Piero Fornasetti

Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988) was a prolific designer, painter, sculptor, interior decorator and engraver, creating more than 11.000 items: from trays, posters, vests, lamps, bicycles, screens, ashtrays, umbrellas, scarves, porcelain to furniture.

As well as designing the interiors for a casino, the Zodiac Suite on the “Andrea Doria” ocean liner, that was once an icon of Italian national pride, he set designs for “La Scala” opera house. Piero Fornasetti also worked as a set designer for the film industry for numerous Italian movies.

Natalina, Lina Cavalieri

Lina Cavalieri CC-0

Piero first saw Lina while leafing through an old French fashion magazine from the 19th century.

It is unclear whether the two ever met, but Lina appears repeatedly on his pieces. Natalina Cavalieri (1874-1944) was an Italian opera singer and actress who lived in Italy, New York and Paris.

Lina was married five times, but it is said that the soprano was asked in marriage by over eight hundred admires.

She became the face of the soap brand Palmolive and launched her own perfume, had the bottle designed by Julien Viard and cleverly named it “Mona Lina”.

Captivated by her classical beauty, formal features and heavenly hypnotic gaze, Piero first embarked on a sojourn to paint the face of “the most beautiful woman in the world” in the 1950’s – and never stopped.

Her enigmatic expression was the template for often-surreal motifs to the original line engraving, multiple pieces, games, poetic ideas and metaphysical portraits made by Piero. Mostly on the plates, but there are also elements of her face – an eye, a mouth – used on furniture, trays, cups and other porcelain items.

Fornasetti Coffee cups
Fornasetti coffee cups, tazzine. CC BY 4.0

Her image appears as a figurehead on a ship, melting in an egg timer and in a number of eccentric variations (almost 400, some say even more), including winking, sticking out her tongue and hiding behind her hands. Piero also portrayed her as both the sun and the moon, as well as a heart.

Tema e Variazioni

We love his set of plates called “Tema e Variazioni”, that feature the face of Lina. Piero Fornasetti’s theme and variations have come to comprise hundreds of transformations, alterations, ironic re-imaginations and decorative re-interpretations over the years. She has appeared to be flirtatious, mystified, baffled, and coy.

Endless permutations of Lina by Piero Fornasetti on our website:

However she is reinvented, Lina’s face remains unmistakable. An icon that has become the emblem of Piero and his poetics. Why Cavalieri’s image proved such a fertile source of inspiration is something of a mystery:

“What inspired me to create hundreds of variations on the face of a woman?”

“I began to make them and I never stopped.”

Piero Fornasetti

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.

In addition to architectural elements and Lina Cavalieri’s face, he experimented with suns, butterflies, fish, playing cards, and hot air balloons, among many other motifs. Sometimes the decorations floated across the surface completely autonomously, at other times they playfully interpenetrate the material forms.

Piero Fornasetti.

The “tema e variazioni” series has been the subject of monumental museum exhibitions across the world, including the Venice Biennale in 1952 and the Louvre Museum in Paris in 1955.

A retrospective was organized for the centenary of the birth of Piero Fornasetti. “Piero Fornasetti. 100 years of practical madness” was presented at the Milan Triennale, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul, there were also exhibitions at the Museo Nazionale Romano Palazzo Altemps in Rome and at Artipelag in Stockholm.

Piero Fornasetti’s legacy

His interest in imaginatively decorated surfaces and witty historical quotations presaged postmodernism.

The plates are still handmade in Fornasetti’s Milan atelier to his original specification of 26 cm of diameter and high quality ceramics. The studio is now run by his son, Barnaba Fornasetti. The design pieces are expertly crafted by hand, by artisans specialized on woodworking, pottery making, painting and varnishing.

“From Piero, I have inherited the desire to imagine, to invent, to dream – as it were – with my eyes open, the things Piero made, and we after him, are here to stay…they are for keeping, to be passed on from generation to generation.”

Barnaba says of his fathers legacy.
Piero Fornasetti.

Fornasetti’s webpage is a special treat unto itself – with biographies, videos, interiors, the shop and tours of the atelier.

Piero Fornasetti’s artworks on Lina Cavalieri are closely treasured on earthstoriez, and adored by us.

And next time you see Lina on earthstoriez, give her a wink now that you know her story.

We use the pictures of the plates on earthstoriez, on courtesy of ©FORNASETTI.