Fornasetti's Secret Palazzo of Dreams

Michael James O'Brien

Sequestered in a Milan courtyard, the home and studio of Piero Fornasetti open a window onto the imagination of an enigmatic artist who is gaining new respect as a 20th-century visionary. Martin Filler pays a visit.

Milan is an urban paradox. An international center of fashion and design as well as Italy's business capital, it may also be Europe's most impenetrable metropolis. A stranger in Rome can slipstream effortlessly into its gregarious public rituals, epitomized by the evening passeggiata, a slow-paced, high-attitude promenade that is part beauty pageant, part mating dance, part performance art. In Venice you could spend half the day lolling in a café and no one would think it strange. But there's none of that in Milan, with its northern work ethic and few piazzas. Here professionals do not open their doors automatically to outsiders without connections, and the uninitiated can leave baffled, wondering where the city was.

How appropriate, then, that Milan was the birthplace and lifelong home of Piero Fornasetti, one of the postwar era's most enigmatic and intriguing creative figures. A demonically prolific designer of furniture and decorative objects, Fornasetti borrowed from classical architecture and mythological symbols as well as from De Chirico's metaphysical cityscapes, Duchamp's double entendres, and the Dada collages of Max Ernst. But two decades after Fornasetti's death, critical opinion on his too many designs in too many mediums remains sharply divided: Is this smartly inventive art or just derivative kitsch?

At the peak of Fornasetti's fame in the fifties and sixties, his instantly identifiable style seemed to be everywhere. His signature black-on-white ceramics imprinted with details from antique engravings of eyes, lips, breasts, buttocks, and other delights—earthly and celestial—became an international emblem of well-heeled hipness. From Mod Manhattan to Swinging London, a Fornasetti plate in someone's living room increased the likelihood that you'd be offered some very good weed.

Then, one day in the late seventies, the Fornasettis vanished. Just like that. His formula had been ripped off so widely—from the Monty Python show to beef 'n' brew menus—that the originals seemed fatally commercial and clichéd. During the eighties, when midcentury Italian design emerged as the latest collecting sensation, Fornasetti was largely ignored, while his sometime collaborator Gio Ponti was heralded as a pioneering influence. Fornasetti has since languished in critical eclipse, even as a coterie of fanatics revere him as an unjustly neglected master.

Sanctum sanctorum of the Fornasetti cult is his own house, in Milan's university district. The three-building complex has been maintained by his son and keeper of the flame, Barnaba, who has dedicated himself to securing his father an honorable place in art history. Barnaba occupies the central portion with his wife, Betony Vernon, a designer of erotic jewelry, and his 95-year-old mother lives on the piano nobile of an adjacent wing.

In the family's possession for three generations, the property was bought in the late 19th century by Pietro Fornasetti, an early importer of typewriters from Germany. Piero, his oldest son, was born in 1913 and spent most of his life here, up until his death—during a hospital stay for a heart ailment—in 1988. The residence has long since been engulfed by the uniformly dull apartment blocks that make Milan feel like Paris on Prozac. Occasionally Barnaba conducts tours by special request, and when I arrived at the address I thought I must have been mistaken: A man of Piero Fornasetti's poetic sensibility, I felt certain, could never have lived behind such a bruttissima façade.

But the family name was there on the buzzer. Expectations lowered, I entered the massive doorway, passed through a tunnellike vestibule, and upon reaching the courtyard beyond stopped dead in my tracks. A large, Edenic garden (then in full bloom) was surrounded on three sides by a cobbled-together series of low-rise structures. This was the private dream factory where Fornasetti gave life to his artistic fantasies.

Casa Fornasetti is the perfect metaphor for la Milano segreta and the ultimate personal expression of its elusive conjurer. He transformed his home and workplace into an urban geode—deceptively nondescript on the outside, dazzling within. Artists' houses are often thought to offer insights into their life and work, but I can think of none that lets you enter the occupant's psyche so revealingly or illuminates his work so fully as this.

That initial impression is reinforced as you move from one jam-packed room to the next. More than any other 20th-century interior I've seen, Casa Fornasetti reincarnates the grand tradition of the Wunderkammer, the "chamber of wonders" in which all manner of objects—rich and strange, manmade and natural—were displayed in a dizzying array.

But there's no aura of creepy eccentricity here, thanks to the designer's theatrical flair. Indeed, Fornasetti could well have pursued a successful career as a decorator, on the evidence of his own home alone. The small shell-pink entry hall, its walls densely hung with his pieces in every medium, is like a Rossini overture, a tantalizing sampler of themes the composer will expand upon later in the opera. The profusion and layering of objects prompts a revelation: Fornasetti's work looks best en masse. Mixed in with his own designs are curious discoveries such as the foyer's Empire-style chandelier, en-crusted with small seashells that give it the look of a pastry chef's fantasy.

