Mid-century master

Piero Fornasetti’s boundless imagination and energy was applied to an immense array of furniture and decorative arts, leaving a legacy of thousands of individual designs.

How does one begin to describe the Italian artist and designer Piero Fornasetti (1913-88)?

His boundless imagination and energy were applied to an immense array of furniture and decorative arts, leaving a legacy of thousands of individual designs. Fornasetti reached the zenith of his popularity in the 1950s, only to have his idiosyncratic style fall from favor in the late ’60s. His work was rediscovered in the ’80s and today his charming designs are more popular than ever. His works are highly collectible and have inspired a host of imitators.

Trompe l’oeil Ombrelli umbrella stand, circa 1950-70, sold for $3,125 (estimate $800-$1,200). Courtesy Rago Arts and Auction.

Artistic and headstrong from an early age, Fornasetti ignored his parents’ pleas to pursue accounting and instead attended the Brera Art Academy in Milan, where he was subsequently and summarily expelled for insubordination. At age 20, Fornasetti held his first exhibition of paintings and participated in his first Milan Triennale, the influential art and design fair. Fornasetti also began a fruitful decades-long collaboration with the architect Gio Ponti. Their works included almanacs, magazine covers, the zodiac-decorated private cabins for the fabled Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria and furniture featuring Ponti’s designs and Fornasetti’s decoration. Among the most renowned pieces are the architettura trumeaux, or bureau desks, that are decorated with Fornasetti’s drawings based on architectural prints.

At the height of Fornasetti’s popularity in the 1950s and early ’60s, his studio turned out all manner of furniture, lamps, screens, scarves, plates, umbrella stands and even decorated bicycles. Fornasetti’s favored motifs included the sun, playing cards, books, harlequins, musical instruments, armor, hands, shells and butterflies.

Running through Fornasetti’s works were a number of recurring themes. One was a taste for classical Italian art and architecture, with a particular focus on Pompeii, ancient Rome and works by Palladio and Piranesi. The backs of his chairs were formed as Corinthian columns; architectural motifs were applied to obelisks and Piranesi’s designs; and the domes of Italian churches appear on his ceramic plates.

Also integral to Fornasetti’s work was his interest in illusion. He was forever altering perspectives and playing with contrasts in scale, and this is particularly evident in his furniture and screens. Trompe l’oeil — a type of design intended to create the illusion of a three-dimensional object — is prominent his work. He employed this technique most dramatically in his “Stanza Metafisica” (1955-58), a series of screens that completely transformed the room in which they were placed, and playfully in his holiday villa, where he painted passageways that led nowhere.

Fornasetti was also inspired by the expressive power of the face, particularly the faces of women. This interest was manifested in combination with another key aspect of Fornasetti’s work — variation on a theme. The best-known result of this and the work most associated with Fornasetti was “Themes and Variations.” It features more than 350 variations of the same woman’s face — said to be inspired by the opera singer Lina Cavalieri. The variations were drawn in India ink to resemble an engraving and were primarily rendered on ceramic plates. The choice of a black-and-white palette in the series was another common theme found throughout Fornasetti’s work.

As Fornasetti’s style was so singular and unwavering over time, interest in his work inevitably began to wane. By 1970, his studio had shrunk from 30 employees in its heyday to only five. In the early ’80s, however, there was a resurgence in interest in Fornasetti’s work, largely credited to two London designers who opened a gallery named Themes and Variations, which began to sell select Fornasetti objects. With this renewed interest in his work, Fornasetti re-engaged and began a collaboration with his son Barnaba that would last until his death in 1988.

Sadly, Fornasetti didn’t live to see the exhibition of his works at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1991-92, which cemented his legacy as a master of decorative arts. Interest in his work and the firm itself both still thrive today. In 2015, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris held a retrospective of Fornasetti’s work, curated by Barnaba. Today, the Milan-based Fornasetti shop reissues and adapts some of the staggering number of his designs, which are all meticulously catalogued and archived. More locally, Fornasetti’s work is available at Barney’s, at auction and through vintage dealers.

Jad Attal, Rago’s specialist in 20th- and 21st-century design, notes that Fornasetti’s prodigious and diverse output over so many years has resulted in a market that’s not easy to grapple with. As demand for Fornasetti’s work has grown, you encounter a mix of period pieces, later productions and even outright fakes. The Ponti/Fornasetti period pieces are the most valuable — a sideboard and dining suite brought $240,000 and $173,000 at auction, respectively. 

The trumeaux and other case furniture are also quite valuable. The period pieces are more desirable but later limited-run productions can still bring prices in the tens of thousands at auction. Also highly sought after are the more whimsical and ubiquitous pieces, like umbrella stands and lamps that feature trompe l’oeil, strong graphics and bright colors. 

If you just want to get your Fornasetti feet wet, the mass-produced black-and-white ceramics are more approachable. Ultimately, Attal says, “People buy visually. They buy Fornasetti with their eye.”

For more, see “Patrick Mauriès, Fornasetti: Designer of Dreams” (1991) and “Piero Foransetti, Practical Madness” (2015), or contact Jenny at  jenny@ragoarts.com or 917-745-2730. 

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