The Superleggera Chair: A Model of Lightness and Comfort
The Superleggera Chair Designed by Gio Ponti
“By subtracting inert matter and weight, finding the ‘limit’ of the form with the structure, wisely without virtuoso gestures, respecting utility and the exact solidity.”
– Gio Ponti, on the Superleggera Chair
The beauty of the Superleggera chair is light, strong, elegant, and simple.
When is a chair not just a chair? That’s when the seat in question is the Superleggera chair, originally designed in 1949 but not produced and marketed broadly until 1957 by premium Italian furniture maker Figli di Amadeo Cassina. Designed by iconic Italian designer Gio Ponti and named for its lightweight and streamlined profile, the Superleggera chair defined a new day for functional, highly appealing, and elegant design within the larger wave of modernist innovation.
By the 1950s, Ponti was already a world-renowned, multifaceted designer and, without a doubt, the man that better personified the assertive “Made in Italy” motto in postwar Europe. From his contributions to small ceramics at the Richard Ginori pottery factory to monumental modernist architectural endeavors such as the Pirelli Tower in Milan, Ponti always revealed his ability to manifest the elements of modern design while also paying homage to the key styles and techniques of the past. It was during the 1940s that Ponti became particularly invested in modernist practice and the use of others’ designs as a springboard for innovation, which is how the Superleggera chair came to be.
The Chiavari chair was the inspiration for the Superleggera chair.
During the late 1940s, Ponti had the good fortune to visit the coastal Italian town of Chiavari, along the northern shores of the region of Liguria, east of Genoa. While there, he happened to contemplate the Chiavari chair, a chair that had grown to become so synonymous with the city that it was named after it. The chair was the idea of Marquis Stefano Rivarola, who commissioned Giuseppe Gaetano to create it in 1807. The chair’s design was based on a Louis XV chair model owned by the marquis, which featured a style marked by curved forms, lightness, and comfort. The Chiavari chair was indeed a refined chair typically crafted in maple or cherry that also exuded a sense of delicate lightness, yet with a marked neoclassical style.
Gio Ponti inspired a new vision of modernity and comfort with the Superleggera chair.
For Ponti, though, this chair’s refinement and its embracement of lightness and comfort could be pushed even further. Seeking to revolutionize the Chiavari concept for this relatively quotidian yet undeniably striking chair, in 1949, Ponti designed his first Superleggera chair by significantly simplifying its style and replacing the heavier maple frame with a lighter combination of maple and wild cherry and whittling away the mass and ornaments of the overall chair. Ponti streamlined the legs and frame to a mere 18 millimeters of thickness but avoided a strict modernist doctrine for its design. Instead, Ponti used angles and curves not only to conform with ergonomic principles for comfort but also to avoid the rigidity of some modern approaches to design.
This first iteration of the Superleggera chair was not made in Chiavari but was industrially produced by the experienced furniture makers of Meda, outside Milan. Since its first 1949 design drawings until 1957, when the chair was first made by Cassina, the Superleggera went through several design and manufacturing variations that ensured its comfort, resistance, light weight, and viable production cost. The improvements that Gio Ponti made for the 1957 version of the Superleggera chair for Cassina included utilizing the less expensive and equally light ash wood, changing the angle of the back legs, and going from three to two curved bars in the back seat.
The Superleggera chair: A commercial success based on simplicity, practicality, and elegance.
Though surprisingly light and thin in its construction—in total, it weighs in at 1.7 kilograms, or 3.7 pounds—Ponti’s chair was also incredibly durable thanks to its slot-together joints and its close-grained seat base, which could bear the weight of any impact or person. Indeed, Ponti was even rumored to test the durability of his chair by launching it from a fourth-story window. Rather than smash when it hit the ground below, it bounced and survived. Add in the raked top of the chair to make the sitter’s experience all the more ergonomic, and Ponti’s chair became an instant classic for its clean style, clear strength, and compelling comfort.
This powerful combination of simplified strength made the Superleggera an immensely popular creation. Aesthetically pleasing while also groundbreaking in its lightweight design, this chair is still in production more than half a century later.