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Situated in Garches, a well-heeled suburb a few kilometers west of Paris, the Villa L’Ange Volant (the Flying Angel) was the first commission outside Italy for famed architect and designer Gio Ponti. As I stand admiring the graceful façade, my heart is tugged between homesickness and pride.
For someone like me, born in Milan, Italy, the name Gio Ponti is as familiar as the most iconic building he designed in 1957 to house the Pirelli tiremaker headquarters, still dominating the Milanese skyline. Finding a perfectly preserved piece of his genius just a few miles from my Parisian home feels nothing short of serendipitous.
This mansion befits the special relationship Ponti had with the City of Light, where the young architect’s big international break came in 1925.
At a time when mixing design and architecture was still unheard of (at least in Italy), Ponti took a professional gamble and accepted the post of artistic director for Richard-Ginori, a storied porcelain maker in dire need of updating. The outcome, a collection presented at the Paris International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925, won him a Grand Prix in the ceramic category, and caught the eye of Tony Bouilhet, scion of the owners of the goldsmith and tableware company Christofle.
Around that time, Tony’s parents had decided to have a new country house erected near the recently inaugurated Saint Cloud golf course. Imported from across the Channel, golf was a new pastime that took the French upper classes by storm.
It took all of Tony’s power of persuasion to convince his parents to hire the young Ponti, virtually unknown in France, at a time when seasoned modernist architects like Perret, Le Corbusier and Mallet-Stevens were busy designing similar mansions in the area.
Sophie Bouilhet-Dumas, Tony’s granddaughter and one of the curators of the 2018 Ponti retrospective at MAD Paris, fondly recalls the strong connection between Tony and Gio. The two men not only shared a passion for design and innovation, but also a more personal link, through Ponti’s niece, Carla Borletti. Ponti had introduced her to Tony on her Paris trip to visit her uncle. Carla ended up extending her trip, the two fell in love and got married, the wedding party taking place at the recently completed Ange Volant.
The couple went on to have four children, who spent many a happy moment here. It is now down to Tony’s granddaughter, Sophie Bouilhet Dumas, and her sister Mary Bouilhet to take care of the property for posterity.
Recently the house was lovingly restored, bringing back some of the original features Ponti had designed and showcasing an authentic slice of the dolce vita in this well-to-do Parisian suburb.
Indeed, Gio Ponti’s Italian inspiration is everywhere. In the serene proportions of the low building, obeying the rules of the golden ratio and inspired by Ponti’s study of the Palladian villas (notably, Villa Foscari, also known as La Malcontenta) during his stint in the military in the Veneto region during the Great War. In the classical broken pediments and columns adorning the façade. In the wide expanse of windows, unusual in this part of the hemisphere, bathing the rooms in light even on an overcast February morning.
Indoors, it shines through in the floors that look like terrazzo intarsia but, upon closer inspection, reveal to be French cement tiles, the art of terrazzo at that time still unmastered on this side of the Alps. It feels elating in the open-plan living room, spanning almost the entire width of the house, decorated in pale blues and yellows, with frescoes of entwined Bs, for Bouilhet and Borletti.
Sophie Bouilhet-Dumas’s passion for L’Ange Volant radiates as she recalls the history of each painting, each piece of furniture and each decorative object, testament to her family’s lasting and affectionate connection to Gio Ponti. There are original sketches of the house, letters written to Bouilhet when Ponti worked on iconic designs to be produced by Christofle, the occasional holiday postcard and many of the illustrated letters Ponti was famed for. There is also an original prototype of a Superleggera chair, which remains a bestseller today for Cassina, the Italian furniture maker, more than 60 years since its launch. It is worse for wear, a clear sign that the house has been truly lived in and enjoyed since Ponti finished it in 1927.
The family still spends happy moments here but today, Sophie Bouilhet-Dumas and Marie Bouilhet, conscious that the heritage of Gio Ponti is to be celebrated and shared, graciously welcome guests to their residence not only for architectural tours, but also for short stays and celebrations. The guest rooms, recently redecorated, are a further homage to the career of Gio Ponti, and his creativity that spanned all the decorative arts, from fabrics to lighting. They are cozy but light, the cheerful colors of Italy on the soft furnishings and the ceramic tiling of the luxurious bathrooms. (There is much blue, the azure of the sea, but also the yellow of the sun.)
I can easily picture spending some time at L’Ange Volant with my family, enjoying the summer breeze in the garden while the kids play in the pool, a cocktail in hand after a day in Versailles, less than 20 minutes drive from here, or a watching world-class tennis matches at nearby Roland Garros stadium. Are you too dreaming of a slice of the dolce vita for your next Parisian stay?
For more information about L’Ange Volant in Garches, to book a stay, a cocktail reception, or an architectural tour, visit the official website.
Lead photo credit : Photo credit © Christina Vervitsioti
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