While other great post-war designers like Giò Ponti or Achille Castiglioni addressed the question of how to bring stylish mass-produced furniture into people’s homes, Fornasetti saw their chairs and plates and sideboards as merely a starting point, a blank canvas for the fantasy world of his imagination. Like Fellini, he had a roster of symbols that he came back to again and again: ideal neo-classical cityscapes, influenced by the engravings of Piranesi; the smiling sun of nursery rhyme iconography; harlequins and playing cards.
He came across one of his favourite images, the languidly sensual face of Belle Epoque Italian opera singer, Lina Cavalieri, in an old French magazine. Fornasetti turned the face of Cavalieri into his Mona Lisa, working over 350 variations on it in his “Tema e Variazioni” series of plates and ceramics, a selection of which are on sale at Emporio Le Sirenuse.
These, and many of the other items designed by Fornasetti, are still manufactured – some under licence, some in the Fornasetti atelier in Milan. There is a booming collector’s market in Fornasetti originals, especially the elaborate trumeau drinking cabinets first produced in 1951 in collaboration with Giò Ponti: a one-of-a-kind example of the neo-Palladian “Architettura” trumeau fetched a record $230,000 at the 1998 Los Angeles auction of pieces from the Fornasetti historical archive.
But it’s the face of Cavalieri – vulnerable yet wise, with kissable Cupid lips yet a melancholy other-worldliness in her great big eyes – with which Fornasetti will always be most closely associated. Today the Tema e Variazioni series is being extended and reinvented by Fornasetti’s son Barnaba, with the help of international designers like Nigel Coates.
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