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A Fornasetti plate featuring Lina Cavalieri, an Italian opera singer

Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988) was one of the most prolific designers of the 20th century, producing more than 11,000 items in total. He created everything from scarves, ceramics and furniture as well as designing the interiors for a casino and an ocean liner.

But his best-known products feature the face of a woman he first saw while leafing through an old French fashion magazine from the 19th century. It is unclear whether the two ever met, but Lina Cavalieri appears repeatedly on Fornasetti’s pieces, most famously on a set of plates called Tema e Variazioni.

She was an Italian opera singer who lived in Paris and her enigmatic expression was the template for some 350 different pieces, most of which were the plates, but there are also elements of her face – an eye, a mouth – used on furniture, trays and other porcelain items. Her image appears as a figurehead on a ship, melting in an egg timer and in a number of variations, including winking, sticking out her tongue and hiding behind her hands. Fornasetti also portrayed her as both the sun and the moon and even as a piece of cake.

“What inspired me to create hundreds of variations on the face of a woman?” he once asked. “I began to make them and I never stopped.” Her face, Fornasetti added, was an archetype, both quintessentially beautiful and classic and he returned to it again and again for the rest of his career.

The plates are still handmade in Fornasetti’s Milan atelier to his original specification but the studio is now run by his son, Barnaba. In addition to reviving his father’s designs, Barnaba is also reinterpreting and creating new images.

Martine de Cervens, of gallery and furniture shop Themes and Variations in west London, says Fornasetti’s work is enormously collectable. “There has been a huge appreciation in value for the vintage furniture, but the more modern pieces are also extremely popular,” she says.

In 2010, Christies sold a set of six Tema e Variazioni plates for £1,625.

This year marks the centenary of Fornasetti’s birth and the Triennale museum in Milan is hosting the first grand exhibition of his work, which is being curated by Barnaba.

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