In 2013, on the occasion of the centenary of Piero Fornasetti’s birth, the Triennale Design Museum in Milan presented a first grand and unprecedented exhibition of the artist’s work, curated by Barnaba Fornasetti. Triennale Design Museum decided to pay tribute to Fornasetti to underscore the artist’s role and to present a new and accurate reading of his work in the context of the critical and theoretical debate on ornament as a structural element of design.
In 2015, this exhibition travelled with great success to Paris in the majestic spaces of the Decorative Arts Museum.
The Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul houses the first Asian stopover of “Fornasetti Practical Madness” show in the Exhibition Hall (1,216m2) from 22nd November 2016 to 19th March 2017.
Triennale Design Museum comes back in Korea carrying on its mission in promoting and elevating Italian design in the world.
[The exhibition’s path]
The exhibition includes more than 1.300 pieces - mostly from the extraordinary Fornasetti archive in Milan curated by Barnaba Fornasetti who still carries on his father’s work – showing the great themes of Fornasetti work through a path structured into sections. From the artist’s debut as a painter to his printmaking workshop of artist’s books, to his closed collaboration with Gio Ponti in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, to the toughest 1970s and 1980s when Piero died, until the contemporary and recent works created by Barnaba.
Visitors are welcomed at the entrance of the exhibition with a selection of iconic objects of Fornasetti’s imagination as trumeaux, screens and tables.
Originally designed by Gio Ponti, the trumeau (a cross between a sideboard, bar and bureau) was later modified by Piero who preferred, for the purposes of small-scale production, to make it look more square and less affected. After having made the structure more neutral and versatile, he extended the decoration to the interior, which had doors and cabinets that could reveal surprises with further thematic evolutions and points of view.
An artistic video by Virgilio Villoresi, produced on occasion of this exhibition and dedicated to this piece of furniture, that is the symbol of the Fornasetti production, will be shown to the public for the first time.
The screen, with its function as a mobile architectural element, is intrinsically theatrical and ideally suited for illusionistic tricks. At the end of the 1940s Piero begins its declination of patterns (65) and colours.
- The Bibliophile
This room is dedicated to Piero Fornasetti’s passion for books. He spent his life collecting books, magazines and documents on the applied arts and used the images he found as points of aesthetic reference and source of inspiration. He printed and illustrated several volumes and he also used the motif of books to décor his objects such as cabinets, tables, screens, wall papers, fabrics etc.
- The cult of the black line
From an initial preference for drawing and black pencil, pen and Indian ink line, Fornasetti moved on to experimenting with various techniques: engraving, lithography, woodcuts, drypoint and monotypes. He was soon able to open the Piero Fornasetti Art Publishing House, which worked with the great artists of the time, from Giorgio De Chirico to Carlo Carrà and Lucio Fontana. Fornasetti’s vast output as a draughtsman and printer also includes his “Lunari”, calendars, annuals, various covers for the magazines “Domus”, “Lettura” and “Graphis”, logos designed by Fornasetti and other companies, posters, advertising billboards and publicity stunts. A focus on how essential was his experience as printmaker for his creative background and his further experience in applied arts as Piero went over from printing on paper to developing methods for printing on foulards, furniture and the most diverse surfaces and objects.
- Of painting and drawing
Piero Fornasetti painter’s studio is recreated in this room with his self-portrait on his painter’s easel, sketches, early drawings, books from the personal library.
His beginnings as a painter allow us to go back to the Italian and European artistic context of the 30’s, those of the Twentieth Century and the “Return to order” against the Scapigliatura and extreme avant-garde experimentation.
Classical references appear in his paintings mainly as a formal principle, while in terms of content, a free approach to historical elements may be seen. Fornasetti uses these elements as decontextualized vestiges, bringing the spirit of his work close to that of the artists of Metaphysical Painting and Surrealism.
A selection of Piero Fornasetti’s paintings from the 1930s-1940s-1950s with still-lifes, masks, portraits, landscapes and abstract patterns. Certain decorations would be evoked with and always in perspective with the design and painting, centre-pieces of his universe.
- Fornasetti and Ponti: two real Italians
In 1933, Fornasetti submitted a number of his printed silk foulards to a competition of young talent held by Gio Ponti, the director of the V “Triennale di Milano”. The competition was for porcelain and tea services, so Fornasetti’s headscarves were rejected, but Ponti was struck by Fornasetti’s new technique and its design. This was the beginning of a collaboration between the architect Ponti and the decorator Fornasetti, which became very close between 1950 and 1960. Born on their common passion for architecture as the reign of order and Classical proportions, this collaboration returned decoration to the centre of attention.
