NEW YORK — Unlike some of his contemporaries who were more interested in producing one-off pieces and custom furniture for wealthy clients, Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988) is renowned for democratizing art. The prolific designer, who hailed from Milan, had a large and diverse output, responsible for more than 13,000 examples of furniture and decorative arts pieces during his lifetime. He preferred to conceive and release his work in a string of distinct series rather than as one-of-a-kind objects. Combining function with fancy, Fornasetti’s oeuvre has been described as surrealistic, even metaphysical.
After his death in 1988, Suzanne Slesin paid homage in the New York Times: “Mr. Fornasetti’s fanciful pieces were always witty and imaginative. In his motifs, he favored Piranesi-like engravings, the sun, moon and stars, playing cards, animals and surrealistic images.”
Fornasetti ably mined Italy’s rich culture, seeking inspiration in its literature and artistic history. He was also well-traveled and spent time at sea and in Africa as a young man. He absorbed a wide range of influences, both classical and modern, which he interpreted in his designs.
Fornasetti is famous for his collaborations with fellow Italian designer and mentor Gio Ponti, who was two decades older than he. The two began working together after Ponti saw an exhibition of Fornasetti’s painted silk scarves at the Milan Triennale in 1933. Better known now to collectors are pieces from the Architettura furniture line that the two co-created and which continue to be produced by Fornasetti’s atelier. This series combined Ponti-imagined forms with Fornasetti’s signature decoration style.
As a general rule of thumb, the earliest pieces by most designers are typically the most sought after, but Fornasetti’s work was so groundbreaking and imaginative that even his later pieces command strong prices. A choice reissue is an Architettura trumeau that he originally designed in 1951. A 1975 example, standing 87-in tall, attained $9,750 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2022 at New Orleans Auction Galleries. The screenprinted design features pseudo-illusionist and trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) decoration. The crisply rendered architectural imagery benefits from the eye of a skilled draftsman. This trumeau, and his double trumeau pieces, have been highly praised for not just their architectural decoration but their overall architectural form.
Another example of the designers’ partnership is an unusual wall unit, designed by Ponti and constructed by cabinetmaker Giordano Chiesa. Featuring fine lithographed designs by Fornasetti in the form of alphabetic and floral decoration, it brought $50,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2022 at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA).
In the three decades since Fornasetti’s death, prices have only continued to climb, and new auction price records have been made and quickly broken. Major pieces handily realize six-figure sums, such as an important circa-1950 chest of drawers that was silkscreened with Gran Coromandel decoration. It earned €102,000, or $109,630 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022 at Cambi Casa D’Aste.
Barnaba Fornasetti, the designer’s son, collaborated often with his father, starting with a Ford Granada station wagon the two decorated together. Many auction houses have consulted him to authenticate his father’s work, and the younger Fornasetti has kept vast archives for just such purposes. He also has made a trove of information available to all at fornasetti.com, with many illustrations and a history of the designer.
Fornasetti was besotted with screens and referred to them as his favorite “children.” His lithographic designs for screens were wildly inventive and often architectural in inspiration, sometimes delving into the metaphysical. They often pictured landscapes, which could be used to aid meditation. An example is a circa-1956 folding screen with lavish decoration on both sides that achieved $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022 at Hindman. The 81 by 78in-tall screen features Portico con Paesaggio (portico with landscape) imagery on the verso and and an equally interesting interior scene on the back, Angolo di Spogliatoio (dressing room corner).
The good news for collectors is that there is no one way to build a collection of Fornasetti, which runs the gamut from scarce furniture valued at more than $100,000 to more affordable home furnishings. A notable and coveted design is his sun mirror, one of which brought $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2022 at Orange Hat Auction. While this piece is seldom seen today, suns were among his favorite motifs, especially in his fashion work.
A circa-1960 pair of Occhi and Citta di carte lithographed aluminum trays, one of which features the face of 19th-century opera singer Lina Cavalieri, aptly embodies the designer’s sense of fun and theatricality. The two trays sold at their high estimate for $1,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2023 at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA). Fornasetti developed a whole series of objects based on variations of Cavalieri’s face, called Tema e Variazioni.
Fornasetti combined meticulous craftsmanship with a sense of whimsy to create everyday, livable objects that appeal to wide audiences. He married historical influences with diverse styles such as Classicism and Surrealism to establish a design legacy few can hope to replicate.