His use of deeply saturated colors throughout the house—reds, greens, blues, and ochers—sets off the black-and-white of his designs. The artful placement of fine but not too fancy antiques suggests a bohemian version of the more formal salons that the architect-decorator Emilio Terry was creating in France around the same time for the collector Charles de Beistegui.

Among the most striking interiors at Casa Fornasetti are those in the self-contained ground-floor guest apartment, which Barnaba makes available to enthusiasts and collectors of his father's work. Particularly elegant is the sitting room, with a pair of white button-tufted Chesterfield sofas flanking the fireplace, above which hangs a superscale octagonal mirror, a playful reminder of Fornasetti's fascination with the idea of worlds within worlds. In the airy, glass-walled kitchen overlooking the garden courtyard, the floors and walls are covered in white tiles embellished with the artist's familiar motifs. The sense of total design immersion makes you feel as though you have entered the very heart of Fornasettiland.

Much of the best furniture in the house resulted from the designer's collaborations with Gio Ponti, which began with the 1940 Milan Triennale. Fornasetti fled to Switzerland during the Allied invasion of 1943 but returned after the war to Milan, where he and Ponti were part of a catalytic convergence of brilliant architects, adventurous industrialists, and improvisational artisans that made the city the new epicenter of contemporary design.

Throughout the fifties the two men produced numerous pieces together, with Ponti as designer and Fornasetti contributing the decoration. So diverting are Fornasetti's black, white, and gold surface treatments that it takes a while to notice how sleek Ponti's modernist forms are. The trompe l'oeil details he applied to a drop-front bureau now in Barnaba's quarters create illusionistic views of Italian architecture. As Barnaba recalls, his father derided mobili della nonna—grandmother's furniture—and deemed Ponti's pieces ideal foils for his own designs, which he saw as timeless.

Always less interested in form than surface, Fornasetti was content to use white china blanks made by the firms of Richard Ginori or Arzberg for his ceramic designs. Like Duchamp and Le Corbusier, he understood the iconic power of generic household items. Thus his mildly naughty imagery seemed more provocative on objects of the utmost bourgeois propriety: tea services, cake stands, and vases.

The problem is that no matter how ingenious Fornasetti's ideas were, the boring shapes to which they were applied diminished the impact. But bring enough of his stuff together, as he did in his home, and it all coalesces into a vibrant three-dimensional collage.

Fornasetti's stupefying versatility is precisely why he's so difficult to categorize. His furniture and decorative objects, which flout every rule in the modernist book, are omitted from the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. But when MoMA copublished The Design Encyclopedia in 2004, the refreshingly inclusive reference title listed Fornasetti. Can full rehabilitation be far behind?

That is the fervent wish of Barnaba Fornasetti, who has helped establish credible market values for his father's creations, even though many were unsigned or made in editions of unknown size, which can affect resale price. Central to that effort is the planned Fornasetti omnium-gatherum to be published by Umberto Allemandi next year. With some 11,000 items, it will be the most comprehensive catalogue of his work ever assembled. But even Barnaba is careful not to call it a catalogue raisonné. "I don't think all his designs will ever be known," he says.

Bearded, professorial, and soft-spoken, Barnaba, 56, doesn't come across as a brand manager, but he runs the eponymous family firm (the showroom is located on a chic stretch of Milan's Via Manzoni) with a shrewd grasp of the interplay between marketplace and museum. He has maintained tight control over his father's designs, putting a handful back into production strictly in limited quantities. "I have to be very careful not to upset the collectors," he explains. "They are very passionate. And I can never make anything in plastic—they hate plastic."

As a design revolution spread worldwide from studios, workshops, and showrooms not far from his front door, Piero Fornasetti retreated deeper into the past. Had he pursued his career in Paris, he would have been a perfect fit with that city's postwar school of classically inspired artists and designers, which in addition to Emilio Terry included Jean Cocteau and Christian Bérard. But the high modernist dogma that prevailed in Milan worked against his being taken seriously. Here, classicism was not only passé; worse, it was politically incorrect. Even in the seventies, the architect Aldo Rossi's minimalist reinterpretations of classical forms could still provoke outrage among Italian leftists.

Fornasetti's saving grace was the antic humor lurking just beneath—and sometimes on—the surface of his finest designs. His stubborn refusal to engage the present would have been insufferable were it not counterbalanced by his appetite for subversion, as played out by the Dadaists and Surrealists during the artist's first two de-cades. Their anarchic send-ups of middle-class conventions are reflected, albeit much less savagely, in many of his pieces.

If a unifying theme can be found in Fornasetti's sprawling body of work, it is his dream of an ideal universe beyond the depredations of history. The miraculous time capsule of Casa Fornasetti is nothing less than that vision made real, a landmark of domestic design, and a master magician's most convincing illusion.

To request a private tour of the house, send an e-mail to info@fornasetti.com.