Keeping it surreal

Watching me?

A year or so ago, I was commissioned by The Sunday Telegraph’s Stella Magazine to meet Barnaba Fornasetti and to have a sneak around his house in Milan… here’s the result…

Pondering Barnaba Fornasetti

Approach Barnaba Fornasetti’s turn of the century villa in the elegant Citta Studi area of Milan and from the outside you’d be forgiven for thinking you were about to enter a typically affluent Italian home. You might imagine discreet modern sofas, carefully chosen lamps and a sleek wood kitchen. But what would the neighbours say if they could see inside the next door house? For here lives a man with butterflies all over his kitchen floor, dining table and walls, a bedroom lined in black and white clouds and a bathroom whose floor is a beckoning arm.

Iconic faces

The Fornasetti name first became famous in the 1950s when the work of Barnaba’s father Piero, an artist and designer, became hugely popular. He became noted because of his graphic images, trompe l’oeil work and his use of surreal imagery on ordinary household items. But come the minimalist 1990s, his over-the-top style and decorative motifs were unfashionable and it is only recently, thanks to Barnaba, that they are on the design radar again.

Famous, moi?
Food for thought on Fornasetti plates

Along with the striking Fornasetti wallpaper, now licensed under Cole & Son, the Themes and Variations collection of ceramic plates are perhaps the most famous. Created in 1961, the 350 different designs feature close-ups of the face of opera singer Lina Cavalieri. Having come across her picture in a magazine, Piero was inspired by her classic, enigmatic beauty and her face became a recurrent theme in his work. Irreverent and sensual, each plate is different, with some stranger than others – there’s one with her poking out a fleshy tongue, while another has her features carved up to feature on a snail’s face or one which just has her eye peeking out of a keyhole.

Living room and library

Look through the keyhole of this rambling L-shaped house, surrounded by lush gardens, and you’ll discover an homage to the surreal. It’s like entering into Alice’s Wonderland, except a little more ordered. At first glance it looks as though it has remained untouched since the 1960s, although it turns out that Barnaba has worked on many rooms in the house since taking it and the business over 20 years ago. Despite his changes it remains (purposely) a museum mainly to his father’s work, with Fornasetti creations everywhere – from one-off prototypes, like the yellow wooden, crescent-shaped moon used as a magazine rack in Barnaba’s office, to the bold, in your face wallpapers and rugs with quirky designs on.

Information overload

Wandering around the house, one of the first things that strikes you is the overwhelming amount of collections: there’s hundreds of books in many rooms, possibly thousands of records, a blue glass collection (found in a glass cabinet inset into a wall), countless jazz CDs and shelves of fashion and interiors magazines. “I am fanatical about collecting. And I keep everything. My father was the same – he was obsessive about information of all kinds,” Barnaba laughs. There’s consequently a huge amount of objects everywhere –umbrella stands that have been made for design shows, antique lamps found in the attic, vintage pictures discovered in a flea market, you name it and you’ll find it here. It makes for a beguiling home.

Kiss Cabinet by Barnaba Fornasetti

The upstairs studios are where Barnaba and his artists work. A warm smell of wood and aged paper emanates from the higgledy-piggledy jumble of desks and tables, containing all the archives, and you can feel the sense of history that is housed here. At first sight it looks chaotic but Barnaba reveals that, just like his collections, it is in fact highly organised. “Everything is labelled and filed away. I am obsessive when it comes to organisation. The only problem is that I seem to be the only person to understand my system,” he smiles. “So we are now in the process of archiving everything digitally. It’s a long job.” The most striking aspect of course is the huge wall mural, an adaption of the Mediterranea wallpaper, which has a large stylised sun that beams over the space, with its mountains of papers, exposed pipes and old family furniture.

Mediterranea Wallpaper
Stylised suns

It’s in this atelier that Barnaba runs the business and casts his creative eye over ongoing projects. Having taken over the Fornasetti business in 1989, Barnaba – an artist and painter just like his father – realised the brand needed a boost with a new creative direction. Over the years he has designed new pieces himself – such as his recent quirky stools with images of buttocks on. He has also pared down the output of items since his father’s day and begun to reissue ‘lost’ designs under licensing agreements with major companies, such as Cole & Son, Luciano Marcato fabric, Ceramica Bardelli tiles and Sam Roubini rugs and carpets.


“I have spent the last ten years rebuilding the business after interest waned in what we were putting out. This house represents my journey – all around you can see my ideas, my work, my inspiration. Above all I didn’t want us to be a luxury brand that goes out of fashion. That’s too throwaway. I want all our products to have a timeless quality about them with a value that is gained through use of traditional craftsmanship. Gone are the days of mass consumerism, now people want things they love and they will cherish forever. And that’s what we’re about.”

