Suns, moons, insects and enigmatic faces peer from mirrors, furniture and walls throughout the labyrinthine network of rooms in Barnaba Fornasetti’s Milan townhouse. This theatrical setting serves as a home, workshop, archive and museum for the Italian designer, who is continuing to create objects, furniture and fashion items under the brand founded by his late father, the 20th-century surrealist designer Piero Fornasetti.
Fornasetti enters the kitchen – a large, light space that opens on to a garden with roses and white wrought iron chairs, designed by his father – and introduces himself. Renowned for his colourful co-ordinated dress sense, he has not disappointed: today the theme is mainly blue, with a turquoise jacket, blue checked waistcoat, navy trousers, black shirt with a tiny floral print, and a dark blue Fornasetti tie. His eyes match the jacket.
Behind him walks his cat Jules, who Fornasetti describes as “the owner of the house”.
We step into the garden to get a good vantage point of the four-storey property, enjoying the peacefulness of this verdant space amid the hot, busy city. The original part of the house was built by Barnaba’s grandfather, Pietro, in the late 19th century but since then has been extended many times. “The house has always been growing, always changing. My father’s studio was on the ground floor.”
This area was just fruit and vegetable fields when the house was being built, he explains. Now it is a bustling residential quarter on the east side of the city centre called Città Studi, home to Milan’s polytechnic university.
Moving back indoors, Fornasetti leads upstairs to a first-floor room that was his childhood bedroom. A collection of vintage lacquered trays decorated with fish and shells, designed by Piero in the 1950s and 1960s, hang on the wall. The seaside collection hangs on feathery coral wallpaper, called Corallo, designed by Barnaba Fornasetti for Cole & Son, based on another of his father’s designs. An only child who spent hours here, Fornasetti is clearly still fond of the room, which is now a children’s guest room.
More twists and turns in the intricate corridor system bring us to Barnaba’s studio where he does much of his work. He has designed his own desk, printed with scissors, rulers and stationery, called Riga e Squadra (ruler and square), which mischievously contrasts with a real set of craftsman’s tools and pens on the desktop. His father’s archives, neatly bound and numbered, are stacked here but a red piano, previously played by Fornasetti’s ex-wife and now used by his friends, is the piece that dominates the room.
Although the piano is in the studio, the music room is next door where shelves are stacked with his record collection, a sound system and a CD collection racked inside a Fornasetti black and white tower disc holder called Architettura (architecture).
“We have parties and dance here sometimes,” he says with a large smile. He regrets not learning to play an instrument but loves “to be a DJ at parties”. While his musical taste is wide, ranging from jazz and Latin American to rock, pop and classic, he believes the most important aspect of any music is the quality rather than genre. He also likes to design CD sleeves for music he appreciates.
So what effect does living and working in a house that is a kind of archival laboratory and where his father created more than 13,000 pieces, have on his own design work?
“The house gives me a sense of responsibility and at the same time guides me in an imaginative world. It might seem like it gives me no freedom but it does because it is so full of possibilities and fantasy that I don’t feel any restriction.”
Since his father died in 1988, Fornasetti has revived and reinvented his work, drawing from the extensive archive of drawings and work to reintroduce new editions of some of the most famous objects, while balancing this with his own designs. The essential elements of Fornasetti design – both father and son – are “surrealism, fun and quality”, he explains.
He likes to describe himself as a nonconformist, a rebel, using ties to illustrate his point. “I have a love-hate relationship with ties. They are a symbol of convention but I like to play with convention, I like to break the rules,” he says.
In earlier times his rebellious spirit went further than provocative design. During a student demonstration in Milan in 1969, he was jailed briefly. But he has no regrets about the past. “I am still a rebel,” he says.
Last winter a retrospective exhibition of Piero’s work, curated by his son, marked the designer’s centenary at Milan’s design and architecture museum, the Triennale. Titled 100 Years of Practical Madness, the exhibition attracted around 37,000 visitors.
Fornasetti’s own designs include a series of wallpapers, made by Cole & Son, and chairs and sofas designed with architect and designer Nigel Coates. A Combacio sofa, depending on size and design, costs between £6,000 and £9,000, while the Baciamano chair is priced around £9,000. The latter, covered in jacquard with a reversible cushion depicting a different insect on each side, and a small table teetering on one arm, occupies a corner of the kitchen. Quirky and comfortable, it is one of Fornasetti’s favourite chairs.
The chair and sofas were launched at the Fuorisalone part of the Milan design fair earlier this year, as well as half a dozen silk scarves based on Piero’s original designs and made by Faliero Sarti. Designed in 2009, Barnaba’s Black & White one-off trumeau piece – a cross between a sideboard, bar and bureau, based on an earlier design by Piero – sold at auction at Phillips de Pury in New York for $47,500 a year later.
Unlike Piero, Barnaba works with licensed partners for specific designs. “I decided to do licensing with other companies after he passed away.” He admits to having made some mistakes along the way, recalling how in the mid-1990s some companies he worked with did not share the Fornasetti vision and strategy. Having learned from that he feels he is now working with the right companies.
“I am always careful to respect the philosophy and image of the brand,” he says.
Today an increasing amount of the Fornasetti business is bespoke, made in the nearby atelier where craftsmen work on handmade objects. An increasing number of people want something exclusive, Fornasetti explains. He enjoys working with other people on custom-made pieces but is clear about the parameters. “I like to work with clients’ suggestions. Sometimes they are absolutely weird but the last word is mine and they have to accept this.”
There is no third generation to take on the family business but Fornasetti is working “to set up a group of people who can continue to produce Fornasetti designs without having one leader. It can be a team that continues the story.”
We are distracted from the future by Jules jumping on the Baciamano chair. Fornasetti also jumps up, shooing him off. The cat is not quite the owner of the house after all.
Slideshow photographs: Mattia Zoppellaro