The Fantasy Makers

When, in 2013, one century after the birth of Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988), the design museum of the Milan Triennial dedicated a comprehensive and unprecedented exhibition to the artist and Italian designer, it was possible to appreciate the scope of his work under one roof. Curated by his son Barnaba, guardian of the family’s estate and currently in charge of the Fornasetti collection, the exhibition paid worthy tribute to Piero and revealed his endless capacity for creation, which culminated in the production of more than 11,000 products over the course of his career.


“My father was a unique person, a genius,” said Barnaba Fornasetti in a French documentary, adding, “My father was tough, authoritarian, difficult, but at the same time he could be ironic, he had a very British style of humour, and I want to keep this tradition alive. I think that my father invented a new artistic technique; he began to collect images from around the globe, from various periods; he was a true collector of images; he would tear them out of magazines and out of books, some of great value, but he would tear them out anyway.”


Thrown out of the Brera Academy for unruliness in 1932, where he was studying design, Piero Fornasetti was always a rebel, a person with his own mind, dedicated to creating his own world, a magical universe, full of images, colour and fantasy. “I don’t believe in periods or dates. I simply don’t believe in them. I refuse to determine the value of an object by its date. I don’t limit myself, and nothing is too esoteric to be used as inspiration. I want to free my inspiration from the limitations of the usual. But I am also a rationalist… We have the habit of buying ‘signatures’, and no longer invest in beautiful things that we like. An artist who wants to be successful is no longer an artist; he is just a person who wants to have success. If the artist conforms to fashion, he’ll arrive there too late, because by now everyone has already conformed,” said Piero Fornasetti at the time.


Constantly challenging the status quo, and armed with an insatiable curiosity, Piero Fornasetti became a true renaissance man of the 20th century, someone who wasn’t afraid of taking a risk or going against the aesthetic trends of the moment. Standing out as a painter, sculptor, interior designer and book engraver, the Milanese artist eventually found the perfect patron to present his unique style to an international public in architect Gio Ponti. Having grabbed Ponti’s attention during the 1930s with his printed silk scarves, Fornasetti would end up meeting the then editor of Domus magazine in 1940, who would come to invite him to take part in many of his projects, including the creation of frescos for the Palazzo Bo in Padua or the interiors of the Casa Lucano (called the Casa di Fantasia) in Milan, of San Remo Casino and of the luxurious transatlantic liner Andrea Doria, which ended up sinking off the coast of Nantucket, in the United States, in 1956. 


However, the partnership between Ponti and Fornasetti proved to be more prolific in the production of objects and furniture. With the aim of combining craftsmanship, industry and art – something “utopian” according to Barnaba Fornasetti, given his opinion of industry focusing on nothing but quantity and not quality -, the pieces they produced together were a breath of fresh air at the time, combining the simple and timeless forms of Ponti with the neoclassical patterns of Fornasetti. Inspired by the metaphysical, surrealist painting of artists such as Alberto Savino, Giorgio de Chirico or Alberto Magnelli, and with a clear nod to Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso, Fornasetti’s creations mixed classicism with irony, combining a series of universes and ideas, placing any period or style on the same level.


The ‘Leopardo’ chest of drawers and the ‘Trumeau’ bar, two of Fornasetti’s best known pieces, offer an excellent example of the perfect symbiosis between the architect and the artist. While the curved form has become the perfect base for a hand painted natural impression in ‘Leopardo’, in ‘Trumeau’, a combination of bar, sideboard and desk, an intricate architectural pattern fully covers the straight-lined piece. In both, the special notion of decoration developed by Fornasetti and Ponti is particularly striking for them having found a way of decorating pieces without influencing form, as if the drawings were projected onto the surfaces.


Although Fornasetti was at the height of his popularity in the 1950s, and had also been given the Neiman-Marcus Award for his “distinctive service in the field of fashion”, the artist and designer suffered with the onset of a new aesthetic sensitivity in the following decade. Seeing himself as the “right man in the wrong era”, he never abandoned his incredible and fascinating world, refusing to give into the premises of modernism, which ‘prohibited’ ornamentation, non-functional form, and historical and naturalist references.


Having lived to see the revival in interest in his work, with the opening of the London shop ‘Themes and Variations’ in 1980, Fornasetti found the perfect successor to continue his aesthetic tradition in his son Barnaba (1950). Creative, dedicated and just like his father, impervious to outside aesthetic influences, Barnaba Fornasetti is a unique character, incorporating the true spirit of eccentricity the Fornasetti name is associated with. In the family home in Milan, a veritable cabinet of curiosities of modern times, packed with books, prints and objects from the entire visual universe of the brand, the heir finds his inspiration to continue and develop the Fornasetti legacy.


“Our work is to faithfully reissue the work created by my father, maintaining the quality and production techniques, as well as developing reinventions, which use the original designs, instilling them with new life through modern interpretations,” explains Barnaba.


In addition to continuing to release successful collections such as ‘Tema & Variazioni’, a fascinating series of more than 350 variations, inspired by the face of opera singer Lina Cavalieri (1874-1944), applied to the most varied of products, Barnaba has exemplarily maintained craftsmanship in the brand’s studio in Milan. Just as in the past, every decal of the designs is applied and painted by hand; the furniture and limited editions are built, painted and polished by the hands of experienced craftsmen, all under the watchful eye of the heir. Having taken the name of the brand even further, with the latest collaboration with Valentino proof of this, Barnaba continues to preserve and recreated the Fornasetti universe, bringing pleasure, humour, provocation and meaning to everyday objects, pursuing the tradition of the “magician and of his precious and precise magic”, as Pablo Neruda described his friend Piero Fornasetti.

Originally published in Essential Macau magazine