How Piero Fornasetti’s Enduring Influence Can Still Be Felt Today

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Piero FornasettiPhotography by Franco Petazzi, courtesy of Fornasetti

As the Italian artist’s playful works land in an ancient Roman palazzo, Thea Hawlin sits down with his son to discuss their unending appeal

“What I look for in an object,” Italian artist, sculptor and interior designer Piero Fornasetti once said, “is humanity’s footprint.” With his penchant for suns, elaborate bouquets and large-lidded eyes in monochrome, the distinctive decorative language that Fornasetti developed over the course of his lifetime established his work as both universal and unique. And his influence endures: this spring, 30 years after its founder passed away, over 800 pieces by the Milanese design atelier are scattered in the heart of Rome, within the ancient Palazzo Altemps.

There’s a resonance to placing Fornasetti pieces within a historical structure. “No matter how Athena, Ares, or even a less hieratic Bacchus, drunk and supported by a Satyr, may seem to come from a planet far away in space and time,” his son Barnaba explains, “it is unquestionably here that the roots of our culture are still to be found today.” The show has a characteristic levity: a pile of smashed Fornasetti plates seems to have fallen from a fresco; drawings of noses mock busts that miss them; ceramic cats sit among ruins (a Roman sight if ever there was one); an ornate Fender Stratocaster is placed teasingly beside a warrior statue without fingers “as if he lost them playing too much,” Barnaba notes gleefully. There isn’t a single piece that sits quietly.

It’s the sense of play that is perhaps most striking about Fornasetti’s entire aesthetic; for a brand so steeped in tradition and artistry it remains unafraid of fun, achingly contemporary at every turn. Barnaba, the brand’s current artistic director, reminds us constantly how “I was born in this context and my imagination has been forged by it”. He remembers how Piero refused to determine the value of an object by its date, declaring “I don’t limit myself... nothing is too esoteric to be used as inspiration. I want to free my inspiration from the limitations of the usual.”

An early fascination with architecture led Piero Fornasetti to use symbolic forms, such as obelisks. His playful approach to these structures established what would become one of the constants in his art, in which “all sense of proportion disappears, points of reference waver, and the eye drifts freely in the untethered geometry of illusion”. No detail is too small, and no object too big: a Palladian building is miniaturised to adorn a chest of drawers; a vast hydrangea leaf covers an entire tea-tray; the perfectly proportioned face of a belle époque opera singer becomes a canvas to be adorned again and again.

Barnaba recalls his father as a man who “worked without resting” – a fiercely prolific figure who produced over 13,000 objects in his lifetime. Although he was “fairly irascible and authoritarian”, for his son he was a fortifying influence: “He strengthened my character,” Barnaba muses. “He taught me to fight – to resist conformism and mediocrity.” Wise advice. Although his boundless creativity “could often at times run contrary to the rules of the market,” as Barnaba recalls, Fornasetti garnered a dedicated following, and his company’s commitment to its Italian roots remains a central component of its contemporary design process. In fact, avoiding the temptations of fast fashion has been one of the reasons the studio has matured so well. By renewing the workshop tradition, part and parcel of Barnaba’s job remains reviving the most popular pieces and creating new ones. It’s a duality that caters to the relaxed pace of innovation the label is famous for, what Barnaba dubs ‘slow-design’. “I prefer growing in quality rather than quantity,” he observes astutely. “I think that our brand shouldn’t grow up too fast.”

The very fact that Barnaba sees Fornasetti as still growing speaks to its unending appeal. It’s both an old staple of the design world, and simultaneously an excitable child. The company’s famous affinity for alliances has been a large part of its continued success. Barnaba’s father famously collaborated with architect and designer Gio Ponti at the very start of his career. In contrast, for a production of Mozart’s Opera Il Dissoluto Punito Ossia il Don Giovanni in 2016, the studio he left behind him excitingly shared in the entire artistic direction of the show, once again pushing the boundaries of creative convention.

For this latest collaboration it was important for Barnaba to ensure that the experience was in no way exclusive or rigid. Instead he sought to provide a “richly stimulating ambiance” where an audience is left to freely devise its own itinerary from a multiverse “that does not explain but rather bewilders and nudges”. Fornasetti’s creations are rarely silent, but in this exhibition their voices feel amplified.

Citazioni Pratiche runs until May 6, 2018 at Palazzo Altemps, Rome.