Discovering the Fornasetti Magic
Few successful design motifs escape being copied or replicated, even if it’s to uncanny, deceptive success. But one Italian designer, Piero Fornasetti, established a style so distinctive that it's hard to fake. He drew upon classic Italian subjects ranging from Renaissance architecture to 19th-century beauty Lina Cavalieri, adding a sense of irony and humor. Commonly known for the candles and collectible plates that recently stormed the home décor market, Fornasetti deserves a closer look to reveal the scope of Italian artist, illustrator, and printer who founded the brand. Ultimately, these delightful items only scratch the surface of Fornasetti's creations.
From his youth, Fornasetti defied convention. He eschewed the path to take over the family’s real estate business as his father had planned. Instead, the young Fornasetti followed his artistic leanings and enrolled at the Brera Academy in Milan, Italy, in 1932 and, then, the ESDi School of Design in Barcelona, Spain. He was expelled from both, finding his eccentric nature unable to conform to structured, higher learning.
Fornasetti the Printer
Throughout this period, Fornasetti taught himself engraving and printing techniques. Having a knack for the technical aspects, he practiced his skills until they landed him work with some of the most accomplished Italian contemporary multi-discipline artists of the time. Alberto Savinio Fabrizio Clerici, Giorgio de Chirico, Massimo Campigli, Lucio Fontana, Cascella, and Berman used him to print books and lithographs of their work. Soon, the Fornasetti Art Printshop became the standard-bearer for the industry.
Forever the experimenter, Fornasetti developed a proprietary method of printing graphic effects on silk scarves. He applied for the first Milan Triennale V in 1933, submitting his series of scarves. His project wasn't accepted, but it still garnered the attention of Italian master architect Gio Ponti. He would collaborate with the esteemed Ponti later in his career, having found a kindred design equal.
In the meantime, Fornasetti’s passion for inks, lettering, and printing led to his creation of limited-edition, graphic works. These included calendars, advertisements, posters, and theater programs. He also produced magazine editorials for publications like Domus, then curated by Ponti. His original style—equal parts wit and classical themes—continued to establish the artist’s signature look.
Piero Fornasetti and Gio Ponti
When World War II began, Fornasetti was recruited to design the Sant’Ambrogio barracks before he found refuge in Switzerland. This would prove to be one of his most creative periods. His works centered around the human body as he produced oil portraits, watercolors, and ink drawings. He continued making posters and theater pamphlets, adding stage design to his repertoire by making the set for a production of Caligula.
As Fornasetti and Ponti shared the same ambition to make simple daily items works of art for the average person’s home, the pair established the Fornasetti atelier in Milan at the dawn of the Fifties. Their enterprise was boosted when the duo designed the “Architettura” trumeau armoire for Triennal IX in 1951—a piece that encompassed their philosophy of functionality and decoration. A trumeau is an architectural piece that sits vertically and often highly ornate between the leaves of a doorway. The piece held both practical and decorative elements emblematic of the brand’s creations to this day; it came to symbolize Italy’s design reign in the post-war years.
During this time, the studio also designed progressive living spaces, most notably the Casinò di Sanremo apartment and Casa Lucano. They were also responsible for the look of the first-class cabins and lounges of the SS Andrea Doria. Though the ill-fated vessel capsized in 1956, the iconic “Zodiaco” suite featuring animal, anthropomorphic, and celestial elements would define the imaginative and fantastical brand motif for eternity.
Fornasetti's Most Iconic Designs
Although the “Architettura” trumeau propelled the fame of the Fornasetti brand, it was the “Theme and Variations” series that followed in 1952 that would forever cement Piero Fornasetti’s oeuvre. The artist found his muse, the opera singer and actress Lina Cavalieri. Fornasetti was inspired by the writing of Alberto Moravia, the Italian novelist prone to both anti-fascism and risqué, romantic texts who also found Cavalieri beguiling and enchanting.. By 1966, there would be 288 artistic representations of the famous Belle Époque–era “It” girl once dubbed the most beautiful girl in the world (yet whom Fornasetti had never met).
During the Fifties, Fornasetti also created his infamous La Stanza Metafisica (or, “Metaphysical Room”)—an architectural trompe l'œil work consisting of 32 hinged screens made as a room backdrop and place to meditate. He also created the famous Malachite, Soleil, and Libris prints that covered everything from chests of drawers, tables, and chairs to umbrella stands and magazine racks. Fornasetti's inventive decoration method covered these everyday objects in prints, much like wallpaper (which he also made).
Preserving Piero Fornasetti
By the time he passed away in 1988, Fornasetti's eclectic, ornate style had waned in favor of the Pop Art movement. His vast body of archives—of which at least 13,000 designs were recorded—was bequeathed to his son Barnaba, who carries on the family name creating "re-inventions" that further his father's themes.
Before his father passed, Barnaba collaborated with him on the “Archivettura” collection in 1985. This project would launch the younger Fornasetti in continuing his father’s work, reintroducing famous styles and new versions. For over 30 years, Barnaba furthered the Fornasetti name through fresh products, curating numerous exhibitions, releasing books, and restoring the treasure-filled family home. He gave Lina a male counterpart with the help of collaborator Nigel Coates, who created the Furio character, which digitally combined multiple iconic beauties.
Most notably, perhaps, Barnaba collaborated on exhibiting Piero's work at the V&A Museum in London and the Palazzo Ruspoli in Rome. For the first retrospective of his father’s life accomplishments, he curated a show in 2013 at the Triennale Design Museum with director Silvana Annicchiarico in Milan to commemorate the design house’s 100th anniversary. The show toured the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris as “Piero Fornasetti: La Folie Pratique” in 2015 and, later, Seoul’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza.
Even before the recent Louis Vuitton collection designed by Nicholas Ghesquière, Barnaba ventured into fashion. He collaborated with Lawrence Steele and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and he created a jewelry collection designed by his ex-wife, jeweler Betony Vernon. He also conceived the interior of the Parisian restaurant L'Eclaireur. Fornasetti's son was lauded in 2017, receiving a MAD Visionaries! award. He also sold a one-off piece he designed for $47,500 at a Phillips design sale in New York.
The Look of Fornasetti Today
Artistic director Barnaba Fornasetti’s contributions continue to enthrall and entice a new generation. “Theme and Variations” includes over 400 designs channeled via plates, candles, vases, chairs, and wallpapers, among other items. In 2016, this series of re-inventions was culled into one limited-edition volume. It became part of a theater set for the opera Don Giovanni staged by Fornasetti in Florence. In essence, each piece of the esteemed artist’s work was a piece of theater; it was more than just furniture or decoration but a living part of a stage. One of the most recent designs is a pool that is graced with the brand’s iconic patterns: Ortensia, which features Lina’s face peering through every different shade of the popular Hydrangea flower, was applied to Bisazza tiles adorning the L’Albereta Resort‘s pool in the Franciacorta region of Northern Italy.
The fascination for this prolific, 20th-century artist only continues to grow. In 2020, the brand expanded its offerings by opening a new space in Milan dedicated to the atelier’s custom-made service—which works with clients to create individual pieces of furniture or entire rooms customized by Fornasetti. But for the less initiated, there are more accessible ways to ease into the Fornasetti lifestyle, especially with the assistance of Nest Casa’s Sara Colombo. Be warned: owning just one piece is hard to do.