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 collaborating 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.