Mr Barnaba Fornasetti
As the brand’s candles launch on MR PORTER, we take a tour of the surreal family home of the Fornasettis.
Even Mr Barnaba Fornasetti can’t find the words to describe this house — and he’s been living here for his entire life. Over the course of a half-hour conversation, the head of the Fornasetti household refers to it as a home, an office, an archive and an atelier. Perhaps the right thing to do would be to call it some combination of all of the above. Somehow, though, that doesn’t quite manage to do it justice.
Mr Barnaba Fornasetti is the only child of Mr Piero Fornasetti, one of the most eccentric — not to mention prolific — interior designers of the 20th century. At the peak of his fame in the 1960s, when his boldly original black-and-white prints of insects, musical instruments and classical architecture could be found on everything from coasters and plates to multi-panel screens, umbrella stands and silk scarves, he was estimated to have created something in the region of 11,000 individual pieces. By the time of his death in 1988, that figure is said to have been closer to 13,000. It’s easy to believe that most, if not all, of them can be found somewhere in this house.
It was originally built in the late 19th century by Mr Barnaba Fornasetti’s grandfather, an accountant by the name of Mr Pietro Fornasetti, and has been extended numerous times since. Most recently, a kitchen was added to the back of the house. “It’s a building that has continued to evolve over the years, in keeping with the requirements of the moment,” explains Mr Fornasetti of his decision to keep updating the house. “It’s not a museum – it’s a place to live in, and a place to work.”
Though his only permanent companions in the house are his cats, Fay and Smoke – he is no longer married, and has no children – he shares it during the day with a dozen employees, who work in the on-site design studio, press office and archive.
By some distance the brightest, airiest space in the house, the kitchen looks out over a garden dotted with wrought-iron furniture. Like the house itself, the garden feels lived-in; there is a charming sense of imperfection to it. “I left it sort of wild,” says Mr Fornasetti, who finds in the slow rhythm of plants a pleasing contrast the the hectic pace of modern life. It’s an example of something he refers to as “slow design”.
The kitchen is dominated by a large reproduction Murano chandelier in candy pink, blue and yellow, which hangs above a round table printed with butterflies and newspaper cuttings. The same print — designed by Mr Piero Fornasetti, and called “Ultime Notizie” — can also be found on the cupboards and chairs. A great deal of Mr Barnaba Fornasetti’s time is spent delving through his father’s extensive archive of fine drawings in order to create new prints in a process that he calls “reinvention and re-edition”. By continuing to design in his father’s spirit, and by allowing only a select number of furniture makers the license to reproduce his father’s work, Mr Barnaba Fornasetti has been credited with transforming the interior brand from a relatively obscure name into one of Italy’s most desirable.
“A strange magic is created… perhaps part of the beauty is that you can’t fully explain it”
Take the range of candles produced by Fornasetti, for instance, several of which are now available on MR PORTER. Featuring Mr Piero Fornasetti’s old architectural sketches and eccentric, humorous artworks – they breathe new life into decades-old designs. In 2008, he collaborated with Cole & Son to create a series of striking wallpaper designs featuring suns and moons, bouquets of peonies, precious stones and library shelves laden with old books. They proved so popular that another series was commissioned in 2013, this time featuring fantastical flying machines, umbrellas, riding crops, stormy skies and trompe l’oeil architectural columns. Many of these prints can be found decorating the walls of this house; Mr Fornasetti is photographed here (below) wearing one of them, an assortment of old-fashioned pen nibs called “Pennini”, on his tie.
Leaving the kitchen, we pass through an ante-chamber hung with erotic sketches drawn by Mr Piero Fornasetti in the 1940s. To the right is a bathroom decorated with tiles featuring abstract variations on a single female face: that of the 19th-century soprano Ms Lina Cavalieri. One face is depicted as a clock. One is a pear with a leaf. One is a wheel of cheese with a slice missing. On one, a window covering the left eye opens to reveal a smaller version of the same face peering out from inside. Generous tears roll down the cheek of another. One is fringed by clouds. One wears a crown of flowers. One sports a Mr Salvador Dalí-style moustache and a pair of mirrored sunglasses reflecting the skyline of Paris. These “tema e variazione”, or “themes and variations”, are perhaps Mr Piero Fornasetti’s most iconic works; he claimed to have created somewhere in the region of 400 of them.
“The theme of variations is the leitmotif, if you like, of my father’s creativity,” says Mr Fornasetti. “Variation runs through all of his work. He always begins with a single idea and then develops it over and over again. Here, the choice of the face was a purely aesthetic one. It was only later that my father even learned who she was. She had a classical beauty, and a blank expression, almost like a Greek statue. [The renowned Italian writer and poet] Gabriele D’Annunzio once called her the most beautiful woman in the world.” On why this series of works in particular has become so iconic, Mr Fornasetti is unsure. “That is a difficult question to answer,” he admits. “I can’t really express it. A strange magic is created, that I’ve also noted in many objects of my father’s… perhaps part of their beauty is that you can’t fully explain it.”
We continue on through the labyrinth of corridors and interconnecting rooms, passing a hallway lined with striking “Mediterranea” wallpaper from the first Cole & Son collection, and into a dark room which Mr Fornasetti claims is one of the only parts of the house to have not been changed since his father’s death. What little light enters the room through its only window is filtered through the red, blue and green glass of a large collection of antique Biedermeier goblets, which are arranged in a colour-coordinated fashion on a set of glass shelves. On 1stdibs.com, a single one of these 19th-century decorative goblets might set you back £4,000; there must be at least 50 of them on display here.
“Music has always been a passion of mine… If it goes well I’d like to go on to create a modern contemporary opera”
We ascend a narrow iron staircase and into the design studio, where a small team is hard at work putting the finishing touches to a production of Mr Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which is due to be performed in Milan this December and then at Pitti Uomo in Florence next January.
“Music has always been a passion of mine,” says Mr Fornasetti, a fact made plain by the enormous collection of vinyl records he has amassed and keeps stored in an upstairs room. “But opera was always an arduous affair for me, perhaps because of how it’s usually presented. It’s rarely presented to us in a manner that’s not heavy or boring.” He claims that he’d love to make a second opera, depending on the success of Don Giovanni — the success which, in his opinion, it fully deserves. “If it goes well I’d like to go on to create a modern contemporary opera which tells the story of Lina [Cavalieri] and the ‘virtual’ rapport that my father had with her, though they never actually met.”
It is time to leave. We stop briefly at the archive room, which is managed by a husband-and-wife team who have been working here for the last 21 years. (This fact is pointed out by Ms Yuki Tintori, the press manager, who herself has been here for 13.) As we descend the stairs, we pass a small bedroom decorated entirely in red. The books on the shelves are bound in red leather; bottles of red wine stand next to the books; the carpet, walls and curtains are all of a shade of deep blood red. “It’s the guest room,” explains Mr Fornasetti with a grin. “But you can only stay for a maximum of two nights. People tend to go mad if they stay any longer.” You can imagine.
It is a house that defies category; little wonder that Mr Fornasetti has so many different names for it. As the gate shuts behind us, we notice for the first time a small brass plaque. It reads “Fornasetti Immaginazione”. If any single word could possibly serve to sum up what lies beyond, “imagination” might be it.