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Photo Courtesy of Fornasetti

Discovering the Fornasetti Magic

Everything you ever wanted to know about this hugely popular and quirky Italian design house.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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