Piero Fornasetti, one of the most notable designers and artists of the 20th century, created an eternal image inspired by the face of the poised Italian soprano Lina Cavalieri. We take a look at his legend that lives through his son Barnaba and the Fornasetti home in Milan.
Many of us recognise the images; sharp and alluring contrasts of black and white faces across porcelain plates, chairs and other household items. But the story and the man behind them extend far beyond the au courant iconography.
Often celebrated as one of the most ground-breaking illustrators, artists and designers of the 20th century, Piero Fornasetti had his hands on more kinds of art than many of us see in a life time. He was known as a pioneer; an engraver of books, a creator, sculptor, painter, designer and illustrator. In terms of variety, his production of objects and furniture is one of the most expansive of the 20th century.
Piero grew up in Milan, and attended the Brera Art Academy in the early 1930s. That was short-lived, as his unconventional demeanor quickly got him expelled. After World War II began, he went into exile in Switzerland. It was during this time, away from his homeland, that Piero found himself besotted and inspired by the almond-eyes, pouty almost heart-shaped lips and slender nose of opera’s superstar soprano Lina Cavalieri. Piero first came across the woman’s face in a 19th century magazine and it became the focal theme used in thousands of his creations.
Lina was rather well-known in Europe for her extravagant lifestyle, having been married four times, one of which to a Russian prince. She frequented opera houses in Paris, St Petersburg and New York, and was known as a muse to many. Most notably, Fornasetti. When asked, though, why his pieces comprised a semblance of Lina, a woman he never even met, his response was rather vague: “I don’t know. I began to make them and I never stopped.”
Although Piero created more than 13,000 pieces, spanning from drawings to paintings to pieces of furniture, it is his assortment of plates, cushions and chairs adorned by Lina’s face that are most prominent. Though not many know the story behind the creations, her bemused, doe-eyed stare has seen many design shops, museums and showroom floors.
An array of wall plates
Many of the delineations of Lina were sweet and uncomplicated, encapsulating the perfect symmetry of her face, and her startling gaze. But it was the true mastery of Piero’s work when he began to play with Lina’s image, topping her petite lips with a mustache, decorating her delicacy with sharp clown make-up, a Zorro-style mask or adding tribal-like decorations to her cheeks. Some of this work was rather innovative for the era, and was not always received well, as the times were moving towards sleek, unpretentious modernism, and Piero was creating decidedly ornamental, quasi-classical works. Ahead of his time in more ways than one, he was quoted saying, “I do not believe in eras or times. I do not. I refuse to establish the value of things based on time.”
In 2013, the Triennale Design Museum in Milan opened a centenary showcase, displaying more than 1,000 of Piero’s objects, including many of the pieces featuring Lina. Many of these items now are worth triple the price of their estimated value.
Nowadays the legacy of Lina and Piero’s work is carried on by Piero’s son, Barnaba. According to Barnaba, the lasting allure of the pieces is hard to explain. He admits that there is something magical in her eyes, though he never really asked his father about her. For awhile, he never even knew the name of the mysterious woman who motivated his father’s designs. A profusion of renowned motifs have since materialised from the Fornasetti archive at the prowess of Barnaba’s hand. His obstinacy and devotion to the craft and to carrying on his father’s name is apparent, as Barnaba manages and maintains all in-house production and continues to reinterpret his father’s classic designs. The pieces are now often referred to as “re-inventions”, as Barnaba applies the decorative metaphors found in the immense Fornasetti archive to evolve the brand.
Until now, the Fornasetti Atelier, located in Milan, produces meticulously detailed handcrafted pieces utilising the same techniques that were used on the very first Fornasetti products. Colour is applied by hand and the original paper patterns are still employed. It’s a necessity, according to Barnaba, that the quality and bespoke appearance of the products is maintained throughout production, regardless of how heavy the flow of orders are.
The Fornasetti house, which is now Barnaba’s main home, features much of the iconic imagery of his father. As Piero often worked with images of sun, time and other Roman and Greek architectural motifs, they are common around the home. The studio section of the home, which Barnaba uses to create and re-design pieces, is outfitted with the Poliedri rug, and a fanciful curved chest of drawers known as Leopardo. A curved, yellow half-moon sits on the floor, holding books and magazines next to a mid-century French-style love seat. The painted door in the room is named Paggi, adding a story-telling element to the studio. It is the very lived-in, magical quality of the Fornasetti home, where each object seemingly tells an enchanting story, that further augments the brand’s name.
While the entire home radiates an almost child-like, playful whimsy, the kitchen is one of the most lively of all the rooms. Outfit with the Ultime Notizie Fornasetti ceramic tiles by Ceramic Bardelli on the floor and the matching Ultime Notizie chairs, the kitchen is evocative of a field of butterflies. The kitchen cabinets were a prototype by Strato Cucine, and the walls are adorned with antique art from Barnaba’s collection.
Many creative individuals state that their atmosphere plays an important role in galvanising them into making and producing things. Undoubtedly Barnaba believes in this theory, as the several work spaces found in the home are charged with colour, imagery and warm lighting. His private office space, referred to as the “Yellow Studio” features a humble lemon-yellow Riga e Squadra desk, paired with the Moro chair and the large Quattro Stagioni rug, made of wool and hand-knotted silk. In the corner stands the mahogany antique piano, which Barnaba enjoys playing as well.
The monochrome bathroom, another testament to Lina and Piero’s fixation on the icon, includes Fornasetti glass and ceramic vases with Lina’s wide, blank expression. The walls are plastered with the Tema e Variazioni Fornasetti tiles also by Ceramic Bardelli. The strikingly modern hand-knotted wool Mano (which means hand in Italian) rug sits beside the tub. In the living room sits Barnaba, sporting a dapper coffee-coloured suit, below a collection of his fathers’ mirrors on the wall.
Through the quirky, inviting home of Barnaba Fornasetti, and the distinctive design of the Fornasetti Atelier, the name and mesmerising stare of Lina Cavalieri continue to live on.
Photography: Courtesy of Fornasetti