When Louis Vuitton Met the Whimsical World of Piero Fornasetti

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Nicolas Ghesquière wanted his fall 2021 Louis Vuitton collection to convey “hope and joy for what’s coming next.” With this in mind, he had an epiphany when he visited the show’s venue, the Michelangelo Gallery at the Louvre, “with its stunning collection of Greek, Etruscan and Roman sculpture.” The space made him think of the work of the sui generis Italian artist and designer Piero Fornasetti. “I was struck,” Ghesquière recalls, “by how Fornasetti’s unique aesthetic world could provide the visual and thematic bridge between my fall 2021 collection and the location.”

Fornasetti, celebrated for his furniture and ceramic designs, made his Vogue debut in 1947 for a story on Italy’s emerging post-war fashion scene. He was described as “a Milanese artist who designs some of Italy’s best prints,” and the story was illustrated with a pair of “hand-painted, shirred-up beach britches.” Fornasetti would later collaborate with Biki, the Milanese couturière celebrated for creating Maria Callas’s entrance-making gowns; and it was the artist’s headscarves, mixing innovative printing techniques with pochoir and hand-painting—much of it executed by Fornasetti’s wife, Giulia—that drew the eye of the great designer Gio Ponti. At the time, notes Fornasetti’s son Barnaba, there was an explosion in mass-produced industrial design, but Ponti was drawn to Fornasetti’s artisanal approach and the two worked on some iconic pieces of furniture including instantly identifiable commodes, secretaires, and screens.

Piero Fornasetti’s family had originally planned for him to become an accountant, but his creative urges led him to study art at the Brera Academy. Disillusioned with the curriculum, however, he left and taught himself, using Cennino Cennini’s 14th-century treatise on painting. His work combined a mastery of those ancient crafts with an embrace of innovation and drew on an impressive archive of historic visual references that he assembled in bound volumes now preserved in Milan. Vogue regularly documented Fornasetti’s latest mid-century must-haves, including such stylish marvels as a screen depicting ancient lutes and a table setting of linens and china, all printed with pages from Italian newspapers. “I’m a long-time admirer of the aesthetic of Piero Fornasetti in 1940 and its trove of unique, instantly recognizable drawings, themes and motifs,” notes Nicolas Ghesquière, who is “particularly drawn” to those collaborations with Ponti.

In the postmodern ’80s, Fornasetti was rediscovered. The Italian-born Liliane Fawcett of the visionary London store Themes & Variations—who was then showcasing the work of emerging furniture designers including Tom Dixon and Andre Dubreuil—encouraged the designer, then in his 70s, to create a series of china plates. The plates that resulted—more than 300 versions of an engraving of the belle epoque beauty Lina Cavalieri’s face—soon became must-have accessories in the fashionable ’80s homestead. “If a piece is good,” Fornasetti maintained, “it can’t lose anything by being produced a million times.”

My own visits to Milan for the collections and photo shoots in the ’80s and ’90s invariably involved a detour to Fornasetti’s former Aladdin’s cave on the via Brera, where my acquisitions included plates, bookends, and on a red letter day a silk waistcoat printed with Palladian architectural renderings. (Each of the five china buttons depicted a different capital of the classical orders.) I bought a folding tole tray table with coral form legs and a golden chinoiserie scene, and on another occasion I managed to walk out with a small round side table printed with classical male and female profiles—I later discovered that I had inadvertently been sold the original 1950s sample. Too big for an overhead locker on the plane, it sat upside down on my lap for the flight home and I have cherished it ever since.

In preparation for the Vuitton collection, Ghesquière and his team explored those extensive Fornasetti archives “searching,” as he notes, “for images centered on three specific themes—antique statues, cameo portraits, and architecture.” The results—from fashion to purses and luggage—reflect the joyous optimism of fashion as we continue to reemerge from the pandemic. “We had lots of fun creating trompe l’oeil,” says Ghesquière, “challenging the materials and techniques….”

“I like the different interpretation,” says Barnaba Fornasetti, guardian of the brand since his father’s death in 1988. “Using the past, renovating, interpreting is like the more recent DJs, who use something existing, remix it, and come out with totally original music.” The results, he adds, feel “very, very modern, very futuristic.”