Gio Ponti and Otto Gerdau Imports
What’s in a name? When it comes to Mid Century Modern designs, the name can mean everything. Take for example the four chairs I recently bought for an irresistible price at a local consignment shop. I was certain they were Gio Ponti makes, but they were labeled Otto Gerdau Imports. My super sleuthing instincts took over and I began to research the name.
A common misconception about the Otto Gerdau label on those fabulous superleggere (super light) chairs, originally designed by Ponti is that Gerdau was neither a designer nor an Italian. Otto Gerdau was the name of an importing business run by a German family in New York City from 1872 until 1989. True origin of the Italian designer for these chairs is unknown, though I suspect they are Ponti makes. The Gerdau folks may very well have contracted with Ponti to import them for their business, but unfortunately, there is no evidence to support this in the research I have done.
While Ponti’s fame for Mid-Century Italian design is indisputable (see link http://www.gioponti.com/chairs/), the Gerdau firm is shrouded in mystery from what I could glean from on-line sources. Primary references about the company are limited, but at the time Ponti’s chairs were being manufactured in Italy, a somewhat eccentric man by the name of Allan Gerdau was at the helm of Gerdau imports.
According to an archives document for the Otto Gerdau (native of Hamburg, Germany and founder and father to Allan) Collection, 1876-1900, Allan died in October of 1986 and the company’s wealth was left in trust to three unnamed religious institutions, despite Gerdau having four living daughters. The company was sold in 1989 to an unnamed Florida industrialist. Gerdau had been responsible for a highly successful import business (originally for the purchase and sale of ivory) that included the importation of rattan, mother of pearl, rugs from India and marble furniture from Italy from 1920 until his death.
In addition to his questionable will, Gerdau was known for buying ads in the NY Times that were controversial, conservative and towards the end of his life, religiously fanatic. “His first half-page advertisement on Sept.28, 1967 in the New York Times, replied to an advertisement by a California clothing manufacturer who had asked President Lyndon B. Johnson not to seek renomination in hopes that a successor could end the Vietnam War. Mr. Gerdau’s response urged friendly discussion. It said in part: “Our Opponents do not expect to beat us on the battlefield. They hope to beat us with your unwitting aid and the aid of those who try to win others to your belief.” Mr. Gerdau said in an interview about his $3,400 ad, “I’m not a flag-waving person, but sometimes one just has to stand up.”
An advertisement in 1981 urged striking air controllers to apologize to the President and return to work. Last year (1985) He suggested to South Africans, black and white, that they overcome their differences through love and set an example for the world” (NY Times 10/18/1986).
Though I had hoped to answer my question about the origin of the Ponti style chairs through my investigations, I still don’t have a definitive answer, but back to my original question what’s in a name? Everything when it comes to Mid Century labels and if we are lucky, much more. Here’s to all the movers and the shakers of the design industries in the 20th Century. Here’s to the quirky history that surrounds them.