Aretrospective of the 20th-century illusionist Piero Fornasetti at the Italian Cultural Institute comes at an especially intriguing moment. This prolific artist-designer had a genius for salvaging grace from the ruins of Western civilization.
Over a 50-year career, the Milanese designer created more than 11,000 mysterious, whimsical and haunting designs that found their way onto every surface within reach. From the beginning of his career in the 1930s until his death in 1988, he designed interiors, stage sets, chests, chairs, lamps, plates, cups, saucers, bookends, umbrella stands, ashtrays, waistcoats, buttons, bicycles and more.
The Fornasetti style was eccentric, highly decorative and wildly popular in the 1950s. It was largely overshadowed by cool modernism until the postmodern movement of the 1980s put decoration briefly back on a pedestal. Right now, post-minimalist designers are again experimenting with pattern and ornament, which next month's National Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York will showcase. At the Italian Cultural Institute, Fornasetti comes up looking like the father of it all.
Fornasetti's stated goal was to infuse the everyday environment with "pleasure and humor, provocation and meaning."
A master of trompe l'oeil, he used paintbrushes and screen-printing techniques to give plain materials the look of malachite, leopard skin, leather, silk, marble or bamboo.
On the lighter side, Fornasetti sketched winking cats, dancing butterflies, hot-air balloons, carved canes, gilded books, exotic musical instruments, old armor, classical vases, trailing flowers and teams of miniature acrobats. He applied the images with quirky abundance, sometimes in rigid geometries, often in free fall across fabrics used for umbrellas.
But Fornasetti's special passion involved images of crumbling statues, broken pediments, tumbled columns and fragments of stone walls. He borrowed from Palladio's 16th-century Italian villas and Piranesi's 17th-century engravings of a romanticized Rome after the fall. The exhibition, "Fornasetti: La Follia Pratica," which runs through April 23, reveals stunning but eerie results. A rare lacquered wood screen from 1950, known as "Reflecting City," is densely printed with a black-and-white montage of columns, domes, loggias, arcades and bell towers on an imaginary hillside. All the windows are vacant and black. Waves crash at the epicenter of the screen. From there to the floor, all the buildings are upside down, reflections in a macabre pool. At bottom, the brilliance of Western European culture, displayed in colonnades, cornices and sculpture, lies in ruins on the ground.
Fornasetti was a decorative painter, not a philosopher. On the flip side of the screen, he painted a warm domestic scene. His best-known ceramics are decorated with the enigmatic face of a beautiful woman. And his most marketable products are decorated with smiling suns, a theme Fornasetti played with throughout his career.
That idea grew out of a commission for a calendar from Gio Ponti, Italy's postwar giant of design and Fornasetti's collaborator from the 1940s. A framed collage of drawings in the exhibition shows how Fornasetti doodled with two dozen tiny, meticulous variations of a sun face that could be pensive, satiated, quizzical, contemplative, seductive, freaky, paternal, and also turn up under a chef's toque, in the center of a daisy or hanging from an apple tree.
This show was assembled by Fornasetti's son, Barnaba, who was persuaded to join the business in the 1980s and has carried on since the designer's death. Today the company turns out designs for limited-edition and serial production lamps, chairs, tableware, jewelry and ceramic tiles and other items produced by major manufacturers. The items are on display, but nothing is for sale.
In a new adventure, undertaken by Barnaba Fornasetti last year, a British contemporary designer named Nigel Coates was invited to create a Fornasetti-like design using digital drawing tools. Two chairs, a table and a pair of hurricane-style lamps were produced. The face of Fornasetti's nameless woman appears on one glass shade, a man's face on the other. The male image was created by cloning the woman's features in a computer, Barnaba Fornasetti explained.
It is not yet clear how successful the Coates project will be. It was far more interesting but much riskier to produce than neckties based on designs from the massive Fornasetti archive. Nearly 300 ties are included in the show, which is expected to go to San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Atlanta and Miami.
This Fornasetti exhibition is the first since a posthumous show at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 1991. The range of Fornasetti's work is revealed in framed studies for scarves, covers of Domus magazine, illustrations and vintage photographs of interiors, including one from the ill-fated ocean liner Andrea Doria, which sank after a collision in 1956.
But Fornasetti's essential preoccupation was with architectural drawings and elevations. Their ability to convey mass on a flat surface, and to make contours using only lines, enchanted him. Their essential Italianness allowed him to revel in his heritage. He made chair backs as column capitals. Desks, chests and boxes were layered with architectural drawings, which transformed them into miniature villas and temples.
His early works have become highly collectible. In a major auction in Los Angeles in 1998, a buyer paid a record $140,000 for an early edition of the "Architettura" tall desk, which is printed inside and out with architectural images. Barnaba Fornasetti recently reissued the piece, which sells for $14,000. On Tuesday in Paris, Christie's sold a set of 24 Fornasetti "Adam and Eve" plates similar to those on display for $2,241, almost double the top estimate.
In the book "Fornasetti: Designer of Dreams" (Thames and Hudson), which was produced in connection with the Victoria & Albert show, author Patrick Mauries quotes Fornasetti as saying, "What I look for in every object is the mark of man."
The contemporary designer Ettore Sottsass offered another explanation in his introduction to the book. He proposes that as a child, Fornasetti experienced a Big Bang in which "the whole world and all of history" exploded into the air. From the broken bits that fell to earth as debris, Fornasetti gathered his stock of fragments, disjointed memories, patterns and allusions.
"It is perfectly possible to create a world that has never been, that will never be, using the fragments of a world that has been," Sottsass wrote. "A world that one fine day blew up in the sky."
The Italian Cultural Institute, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 610, is open weekdays 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For information, call 202-223-9800 or visit www.italcultusa.org