Today we speak with design icon Barnaba Fornasetti, the figurehead of one most renowned and recognised design brands in the world. His late father Piero (1988) founded the Fornasetti empire and Barnaba has taken the baton on seamlessly. He continues to create objects, furniture and fashion items for the brand and has just realised Tema e Variazioni: The First Series, 1–100, a super-luxurious handmade tome. It celebrates his father’s iconic series of ‘Theme and Variations’ dinner plates, based on a portrait of the Italian born opera singer Lina Cavalieri, his muse. There are just 100 editions, each numbered and signed by Barnaba himself, this beautiful new book features the first 100 of these designs.
The world of Fornasetti has proven to be timeless, remaining hugely popular for many decades, what do you think is the key to this success?
Fornasetti is timeless and not related to fashion trends or design in the strictest meaning on the word. It deals more with graphic designs decorating various surfaces. The décor can be employed in several different contexts that are not necessarily connected with a product or a commercial and physical object. That’s why Fornasetti’s aesthetics is able to stir the collective unconscious images ever since gathered in our brains.
A Fornasetti object is not a simple object: it can communicate with those who are still naturally good at perceiving and it can console people from modern life troubles. People need more and more decoration because it has the same function of music: it seems not absolutely necessary but it definitely is. It’s like food for our souls.
What led to the decision of creating the “TEMA E VARIAZIONI. THE FIRST SERIES 1-100” book?
I think that we are living the digital era’s peak and it is time to deconstruct its myth by introducing crosscurrent and almost obsolescent projects so to underline the importance of time in human being’s work, through the artisan processes and the pleasure of the research of high quality details. As you can perceive just keeping this book in your hands and looking at it closely, the images that everyone knew only printed on plates are now having a new birth.
The limited-edition choice is born naturally when we decided to select the first 100 variations and to use a different brass matrix for every single number of the book. By the way, it is a higher number of editions if compared with the usual circulation of this high quality books and compared to the “life” of a matrix and its reproduction capacity.
I thought that such a slow and long-lasting project sounds like a challenge in our era where time is money and we have less occasions to handle cultural values independent from economic restrictions since we are involved in a daily timesaving competition.
Do you have a particular favourite variation, or Fornasetti design piece?
I don’t have any favourite object. Usually my enthusiasm is focused on what I’m creating in that moment. As I told before, I’m trying to employ the decoration without thinking about a specific item. At the moment our Atelier is working on its usual production, but we’re also focused on two different projects that will involve Fornasetti as a publisher and an Opera producer. For the first time in Italy we’ll stage the original version of the “Don Giovanni”. It will be set up with a 30 ancient instruments orchestra by complying with the original score as it was performed for the first time by W.A. Mozart in Prague in 1787. I’m working with some excellent experts as Simone Toni (musical director), Davide Montagna (stage director), Romeo Gigli (costumes), Gigi Saccomandi (lighting), Valeria Manzi and Roberto Coppolecchia (artistic direction). Of course the scenography will be designed by Fornasetti.
What is the most valuable thing you have learnt from working extensively in the art & design world?
I think that nowadays for a designer – no matter the work he does – the most important thing is to keep in mind sustainability.
As a renowned expert in the world of design what advice would you give to someone looking to begin such a career?
Don’t be obsessed by being contemporary. Use technology just as a tool, just like the pencil for a drawer, a brush and a canvas for a painter. Bear always in mind the classical orders for proportion and balance, spaces and shapes.
What is the best piece of expert advice any one has ever given to you?
A quote by Plato: “The rhetoric of the persuasion will replace democracy that cannot be practiced on irrational basis”. I saw that also in a commercial activity you can influence public’s taste as well as medias influence the choice of the voters in politics. In this way fashion has become the driving force, the system to follow so to impose on markets what is more profit-making for the producers and not what is more useful, beautiful, functional, durable, convenient for the client, the final user who is, not by chance, the consumer. Someone who must consume the object – often useless – at the earliest so to allow the immediate production of a new one, giving work and increasing the economic growth whose stop would be a global disaster.
So, as a result of this advice I live the contradiction of an entrepreneur who would like to break this mechanism and is making every effort to follow sustainability in a system that will be obliged to change sooner or later, otherwise will incur self-destruction.
What was the best lesson you learnt from your father and how have you applied it to your life?
The imagination. My father used to say “I don’t believe in periods or in dates. I simply don’t believe in them. I refuse to determine the value of an object by its date. I don’t limit myself, and nothing is too esoteric to be used as inspiration. I want to free my inspiration from the limitations of the usual. But I am also a rationalist, against the bohemian precepts of Scapigliatura. One who rejects art movements and labels also rejects this.
There is surrealism in Paolo Uccello. See how vast the horizon is! This is a fixation that I fight, the obsession with labels—surrealism, neorealism, romantic, postmodern.
We have the habit of buying ‘signatures,’ and no longer invest in beautiful things that we like. An artist who wants to be successful is no longer an artist; he is a person who wants to have success. If he conforms to fashion, he will arrive late because by now everyone has already conformed. Therefore, perhaps, the idea is not to conform but to be original. For example, I am suggesting the idea of creating fashion items that never go out of fashion.”
Moreover, being an authoritarian father, he strengthened my nature and he taught me to fight and resist against conformism and mediocrity.
Who or what influences you most and what keeps you inspired?
My father’s work influenced me because I was born in that context and I was in my element since I was a child although not yet an active part of it. Today I got an entire archive and it’s an amazing incitement. When I need to find ideas I loose myself in this archive so huge and rich to become my main source. It helps me in exploring an artistic world perfect to obtain images to manipulate.
However, I reach the major concentration in an outdoor ambience – totally free of images – that is the swimming pool where I used to swim, but I have to say that inspiration comes always working.
What do you think is the key to becoming an expert?
There is no key since I don’t consider myself an expert and more experience I gain more I realise to be less expert.