After commissioning Fornasetti “I Lunari” and publishing his work in Domus, a magazine he ran at the time, Ponti asked Fornasetti to decorate Palazzo Bo in Padua. They worked together on the decoration of the San Remo Casino in 1950, exhibited the “Architettura” trumeau at the Triennale in Milan and created a “total” interior decoration for Casa Lucano in 1951. In 1952 Ponti entrusted Fornasetti with the decoration of the first class cabins on the transatlantic liner Andrea Doria.
- Varenna Villa
The home in Varenna was the family’s summer residence, which his father had built on a small, steep plot of land in the early twentieth century; Piero had spent many vacations painting and drawing views of the lake. He thus had an opportunity to expand and trim the house to fit his own style, imprinting the decor with his sense of space and order, fill it with his images and objects and his taste for collecting. The final result was an important example of the close relationship between architecture and decoration. The villa in Varenna, with its monochrome environments, represented a point of departure and became an important reference for the development of the contemporary Fornasetti style.
This room is the reconstruction of its living room with various original pieces and intentionally small variations in the same style.
One of Piero Fornasetti’s passions was collecting. It was not a coincidence, that his shop resembled a baroque Wunderkammer putting together diverse and unique objects, and he defined himself as an “atypical collector”. “I fall in love with objects, I want to have them, then I live with them for years, I study them, I forget about them, I use them to infer new objects (…). So they never stop engendering feelings and having children”, he said. As the exhibits in this room show beyond reasonable doubt, Fornasetti’s objects originate from the application of the principle of collecting as systematical, even obsessive harvesting of variations on one single theme. Artistic creation actually does not consist from his point of view in brilliant originality (“new doesn’t exist – everything has already been done”, was his conviction), but in inference from and variation of a given theme.
- Stanza Metafisica
The famous Stanza metafisica (Metaphysical Room) is the largest and most articulated of Piero Fornasetti screens. Decorated in black and white and animated by an unreal, imaginary sequence of interpenetrations, routes, passageways, ascents, descents, stairways, and ladders, it is composed of thirty-two panels 50 centimetres wide and 2,50 meters tall. It is designed to inscribe a space within space and can be set up in various ways, transforming itself into a space for meditation. Fornasetti originally envisioned it and created it as an empty room with a black carpet on the floor and a small red cushion at the centre, a setting between art and life, style and spirituality.
Explaining his Stanza metafisica in a 1967 letter to the American magazine House and Garden, Fornasetti wrote, “it was conceived . . . as a place dedicated to meditation, where one or more people may stay and gather their thoughts, whether creative or religious or of some other kind. Modern man is losing this important habit. . . “.
- A place for umbrellas
Fornasetti’s creation of this type of umbrella stand, mostly produced between the early 1950s and the 1970s, demonstrates his creative freedom while maintaining his preference for rational forms. He was struck by the cylindrical form of the masonite tubes used in power stations to insulate certain components, and decided to use tubes of various diameters and heights to occasionally create lamp supports, paper baskets and umbrella stands. An entire wall made up of 100 umbrella stands, piled up with their colour models to show how great the volcanic production of Fornasetti is. The umbrella stand, along with the tray, is one of the most used items by Fornasetti in its multiple decorative variations.
- Trays: how to serve a dream
In the vast repertory of the work of Piero Fornasetti, the tray is one of the strongest iconic shapes, the object that truly presents the most variations, whether in the number of designs or the variety of forms and formats. Not including variants, the decorations number 460; 8 formats are rectangular, 4 circular and 4 oval. This room contains a striking installation with more than 100 trays.
- Tema e Variazioni
Variations on a theme is a process that characterises much of Fornasetti’s work.
His constantly variable recurring themes include suns and hands, but the true and essential expression of this process is the “Tema e Variazioni” (Theme and Variations) series. It is no coincidence that this has become a true icon of Fornasetti’s work. The face that constitutes the theme of the series is that of the opera singer Lina Cavalieri. Starting in 1952, he then transformed Cavalieri’s face “as he wished”, onto plates, glasses, accessories and furniture, eventually producing more than 350 variations.
This room contains a cascade of plates hanging on threads like “mobiles”. A display exclusively made of “Tema e Variazioni” décor with the enigmatic face of Lina Cavalieri.
