Box bearing distinctive print may be work of modern ‘Master of Design’
H.H. sends me a box with a distinctive classical Renaissance Palladian print superimposed upon it, with a unique perspective, and a near illegible signature beginning with “F” and ending in “I.” Dare I suggest this could be a Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988)?
Mr. Fornasetti was a painter, designer and industrial designer who was incredibly influential in the history of design. He created 13,000 works, decorative objects and furniture which were often copied and mass produced – by decree. You see, that is exactly what he wanted: for everyone to own a usable piece of art in their own homes.
His famous atelier opened in Milan in the 1950s and is now under the baton of his son Barnaba Fornasetti. Piero Fornasetti’s works were based on the “Principle of Practical Madness.” I love the sound of that.
What he meant was that each piece should be part historically referenceable, part dreamscape, functional and mind altering, because the “mind-altering” part is what all good art should do. Pablo Neruda said of him that he was “the magician of precious and precise magic,” which means that he used the line to convey space, fantasy and perspective that had an effect upon the imagination: without using one’s imagination, it is hard to understand Mr. Fornasetti.
He began his artistic life by learning the printing process and engraving, and his oeuvre became the printed motif on an object of function. Trained in a print shop, he opened his own “Fine Art Printshop” in the 1940s under the cloud of war, and because money and materials were short in Italy he printed easy-to-acquire objects like books, cards, calendars and almanacs to be given as little gifts. He served in the war, but because of a glitch was not called to fight, and instead was given the job (these Italians are wonderful) of painting and decorating the Sant’Ambrogio barracks. He designed for the theater at this time; sets, magazines and posters.
Then came his liaison with Gio Ponti, and he collaborated with that master on interior designs for home, shops and cinemas. He, with Mr. Ponti, designed a piece for the 1951 Triennale which became famous, a mirror with a design to the top called “Architettura Trumeau”. Mr. Ponti went on to design the first-class section of the famed ship the Andrea Doria in 1952, with the idea that much living could be done well in an exceedingly small space.
Once he had a design, he made many variations, which was also a departure for the “old” perception of a work of art as unique. There is that iconic female face on a plate that has been redone in 400 versions, so there is really not one original work (Theme and Variations).
Mr. Fornasetii was therefore Post Modern before there was Post Modern: he took a beautiful but reproducible print, and then he played with that design on different surfaces. Which means the perspective lines changed not only the object but the design. These pieces create delightfully confusing perspectives: that is why his work has been called magical.
Mr. Fornasetti said: “The artist puts things in order to create another world- that is second nature.” His friend, the artist and inventor Bruno Munari, said such pieces can only be measured by the yardstick of Mr. Fornasetti.
In the 1960s he found himself on rocky terrain because the world of architecture and design took a turn toward minimalism over ornamentation, function over form; not what this imaginative designer had practiced. Thus, with friends he opened a gallery for all artists, including those who painted in a more surreal and figurative style. He started painting again and created figures out of visions of fruit and other objects. In the 1980s he opened a gallery in London, “Theme and Variations.” He died shortly thereafter.
In 2013, The Triennale Design Museum in Milan gave him a retrospective which was a sell-out; essentially, he was rediscovered, and the show traveled to the Musee des Arts Decorative in Paris and then onto Seoul. The design world saw how valuable his contribution to design had been, and his work influences designers still. He was a modern master of design. He said, “Observe the real to be able to consciously forget it and recreate it through your intellect, your imagination and through design.”
In short, H.H.’s piece could be a work by Mr. Forasetti, but, as I said, the artist was in approval of those who used his concepts as art for the people, and therefore we call this “after” Fornasetti. I love the expression “The Principle of Practical Madness!” The value is $400.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.