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Piero Fornasetti: Designer, Dreamer, Visionary

29th June 2018

Piero Fornasetti was an Italian painter, decorator and engraver widely regarded as one of the most prolific artists of the 20th century. He championed an original and refreshing creative style characterised by a unique sense of wit and whimsy, as well as making huge contributions to the field of applied arts through his range of furnishings and homewares, of which there are estimated to be over 13,000 pieces.

Artistic style

Fornasetti’s works have an instantly recognisable quality. He took his inspiration from books on science and metaphysics, Greek and Roman architecture, as well as everyday objects which he edited to make amusing or extraordinary in some way. Common motifs or themes running through his work include the sun, musical instruments, references to books and writing, clocks, machines and circus performers.

Fornasetti frequently worked entirely in black and white or greyscale, but sometimes added a bold splash of colour, which gave his works the mischievous edge loved by so many. His work echoes trompe l’oeil paintings but with a distinctly surrealist feel: a woman’s head on the body of a snake; a town built from playing cards; a carriage drawn by blue and gold horses – his designs play with reality, transforming otherwise ordinary forms into stunning works of art.

Right: Cabinet from the 'Architettura' collection by Piero Fornasetti and Gio Ponti, courtesy of Fornasetti.

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Cabinet from the 'Architettura' collection

Biography

Creative beginnings

Pierro Fornasetti was born in 1913 and lived most of his life in Milan. His only formal education was a two year period studying painting at the Accademia di Belle Arti, however the young artist felt he was not learning anything, and eventually was expelled for disobedience.

Piero and his wife Giulia

Above: Piero and his wife Giulia, courtesy of Fornasetti.

Instead, Fornasetti decided to develop his style independently by collecting, drawing from and cutting out sections of books, magazines and other documents to create and inspire his artworks. Though he started as a painter, he later moved on to printing, experimenting with different techniques in order to apply his designs to the surface of various objects. His first foray into this area was a selection of silk scarves printed using lithography, which he showcased at the Milan Triennale museum in 1933. 

Gio Ponti
Important bookcase by Ponti and Fornasetti
Dining set by Ponti and Fornasetti

The collection caught the eye of Gio Ponti, an Italian architect and publisher, and marked the beginning of a long and extremely successful period of collaboration for the pair. Gio Ponti became a kind of mentor to Fornasetti, offering advice on the more technical aspects of decoration as well as printing Fornasetti’s artworks in his journal. Together, they began applying art to objects such as cabinets, tables and umbrella stands to name just a few. Their most famous accomplishment was the "Architettura" collection of furniture, designed by Ponti and decorated by Fornasetti, which the two showcased in 1951 at the same museum where Fornasetti had presented his scarves almost 20 years earlier.

Throughout the 1950’s, they also worked on a number of interior decorating projects together, such as the San Remo Casino and the transatlantic ocean liner Andrea Doria.

Left: Gio Ponti; Bookcase, Piero Fornasetti and Gio Ponti. Italy, c. 1955; Madrepore dining suite, Piero Fornasetti and Gio Ponti. Italy, c. 1950-52. Courtesy of WRIGHT.

Tema e Variazioni

Perhaps Fornsetti’s most iconic work is Tema e Variazioni, a series of 350 plates bearing the face of Lina Cavalieri (1874-1944), an Italian opera singer and actress. Fornsetti first came across her face in a 19th century French magazine and went on to use it in many of his artworks. Her classic beauty and mysterious gaze, reimagined in many weird and wonderful situations (cross-eyed with a wasp perched on her nose or sticking her tongue out at the viewer) has become synonymous with Fornasetti’s whimsical take on a classic visual form.

Left: Wall plate No.1 Tema e Variazioni, courtesy of Fornasetti.

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Wall plate no.1 Tema e Variazioni

Later years

In 1970, together with a group of friends and fellow artists, Fornasetti opened his own gallery - Galleria dei Bibliofili, where he exhibited his works. As with his exit from formal education, this was yet another example of Fornasetti turning his back on the modern art scene in order to take control of and champion his own unique style.

Today, advances in technology mean his designs can be replicated in minutes, however Fornasetti created everything manually, leading some to credit him with founding what we now know as graphic design. His rejection of conventional styles of thinking and creating, together with his dedication to self-taught methods and his fascinating and seemingly unlimited imagination mark him as a true visionary, and his designs continue to amaze and amuse us over a century later.

Fornasetti store, Milan
Fornasetti store, Milan

Above: Fornasetti store in Milan, Italy. Courtesy of Fornasetti.

Continuing the Fornasetti legacy

Fornasetti died in 1988, leaving his collection of artwork and objects to his son, Barnaba, who continues his father’s legacy to this day, producing new designs under the Fornasetti name, as well as releasing and reworking original designs from his father’s extensive archive.

In recent years, Barnaba has turned the family home, where Piero Fornasetti grew up and created many of his artworks, into a shrine for the artist, displaying his many creations throughout the rooms. In 2015, he gave director Virgilio Villoresi a sneak peek in order to create a stop-motion video of the interiors, entitled Welcome Home:

Fornasetti for Cole & Son

Renowned design house Cole & Son are among just a handful of companies permitted to carry the Fornasetti license. Working alongside Barnaba Fornasetti, they have released two wallpaper collections using original designs as well as a murals collection, which consists of large scale versions of classic Fornasetti favourites, also available in custom sizes.

Fornasetti Collection

Fornasetti

Brand new for 2018, this collection fuses motifs from the miraculous mind and detailed hand of Fornasetti with the skilled craftsmanship and artistry of the Cole & Son design studio. All our favourites reimagined in new colour palettes guaranteed to inspire the imagination. 

Fornasetti II Collection

Fornasetti II

Comprising fifteen designs, Fornasetti II delivers a repertoire of magical themes within a collection of wallpapers that are at once iconic and covetable. Eccentric motifs of fantastical flying machines, architectural details, playful monkeys, keys and owls all evoke a theatrical and whimsical world.

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