- Book “Tema e Variazioni The First Series 1- 100”
For the first time, the Fornasetti exhibition will show also the new book “Tema e Variazioni - The First Series 1-100”, a limited edition book entirely handmade which contains the first 100 illustrations from the series “Tema e Variazioni” (Theme and Variations) designed by Piero Fornasetti, with texts by Barnaba Fornasetti, Gio Ponti, Alberto Manguel and Glenn O'Brien. With this book, Barnaba wanted to pay homage to the series and also to introduce a renewed excursion by Fornasetti into the world of the printed volume. Printing and publishing are actually part of Fornasetti’s heart since the beginning.
This room contains two surreal movies: “From the boundary of the usual” by Toni Meneguzzo and “Knock knock” by Virgilio Villoresi. Both are artistic videos celebrating the magical and dreamlike Fornasetti’s world with music composed and played by the pianist Cesare Picco.
- Imagination reloaded
Grown up in the dreams-filled atmosphere of the workshop-house, Barnaba started to work with his father in the 80s. He learnt all workshop secrets from the last craftsman remained on Piero’s side in the difficult years. Since then he not only succeeded in preserving Fornasetti’s archive, but also in pursuing the production, setting up a dialogue with contemporary design’s world. He collaborates with small artisan business and big producers manufacturing on license, re-editing archive motives and re-inventing them. All in all, keeping alive the spirit of design and decoration as slow craftsmanship as a contemporary utopia against the compulsive search for novelties.
Painter, engraver and printer, designer, collector, stylist, refined craftsman, art gallery manager and exhibition promoter, Piero Fornasetti has been an extremely rich and complex personality. He designed and made approximately 13.000 objects and decorations. His world is animated by the rigour in design, art and craftsmanship, but also by unbridled fantasy, surrealist invention and irony. In the theatrical decorative universe of Fornasetti, the subjects imbued with poetry and imagination play with optical illusions, metaphysical landscapes, figures drawn from the comedy of crafts and enigmatic faces depicted in multiple variations.
A great reader and designer since his childhood, Piero Fornasetti defines himself as a self-educated person, one who wanted no guide but his own choice in life. Against his father’s will, he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera Milan in 1930, but he was expelled two years later due to his rebellious behaviour. Hence, he began studying drawing and lithography on books only, self-taught. The printing press that was available in his father’s workshop allowed him to practice and experiment with all etching and printing techniques. He creates the Stamperia d’Arte Piero Fornasetti (Piero Fornasetti Art Publishing House) and published his drawings, his almanacs, but also the works of the greatest artists of his time: Carlo Carrà, Giorgio de Chirico, Marino Marini, Lucio Fontana. His virtuosity allowed him to work on all kinds of supports: paper, ceramic, glass, leather, textiles. It was in 1933, then, when he took part in Milan’s Triennale with his scarves, that Gio Ponti discovered his talent. Their cooperation actually began in 1940. Together they worked on the craziest projects: the covers of the magazines Domus and Stile, furniture like the Archittetura Cabinet in 1951, and many interior decoration projects: the frescoes of the Bo Palace in Padua (1942), the canteen of the barracks of Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio, the Sanremo Casino, Casa Lucano (1951), and again the cabins and halls of the ocean liner Andrea Doria (1952). An extremely prolific artist, Piero Fornasetti, in his fascination for the object as a multiple and for «printed materials in all their forms» (Patrick Mauriès), also created posters, advertising products, logos and fashion accessories he generally conceived as serial objects. The most famous work is the plates with variations of the opera singer Lina Cavalieri’s round face, of which no less than three hundred and fifty versions exist.
In 1970, Piero Fornasetti founded the “Bibliofili” Gallery, where the works of contemporary artists were displayed beside his own productions. Strengthened by this experience, he opened several shops in Milan and in Turin, he displayed his entire production.
He was also a film director and a stage designer: in 1970, he responded to François Mathey’s invitation, who was then the director of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris and played the role of general commissioner of the exhibition “Bolide design”, for which he even designed the model.
Piero Fornasetti responded to the simple and refined shapes of the modernism of the era, with a sort of indifference for the current dogmas of design by playing with a rich imagination on a note of humour, with dreams and illusions. Whether they are serially produced or revealed in his decorations, Fornasetti’s objects span an entire world of references and styles: Roman antiquity, the Italian Renaissance, Palladio’s architectures...
In the 90’s, Piero Fornasetti became a source of inspiration for many designers, and Philippe Starck was among them. The first monographic volume, consecrating the author Patrick Mauriès, and the involvement of his son Barnaba, who continued the work of such a dynamic and creative father, contributed to the rediscovery of a body of work, the significance of which is today clear to all of us.