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by Sarah Coffee

Fornasetti: La Follia Pratica
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interview by Eric Ottens

Fashion Archive
Chicago '96

Alexander Girard
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Last Night a DJ Saved My Life
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Plaster Caster
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Fornasetti: La Follia Pratica
January 20 - February 29, 2004
Istituto Italiano di Cultura, Chicago

Piero Fornasetti is the one artist who typically leaves newcomers to Modern design scratching their heads. The prolific designer created a maddening array of fanciful motifs, which adorned objects from furniture to ashtrays to scarves and plates. Looking at Fornasetti’s collaborations with Gio Ponti can be even more baffling; here was an artist who’s work is often compared to Giorgio De Chirico, but is perhaps more comparable to Max Ernst, plastering Ponti’s clean-lined furniture with sheet music, newsprint, letters of the alphabet and other wacky stuff.


Chicago’s Istituto Italiano Di Cultura attempts to shed some light on the Fornasetti mystique with La Follia Pratica, an exhibition featuring fine examples of the late Piero’s work as well as the designs being carried on by his son, Barnaba.

The Secret of Fornasetti
While his mid-century contemporaries in the U.S. were exploiting mass-production to its fullest potential, Fornasetti was toiling away in a tiny workshop attached to his home in Via Bazzini in Milan. Apparently inspired by virtually everything he laid his eyes on, Piero produced literally thousands of different designs.

“My secret is imagination” he was fond of saying, yet one of his most closely guarded secrets was his printing technique. Barnaba Fornasetti touches upon this technique in the 32-page exhibition catalog.

“My father began to experiment with different printing techniques in the 1940’s while producing lithographs for contemporary Italian artists. From the lithography stone he passed on to zinc plates and began to refine a transfer technique using a special paper for printing his designs, which were then applied to the lacquered surfaces of furniture and objects of every nature. This is the famous and often mysticized ‘secret of Fornasetti.’ He was capable of printing in lithography on the most unexpected surfaces.”

Watercolor sketch for one of the
Città di Carte plates

While Fornasetti has delighted many, his work was never collected as fervently as that of his contemporaries, perhaps due to his prickly nature regarding what makes a Fornasetti 'original.'

“Everything that I have made in the past and continue to make in the present is original. I am alive, and furthermore a piece of furniture made today is probably more technically perfect and physically less damaged than an older model”

In a market where an objects uniqueness and date of production is everything, Fornasetti’s general indifference to dating, signing, or numbering the items he produced warded off many would-be collectors. However, in 1998, Barnaba collaborated with Christie’s to produce a sale dedicated to Fornasetti, which made great strides in clearing up much of the misinformation and ambiguity which surrounded the production history.

The Exhibition
The exhibition in Chicago primarily consists of items from the showroom, which were transferred from Via Bazzini to Via Montenapoleone (in the center of Milan) during the 1960’s. Some fine examples of Fornasetti’s trademark screens will be on display, along with many of the plates and other porcelain objects which bare his metaphysical illustrations. Perhaps the most exciting inclusions in the exhibition are Piero’s sketches and watercolors for everything from his Acrobati screen to the Pranzo in piedi, a device for those who eat and run. Vespa enthusiasts will either be delighted or horrified by Fornasetti’s use of one of his favorite motifs, that of playing cards, in a promotional project for Piaggio.

A Piero Fornasetti screen, one of his many
objects utilizing a playing card motif.

A number of Barnaba Fornasetti’s own designs are included in the exhibition as well. Purists may scoff at the idea of the Multimediale trumeu, designed to contain “the most representative of today’s social customs: the telephone, fax, computer, TV and DVD, Hi-Fi and the Internet.”

However, Barnaba may escape the ridicule that many sons of great designers are faced with due to Piero’s philosophy; he truly wanted his dream to continue after his death and organized the production to insure that it could be perpetuated. “It is not important when an object is produced, but how it is produced.”

Along with contemporary ideas like his Architettura CD holder, Barnaba has also developed a contemporary pitch, “a Fornasetti is ‘eco-sustainable', it is passed on to one’s children, or resold, but never thrown away!”

Fornasetti: La Follia Pratica
January 19 - February 29, 2004
Istituto Italiano di Cultura
500 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago
(312) 822-9545

Opening reception:
Tuesday, January 19
Special guest: Barnaba Fornasetti
(RSVP: 312 822-9545)

Jason Mojica likes art.

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