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Treasured Chest

Handmade illustrated cabinets

Starting with a collection of printed scarves, Italian designer Piero Fornasetti (1913-88) created an astonishing array of playfully decorated products—more than 11,000 items, from plates to magazine racks, paperweights to screens, covered with historically allusive motifs. An artist with an outstanding graphic sensibility, he took ordinary housewares and transformed them with surface ornamentation. By applying evocative illustrations to mass-produced objects—such as plain ceramic plates, which he famously embellished with a 19th-century engraving of a woman's face—he turned them into mysteriously potent artifacts.

Fornasetti's most arresting work comes from a three-decades-long collaboration with the Milanese architect Gio Ponti. In 1951 they launched Architettura, a line of handmade cabinetry designed by Ponti and decorated by Fornasetti, that wittily exploits the relationship between buildings and furniture. Its most spectacular piece, a black and white lacquered bureau—or "trumeau," as they termed it (right)—is densely lithographed with Piranesian facades and interiors inspired by 17th- and 18th-century prints. Ponti's simple fine-boned cabinet has exactly the right degree of buoyancy to counter any feeling of heaviness in Fornasetti's meticulously rendered etchings. When the doors are closed, a slightly forbidding stone facade is displayed; when open, a soaring apselike space is revealed. Magic casements indeed.

The Architettura trumeau is handmade by Fornasetti Atelier in Milan and available for $17,850 at Repertoire, 75 Grand St., New York; 212-219-8159; www.repertoire.com.