By Mayer Rus
Italian maestros Piero Fornasetti and Gio Ponti cultivated one of the most fertile and intriguing design collaborations of the 20th century. A prolific architect, industrial designer, magazine editor and academic, Ponti created an adventurous array of chairs, tables, desks, cabinets and objets de vertu that unapologetically flouted the modernist imperative for dry functionality and reductivism. Fornasetti, in turn, embellished those designs with chimerical patterns ranging from neoclassical architecture to exotic naturalia, amplifying the allure of Ponti’s elegantly proportioned forms. The duo’s Architettura trumeau—a cabinet with two doors and a drop-down writing surface, decorated in a trompe l’oeil pattern of neoclassical facades, arcades and vaults—is perhaps the most famous fruit of the dialogue they began roughly 80 years ago.
In a dramatic reimagining of this quintessentially Italian partnership, British artist Anj Smith recently added her voice to the dialogue, transforming a milestone duet into an unlikely trio. Working with Barnaba Fornasetti, Piero’s son and artistic heir, Smith has conjured a wonderland concealed within a wonderland, adorning the interior of the cabinet with an abstracted meditation on time and space, replete with her signature imagery of a curiously alluring post-catastrophic landscape.
For Smith, the project—suggested by Hauser & Wirth director Stefano Rabolli Pansera, a friend of Barnaba Fornasetti—presented an opportunity to engage with a designer she has long admired. In a 2014 exhibition curated by the fashion photographer Nick Knight at his SHOWstudio space in London, Fornasetti’s ‘Procuratie e Scimmie’ wallpaper—classical arcade arches inhabited by scampering monkeys—made an appearance alongside Mughal miniature paintings and glittering scarabs in a wunderkammer-like presentation of Smith’s work, accented with objects and artifacts that have inspired her. Two years later, Smith incorporated a torn fragment of the same paper, this time in a vivid neon colorway, in her painting ‘S.O.S.’ (2016–17).
When the chance arose to collaborate with Fornasetti directly, Smith immediately seized on the trumeau as the object of her desire. ‘I took the Architettura print as an entrance point,’ she says. ‘Because it was a collaboration, I wanted to work on something iconic, so that our two visual languages were clearly distinct. I’ve always loved the original 1951 Gio Ponti trumeau that featured Architettura.’
The furniture was intended from the start to be displayed in the context of a 2019 exhibition, ‘The Mountain of the Muse,’ at the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, part of an ongoing series in which contemporary artists interpret and react to the museum’s collections, strong in Northern Italian and Flemish painting, along with ceramics and furnishings. ‘There are three aspects of the exhibition: my work, the Fornasetti collaboration, and my work in the context of the Poldi Pezzoli,’ Smith says. ‘Since the Fornasetti print is an amalgamation of Milanese architectural references, it all fit together seamlessly.’
Piero appears to have found inspiration in everything he looked at—rock formations, the animal kingdom, the history of art—filtering everything through his subversive humor and the lens of his single-minded vision.
For Barnaba Fornasetti, the prospect of working with a painter felt like a natural extension of the studio’s legacy. ‘The atelier’s identity is based on cross-pollination and meetings,’ he said. ‘Its visual universe is simply a metaphorical reworking, a creative reorganization of the most diverse iconographic sources, and its artistic expression is a mix of disciplines.’
The artist and her collaborator say that, despite various superficial affinities between their visual languages, the through-line of their work ended up being more conceptual. ‘For me, the real connection is in the psychology,’ Smith says. ‘Piero appears to have found inspiration in everything he looked at—rock formations, the animal kingdom, the history of art—filtering everything through his subversive humor and the lens of his single-minded vision.’ Fornasetti says that Smith and the atelier seem to share a kind of free-floating, time-traveling psyche: ‘Even though Anj’s style is very different, the figures that inhabit her landscapes have something in common with the elements of my father’s visual universe. Her dreamlike imagery, like Fornasetti’s, is able to combine different concepts—popular culture, the archaic, modern fashion—and treat them as relics from far-off lands.’
The intervention (which also includes plates and vases) manages to provide a visceral punch for the work of a designer whose singular magic and creative brilliance have been blunted somewhat over the years by familiarity. Indeed, Barnaba himself seems to appreciate the value of such an unusual partnership: ‘Anj’s work pays tribute to my father and recognizes him as an example of the past that she could measure herself against. Her perspective illuminated new meanings of our complex identity, making the most original aspects of the Fornasetti ethos shine.’
In Anj Smith’s recent collaboration with Italian design atelier Fornasetti, the artist created three new plate designs, taking the iconic Fornasetti ‘Tema e Variazione’ series as a departure point. This series features evolving imagery based on the face of Italian Soprano and muse of the Belle Epoch, Lena Cavalieri.