector, securing various commissions throughout Italy. In the 1950s, he gained international fame with the design of the Pirelli Tower in Milan and he was asked to be a part of the urban renewal of Baghdad, collaborating with top architects from around the world. His 1957 book, Amate l’architettura, is considered to be a microcosm of his work —an incredible legacy spanning art, architecture, industrial design, publishing and academia.

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