Cloudy walls

A room dear to Barnaba’s heart is the newly-decorated guest room, which was once his parent’s bedroom. Most guest rooms aim to please those that stay in them, but Barnaba goes one step further for the many friends that are often decamped here. Three of the walls are papered in an unforgettable Fornasetti black and white cloud wallpaper with the remainder painted in a deep, royal blue shade. “I wanted this room to be a dreamscape– where you can escape from your consciousness. If you sleep here, I want you to go on a journey.” The result is an ethereal yet tactile space, but one where your eye is constantly distracted by the many pieces of quirky artefacts and furniture dotted around. It makes you wonder if his guests actually manage to get to sleep.

The Palladia Chest
Palladiana Chest

Resting on the original oak parquet floors are vintage Fornasetti pieces – such as the 1953 “Palladiana” and “Architettura” chests of drawers, the latter adorned with classic architectural line drawings and the former with drawings of the facades of buildings. Above the antique brass bed, dressed in an old family lace bedspread, is a framed collection of Sardinian wedding breads, also resembling lace. “I like details and for there to be a narrative to each room. A sense of continuity.”

Butterfly kitchen

And there is. Each room has its own identity and even colour – this room is blue, the living room is green, the kitchen is white. In one red bedroom, even the books are scarlet, having been carefully picked out to match the shade on the walls. Wander downstairs, via a crazy corridor lined with cupboards covered in a tropical-hued trompe l’oeil of birds, and across a travertine floor in shades of pink and you’ll find the hub, and perhaps the highlight, of the house – the all-white, butterfly kitchen. It’s an incredible space and couldn’t be more different to the rest of the villa. It’s a wonderfully airy room filled with light and opening out to the outside grounds. But it’s the delicate butterflies adorning the floor tiles, kitchen cabinets and 1950s Fornasetti Atelier table and chairs that are so unusual. The décor is made all the more striking, more masculine even, as the bespoke design is underlaid with a newsprint from Italian broadsheets. Taking him six years to complete (the space was once a porch on the side of the house), he wanted the kitchen to have a fresh, outdoorsy feeling albeit with the Fornasetti trademark twist.

Table transformation

Two striking canvases hang on the walls. One is a still-life of food, an oil painting by artist Paolo Antonio Barbieri and dates back to the 15th century. And the other is a watercolour, aptly of a lady selling butterflies, painted by Piero himself in 1938. After leaving art school in the 30s, he became part of the surrealist movement which was gaining momentum at the time, mixing with other surrealist painters such as Georgio De Chirico and architects, such as Gio Ponti, both of whom were inspirational in his work. You can see these origins all around here.

Old and new combine
Art to tread lightly on

Concrete stairs lead you up into the living room, whose walls are a vibrant, mossy green and are lined with books: “I’m simply a collector of collections.” It’s a cosy room, the kind where you can wile away a few hours doing nothing much. Again there’s a mix of old and new, seamlessly put together so that nothing seems out of place. Oversized, vintage leather Chesterfield sofas cry out to be slumped in, your toes sink into the “Pavimento” Roubini Rug, with its intricate monochrome line design, and the 1970s wooden column lamps cast a soft glow through their architectural print shades. Inset into an original 19th century fireplace is an ultra-modern, double-backed glass fireplace which looks through to the kitchen and vice versa, cleverly linking both rooms.

Glam soak

Most glamourous and atmospheric of all, though, is the bathroom. Shiny tiles and black gloss cabinets are all stamped with the iconic Cavalieri face and the bespoke rug wittily points your way to the bath. It’s like a little world-within-a-world, albeit a slightly surreal and sensuous one.

New fragrance launches

It is an eccentric and exciting home, one in which you could lose yourself for hours. Originally built by his grandfather, Barnaba has returned to the house he grew up in and made it his own, despite his father’s strong personality embedded in its fabric. You can see that the foundations of Fornasetti remain steadfastly unchanged here, yet the collaborations and revivalist spirit Barnaba is so keen on are very much of the moment. And that, you realise, will no doubt be Barnaba’s legacy.

New breath of life
My own treasured piece of Fornasetti

The latest collaboration is with French master perfumer Olivier Polge, who has created a home fragrance, known as ‘Otto’, to be used in candles, incense, oils and rocks all housed in collectable ceramic objects. Click here for more on Fornasetti Profumi per La Casa  

One thought on “Keeping it surreal

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