Barnaba Fornasetti’s elegant Milan townhouse
Barnaba Fornasetti’s elegant Milan townhouse is an iconic installation, a carefully curated shrine to the Fornasetti aesthetic. But it’s also a personal home filled with memories and antiques. Photographs Maxime Galati / Fourcade & Laura Fantacuzzi /
Nestled in a creative quarter of Milan’s university district is Casa Fornasetti – a red-painted, stylish building that’s home to Barnaba Fornasetti, son of the renowned designer Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988), painter, sculptor, interior decorator, engraver of books and creator of more than 11,000 products. This quiet corner of Milan has escaped insensitive development, much to Barnaba’s relief. ‘Buildings here are still low, with gardens,’ he says. ‘We have tree-lined avenues.’
Casa Fornasetti was built in the late 19th century by Barnaba’s grandfather, Pietro Fornasetti, an early importer of typewriters. Barnaba’s father, Piero, was born in the house and Barnaba grew up there, too, in the 1950s, before leaving home to study fine art, ‘edit underground magazines’ and ‘renovate farmhouses’.
‘My childhood was quite lonely,’ Barnaba recalls. ‘I remember playing among the legs of my father’s workmen in his Atelier when I was four or five, asking the painter to re-varnish my toy car. My mother was angry with me because I got my clothes dirty crawling on the floor of the studio.’ Since then, the house and garden have changed a lot. ‘There used to be two huge apricot trees as high as the house,’ Barnaba says, wistfully. ‘These days, my apricots have parasites, perhaps because of pollution.’
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When Barnaba was growing up, there was a private part of the house for the family and a working space dedicated to his father’s prolific business. ‘In the 1950s and 60s the Atelier took up almost all of the building. Then, from the end of the 1970s, the work space gradually decreased due to the decoration industry collapsing,’ he recalls. Barnaba’s father furnished the family’s private part of the house with antiques. ‘There were very few of his own objects and almost none of his furniture,’ reveals Barnaba. ‘Since I moved back here in the late 1980s, following my father’s death, I have filled it with his furniture (and also mine), paintings, rugs and accessories.’ It was in the 1980s, too, that the Fornasetti brand was relaunched by Themes and Variations Gallery in London, to great acclaim.
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The house is colourful, creative and eccentric – a celebration of all things Fornasetti. From the monochrome tiles in the bathroom to the Gerusalemme wallpaper (designed by Piero especially for the house), this is a living, breathing work of art. At the heart of it all is an enormous archive room, packed with plan chests and bulging binders containing Piero’s vast archive of images from magazines, books and old prints.
Some might find it hard to live in an installation, but Barnaba enjoys the process of renewal that comes with curating this living archive. ‘It’s something that helped me through the Covid-19 lockdown, actually,’ he says. ‘I had fun refining all the corners of the house. I feel a sense of responsibility to preserve this house and curate it but, as a collector of objects, I feel love for all the things in my home, too,’ Barnaba says, warmly. It’s important to Barnaba to share his father’s aesthetic with others, so an apartment within the house is available for research students and ‘cultural personalities’ to stay in, so they can fully immerse themselves in the whimsical world of Fornasetti.
Much of the best furniture in the house resulted from collaborations with Giò Ponti. ‘My father and Ponti contributed to the success of Milanese design in the world and this gave birth, in a second movement, to the Salone del Mobile,’ explains Barnaba. ‘They advocated decorative and conceptual design as opposed to minimalist style.’
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Among the most important pieces in the collection is the ‘Fagiolino’ – a curved cabinet (named because of its bean shape) made of glass and wood, designed by Ponti. ‘It was hand-painted by my father with gold and silver leaf for FontanaArte,’ says Barnaba. ‘It’s unique.’ Peppered among the Fornasetti items are stunning antiques, including a mid 19th-century Italian walnut armoire, one of Piero’s finds, originally made for the Carabinieri a Cavallo (the horsemounted branch of the Italian armed forces) to hang their long capes.
Barnaba has mastered the art of contrast and often pairs an antique piece with a modern creation for dramatic effect. For example, in the green sitting room, a 1960s Chesterfield sofa sits happily in front of a hexagonal 18th-century mirror. He’s also a dab hand at display. Pretty Biedermeier-style Bohemian glasses arranged on glass shelves in front of a window catch the light and sparkle like jewels, while a narrow hallway is transformed into a gallery, plastered floor to ceiling with artworks.
Barnaba’s favourite antique in the house is a 17th-century still-life by Italian painter Paolo Antonio Barbieri. ‘I like it because it’s naïve and surrealist at the same time and also vaguely ‘Fornasettian’,’ he muses.
It’s clear Casa Fornasetti is still a work in progress. ‘It’s always changing,’ agrees Barnaba. ‘Many things get sent around the world to be exhibited. But we have a big warehouse and I always find something to use as a replacement.’ Piero’s legacy is in safe hands, thanks to his son, who has dedicated his life to ensuring Casa Fornasetti – and the brand – will be a vibrant celebration of design for generations to come.
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