Ahead of our 18 July Design auction, Specialist Otto Billstrom explores iconic italian designer, Piero Fornasetti who drew inspiration from Italian Classicism, the contemporary surrealist movement, and his encounters with African aesthetics, eventually forging a unique visual aesthetic that captivated the world.
28 June 2023
Born in 1913 to an affluent Milanese family, Piero Fornasetti was in his early years destined for commerce and industry, with him being the heir apparent to the family’s business. However, through the exhibition of early traits artistic polymathy, producing landscape paintings and portraits, he was sent to the academies to hone these skills. His formal training, however, was defined by rebellion and secessionism from the conventional arts, seeing him expelled of two of the most prestigious academies in Italy, seeking his own path instead.
A set of ten Italian Fornasetti 'Palloni' porcelain plates (£2,500-3,500)
Deriving a visual aesthetic based on Italian Classicism, Piero’s work derived its inspiration from the works of Piranesi frescoes, sculpture, and architecture, allowing these to be influenced by the contemporary surrealist movement and the African shapes and aesthetics encountered whilst there on a study grant in the late 1930s. These initially caught the eye of a contemporary of Fornasetti, architect and designer Gio Ponti in 1939 with the two forming a highly successful collaboration spanning the next two decades. Whilst starting relatively small, producing calendars during World War II, the years following its end saw their production move to far more ambitious pieces, including sculptural pieces of furniture, screen printed with various designs, ranging from trompe l'oeil motifs to architectural facades.
An Italian 'Sole' chair (£3,000-5,000)
This was achieved by a highly unusual production method, in where each component designed by Ponti had a corresponding lithograph with a motif designed by Fornasetti which were then screen printed onto the surfaces, before being sealed in with varnish. One of the earliest known examples of this technique is the ‘Architettura’ trumeau currently in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Looking at it today, the combination of styles is apparent, with the front exhibiting architectural precision of Piranesi, with the sides decorated as the brick façade – almost serving as a close of the buildings seen on the front. The technique also ensured the reproducibility of the pieces, many of which were produced throughout the 20th century, and are still produced by the Fornasetti company to this day.
An Italian 'Architeturra' centre table (£15,000-20,000)
In 1952 Fornasetti would have the breakthrough in what would become his legacy. Flicking through a magazine he came across the image of Lina Cavalieri, the renowned Italian opera soprano once known as the most beautiful woman in the world. Becoming obsessed, Piero started incorporating the image of Cavalieri, who at this point had been dead for eight years, into all facets of his work, giving birth to the ‘Tema e Variazioni’ or ‘Themes and Variations’ series.
A group of five Italian Fornasetti 'Tema e Variazioni' porcelain plates (£200-400)
A play on the musical term of ‘variation’ in which a composition is repeated, but with an altered cadence, beat or melody, Gio Ponti remarked ‘Variation is not only a noble endeavour or a musical exercise, but also an intellectual tradition and virtuosity of the imagination’. Throughout his life, Cavalieri’s image would appear in over 350 various designs, from plates and objects to larger pieces of furniture and wallpaper. Still widely interpreted by interior designers and artists to this day, numerous tributes and homages are still being created to the point of ubiquity, with most people having seen the design in some iteration at some point in their lives.
An Italian 'Bighe' umbrella stand (£1,500-2,000)
Fornasetti once said ‘I was born into a family with the worst kind of good taste, and I make terrible good taste the key to the liberation of the imagination’, and throughout his life he never stopped this creative process. Creating continuously until his death in 1988, after which his son, Barnaba, with whom he started working in the early eighties took over the company and mantle, Piero created a legacy and infinite imagination celebrated to this day.
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