design Maestro



design Maestro
design Maestro
BBC Antiques Roadshow specialist Marc Allum delves into the
bizarre world of Italian designer Fornasetti – the ‘designer of dreams’
Above Plates
featuring the face
of Lina Cavalieri –
modern re-editions.
Left ‘Nastro con
fiori’ folding trolley in
wood and brass with
two tops in masonite.
Right Screen with the
decor ‘Tessuti’ on one
side and ‘Libreria’ on
the other side from
the late 1950s.
Opposite page
Fornasetti tile with
the eye of Lina
Cavalieri, Ceramica
Bardelli, currently in
PHOTOgraphs courtesy of Fornasetti Milan, photograph of stick stand and far left plate courtesy of Fieldings Auctioneers.
wenty years ago I went to an
exhibition; it turned my world upside
down. The V&A were holding a major
retrospective – Fornasetti: Designer of
Dreams. Until that point my interests had
been largely occupied by the 18th and 19th
centuries, preferring the elegance of the
Regency period or the masterful excesses
of the Gothic revival; rarely had I entered
the 20th century. Here, all of a sudden, was
something different, it literally took hold
of me, slapped me around the face and
opened my mind to a whole new concept
in design.
Above ‘Moor’ c.1955,
lacquered, screenprinted plywood and
metal chair. Still in
production. Above
right Desk ‘Chiavi e
Pistole’ gold and silver
on black. Right and
above far right Plates
featuring the face of
Lina Cavalieri. Far
right ‘Architeturra’,
bureau, circa 1952, Piero
Fornasetti and Gio Ponti.
18 | Period Homes & Interiors
August 2011
Piero Fornasetti was born in Milan in 1913.
I have no hesitation in calling him one of
the greatest designers of the 20th century;
however, to call Fornasetti a designer is
an extreme understatement. He began
drawing at a young age and won a place at
the Brera art school in Milan but was badly
suited to the rigid and traditional methods
of study at the academy; he was eventually
expelled, undoubtedly making him ever
more determined to follow his own ideals.
He exhibited his first canvasses in 1933
at the University of Milan and by the
1940s was well-established, working
with the likes of Venini and his long time
friend, collaborator and patron, Gio Ponti.
As an artist/illustrator, graphic designer
and craftsman, Fornasetti drew from a
wide range of influences. Essentially, he
decorated surfaces and although this
seems to be a simplistic explanation of
his work at first, he was a consummate
master at ‘covering’ other peoples objects,
expertly bringing the humblest everyday
items to life. ‘He makes objects speak’ said
Gio Ponti.
fornasetti’s medium
Fornasetti used a wonderful melange
of illusionism, architectural perspectives
to create some of the wittiest and most
delightful juxtapositions in 20th-century
design. Playing cards, fish, the moon and
the sun all feature heavily in his eclectic
decorative language; a language that
was universally applied to almost every
conceivable form. Ceramics, furniture,
ocean liners, interiors, fashion, bicycles,
lamps, wastepaper bins, the list is too
August 2011
long to mention here. He designed over
11,000 items and one, above all, made
the greatest impression on me at the
1991 exhibition. I suppose it was probably
the fact that Fornasetti, had, in the best
Italian tradition, borrowed and combined
architectural perspectives in bold black
and white (a signature ‘leitmotif’) with a
bureau bookcase designed by Gio Ponti,
to produce an iconic object of the 20th
century – ‘Architettura’. An example from
the original edition of 20 made in the
early 1950s sold for $140,000 in 1998.
It’s a concept that plays upon one’s ‘dusty’
historical knowledge and re-invents it for
a modern age; perspectives ‘stolen’ from
the great cabinets of curiosity; similarly,
the dome of one of the world’s greatest
buildings, the Pantheon, printed on the
inside of a porcelain bowl – simple, elegant
and perfect.
It’s Fornasetti’s ability to perform a cerebral
historical decoupage that most endears
me to his designs, reinventing references
that are already present in your head; the
romantic notion of a ‘highwayman’s’ pistol
rearranged onto the side of a wastepaper
bin, the luscious lure of malachite printed
onto a bicycle frame, the playful gilded ‘F’
shaped handle of an umbrella – Fornasetti
knew no limits. His surrealist influences
are obvious but his historical knowledge
of styles such as Mannerism, NeoClassicism and the Renaissance combine
with Fornasetti’s fervent imagination to
reproduce an endless array of humorous
and eclectic designs; an ashtray, a tie, these
are the affordable objects that can put the
everyday collector in touch with this great
man and prices start at as little as £50.
collector’s pieces
Vintage Fornasetti has an understandably
strong following with rare and early pieces
of furniture such as screens and writing
tables making tens of thousands of pounds.
Following on from his father’s death in
1988, Barnaba has continued to ensure
that the high standards of Fornasetti’s
work are continued, issuing strictly limited
editions and granting some exclusive
licenses to companies such as Cole & Son
who manufacture the iconic Fornasetti
‘Tema & Varazioni’ (Theme and Variations)
wallpaper. This surrealist reworking of the
face of Lina Cavalieri, a 19th-century opera
singer, is one of his most recognisable and
recurrent designs produced in over 500
different versions and still in production
today. This exclusivity will continue to
ensure the integrity of Fornasetti’s designs
for future collectors and no doubt will
also ensure that prices remain stable for
expensive re-editioned ‘investment’ pieces
such as furniture.
All Fornasetti editions are clearly marked
and anything made after his death is
dated, but beware, there have been fakes
appearing on the market! Given his diverse
and eclectic output, pieces frequently
appear at auction and objects can be
purchased both on the High Street and
from specialist dealers. &IPH
Where to see & Where to buy
• Spazio Fornasetti – Fornasetti Milan
Store +39 02 89 65 80 40, www.
• Themes & Variations – Post War
Contemporary Design, London.
020 7727 5531,
• Ceramica Bardelli – Fornasetti ceramics
and tiles. +39 02 90 25 181,
• Holly Johnson Antiques, Knutsford,
Cheshire, 01260 253110,
• Fieldings Auctioneers,
Stourbridge, 01384 444140,
• Woolley & Wallis Auctioneers,
Salisbury, 01722 424500,
• Milk Concept Boutique, Shoreditch
High Street, London, 020 7729 9880,
further Reading
• Fornasetti – Designer of Dreams
by Patrick Patrick Mauriès, Thames &
Hudson, 1991.
• Fornasetti (Memoire) by Barnaba
Fornasetti and Philippe Starck,
Assouline, 2005.
• Fornasetti: The Complete Universe by
Barnaba Fornasetti, Rizzoli
International Publications, 2010.
Period Homes & Interiors | 19