Inside the Surreal Home of a Celebrated Milan Design Family

Barnaba Fornasetti has kept the fantastical spirit of his father’s namesake business alive in the clan’s house and offices, where whimsy and surprises abound.

Article by Laura May Todd

04-TMAG-MILAN-DESIGN-FAMILY-2Barnaba Fornasetti in his home’s courtyard garden, which was planted by his grandfather Pietro Fornasetti. Photography by Marco Mucig.

Barnaba Fornasetti, 73, was three years old when he first collaborated, albeit unwittingly, with his father, the famed artist, designer and lithographer Piero Fornasetti. He had wandered into Piero’s studio on the ground floor of the family home in Milan’s Citta Studi neighbourhood to offer him two small gifts — a daisy and a hydrangea leaf, which he had plucked from the dense bushes just outside the window. By then, the elder Fornasetti was well known for his furniture and household objects adorned with wildly surreal illustrations: chairs with smiling sunbursts rising up their backs, trompe l’oeil cabinets that resemble heaving bookshelves and, most famously, ceramic plates printed with infinite iterations of the opera singer Lina Cavalieri’s pale oval face. Moved by his son’s simple gift, Piero made a sketch of it and later that year reproduced the illustration, titled “Foglia di’Ortensia,” on a white metal serving platter.

One of these trays now resides in the entryway of the house, propped up in a glass case teeming with Fornasetti ephemera (matchbooks, ceramic vessels and miniatures all decorated with Piero’s drawings). Barnaba, who became the artistic director of Fornasetti when Piero died in 1988, still lives in the home, and among his trove of treasured objects, the plate has a particular sentimental value: He considers it the beginning of his near-lifelong creative dialogue with his father.

Seven decades later, the hydrangeas have grown taller than Barnaba. They were planted by his grandfather Pietro Fornasetti, a typewriter importer, who oversaw the construction of the three-story, 12,000-square-foot home in the late 19th century at what was then the northeastern edge of the city. The sprawling, U-shaped stucco-facade building was intended to house his family — his wife and four children — as well as his business, which he hoped his eldest son, Piero, would one day take over. But Piero, with his fiery disposition, seemed destined to forge his own path. Originally trained in drawing, he began printing illustrated books for Italian artists such as Lucio Fontana and Giorgio de Chirico in the 1930s. Later, he used his lithograph machine to produce his own images, which caught the attention of the architect Gio Ponti, who soon commissioned him to decorate furniture and wall panels in several of his projects, cementing Piero’s reputation. Now, the Fornasetti design brand offices, where Barnaba continues to make work under the family name, take up the entire west wing of the complex.

Barnaba and his father also had their disagreements. As a teenager in the late 1960s, Barnaba embraced the decade’s counterculture movement: He was the art director for the underground music magazine Get Ready and attended student demonstrations, which led to a brief stint in Milan’s San Vittore prison in 1969. By 1974, Barnaba had become fed up with bourgeois Milan and absconded to rural Tuscany to try his hand at restoring farmhouses and antique furniture, but he returned to the city in 1982, when his father asked him to join the company, and they worked together until Piero’s death. Since then, Barnaba has expanded Fornasetti’s reach by licensing his father’s designs to like-minded companies, reissuing editions of his original designs, organising exhibitions and collaborating with luxury brands, such as Louis Vuitton, which in 2021 released bags and clothing adorned with architecture-themed Fornasetti illustrations. Indeed, it’s largely thanks to Barnaba that Fornasetti is now a household name.

More than 50 mirrors hang throughout the house. Photography by Marco Mucig.

Soft-spoken, with round blue eyes, Barnaba has a sly sense of humour and a lively imagination. When greeting guests at his home’s front door, he likes to warn them of the scowling dark-haired woman in the portrait above their heads, by an anonymous 17th-century Lombard painter. “She’s very aggressive,” he cautioned during a recent visit. When he was growing up, the house was mostly devoid of Piero’s creations. “The furniture was from the 19th century, mainly Italian and classic,” he recalled. Over the years, he made several small changes and then, in 2003, he undertook a significant redesign, finally filling the home with his father’s now iconic imagery.

He first tackled his childhood bedroom on the second floor, which was once plastered with magazine cutouts of rock stars and classic cars, reimagining the room with an underwater theme and hanging Fornasetti serving platters illustrated with bulbous puffer fish, squirming eels and rows of sardines. Slowly, he made his way through the rest of the house, giving each room a distinct colour scheme and loose theme. The wunderkammer-like entranceway, which he painted in lemon-yellow stripes, is now home to his collection of masks, among them a long-faced carnival version from Venice that recalls the face covering of a medieval plague doctor and a red-lipped Noh one he discovered in Paris. The pieces hang in a cluster above a door that leads into the office — dominated by a mural based on a painting by a pupil of the Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca — which in turn leads to a narrow hallway lined with a wallpaper featuring Fornasetti’s 1940s “Gerusalemme” print, a black-and-white illustration of the biblical city. As visitors travel deeper into the house, the images on display become increasingly surreal: There are bawdy India ink drawings made by Piero in the 1940s and ’70s of faces with phalluses cheekily hidden in their features, and the eyes of Lina Cavalieri stare down, and occasionally wink, from the glossy wall tiles in a ground-floor bathroom.

At the end of the hallway is the forest green living room, where Barnaba has installed his collection of mirrors. “Some were made by my father, some are ancient,” he said. A three-foot-wide silvered telescope lens belongs to the first category, an 18th-century octagonal looking glass from Venice to the second. (The purpose of all the mirrors, Barnaba said, is “to keep witches and evil spirits away.”) Next to the living room is a light-flooded kitchen, whose windows look out onto the garden — a tangle of apricot trees, hibiscus flowers and crawling vines — and which is dedicated to butterflies, a common Fornasetti motif. Barnaba has covered almost every surface, including the cupboard doors, dining table and floor tiles with purple and blue fluttering insects that have been collaged against clippings of newspaper stories that mention the Fornasetti name (the pattern, called Ultime Notizie, was designed by Barnaba in the early 2000s). Presiding over the room is a 1938 painting by his father depicting a woman selling taxidermied specimens, and propped up on ledges are real butterflies pinned under glass.

While the home is, in part, a tribute to his father’s legacy, Barnaba has left space for his own passions — including, most notably, music. “My father wanted me to learn an instrument, but I have a rebellious spirit and didn’t do as I was told,” he said. Instead, he began to hone his skills as a D.J. Reached Narnia-style through a towering 19th-century wooden wardrobe on the second floor is a room dedicated to this pursuit. “I have an almost fetishistic relationship with collecting vinyl and now CDs,” Barnaba said, taking a seat before his turntables, which are surrounded by towering stacks of discs that run the gamut from movie soundtracks (“The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “West Side Story”) to rap albums (a DJ-Kicks record). Indeed, one can easily imagine an alternate life in which music was his sole pursuit. But he chose instead to continue his father’s work, and he’s “never regretted it.”