Give him Liberty! The 93-year-old design master behind the London landmark’s makeover
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
When the Italian interior designer, collector and horticulturist Federico Forquet first met Liberty’s managing director Andrea Petochi in 2021, it reignited a family connection that had begun more than half a century before. “I used to go with friends to his grandfather’s jewellery store Fratelli Petochi to buy Roman micro-mosaics,” says Forquet of the Petochi family business, which remains open in Rome to this day. Now 93, he showed Petochi a box overflowing with the cashmere and silk Liberty ties that he’d acquired since he was a child growing up in ’30s Naples – a place where the English style epitomised by the London department store was highly prized. “The most demanding aristocrats would even send their shirts to be ironed in London,” he says.
Forquet’s memories of Neapolitan children in Liberty’s classic floral motifs ignited in Petochi the idea of a collaboration. “I suddenly realised that this was the master that Liberty needed,” says Petochi of the connection that has evolved beyond their wildest expectations. It has given rise not only to a kaleidoscopic collection of more than 100 fashion and interior textiles, but also a coffee-table book, and a duo of Milanese exhibitions – one at Museo del Novecento, the other at Museo del Costume – curated by the art historian Ester Coen, which will take over the city during Milan Design Week and continue throughout the summer months.
For Petochi, the project, named FuturLiberty, was a chance to propel the company into its next, highly progressive, chapter. For Forquet, it was “an adventure” that saw him “raiding the Aladdin’s cave” of the Liberty archive that spans 50,000 textile designs dating back to the 1880s.
Forquet’s myriad creative lives have bridged fashion, interiors and gardens. After working alongside the Basque couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga in the mid-’50s, he moved to Princess Irene Galitzine’s fashion house in Rome where his crystal-clad “palazzo pyjamas” were immortalised by photographers including William Klein. In 1961, he established his own Roman couture house, dressing clients, from Diana Vreeland to Sophia Loren, in toga dresses and Volcano-necked gowns inspired by his hometown.
Though hailed “the Italian Dior”, a decade later, with the rise of prêt-à-porter, he quit couture to pursue interior design. His loyal clientele enlisted Forquet to transform their homes, and later their gardens, in a richly layered, neoclassical style. Forquet’s passion for that opulent period endures in his collection of furniture. Dating from 1780 to 1810, it’s a period he describes as being “the pinnacle of manufacturing in Naples”.
Liberty’s design director Mary-Ann Dunkley and her team travelled to Forquet’s southern Tuscan farmhouse to start work on the collection in the spring of 2021. Perched on a rolling hillside populated by olive groves and oaks that overlooks Monte Cetona, the rustic stone edifice is surrounded by verdant grounds designed by the late British gardener Russell Page. Taking the role of a creative guide, and free from commercial constraints, Forquet set them a challenge. Rather than replicate the delicate floral prints and paisleys so synonymous with Liberty, why not surprise him with something altogether new?
“I felt very strongly that the world was changing,” he says. “I knew we had to bring a new voice.” Forquet showed the team a series of geometric artworks by the radical 20th-century group known as the futurists. Founded by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, in their manifesto, emblazoned on the front page of Le Figaro in 1909, they spoke of throwing off the cultural shackles of the past to embrace the frenetic vitality of the modern age. When they returned to London to delve into the Liberty archive for inspiration, what they unearthed was utterly aligned with Forquet’s objective. Namely, the exuberant textiles of Liberty’s celebrated ’60s design director, Bernard Nevill.
Similar to Forquet, Nevill was an insatiable collector, particularly of Victorian and pre-Raphaelite antiques, as well as homes – his eclectic Chelsea house, which Forquet visited in the ’70s, was immortalised in the film Withnail & I. In person, Nevill was reserved, unlike his creative output. Nevill taught Ossie Clark and Zandra Rhodes; he counted artist Sonia Delaunay as a collaborator, and Yves Saint Laurent and Cacharel were clients, buying his Liberty prints.
By happy coincidence, some of Nevill’s most celebrated textile collections, including Jazz (1965) and Tango (1967), drew inspiration from the vorticists – the English equivalents of the Italian futurists. Both were provocateurs whose goal was to agitate, and to disrupt the status quo. “From that point on FuturLiberty became a love story between British and Italian art,” says Forquet. “With Bernard Nevill as the English expression of vorticism.”
According to the Milan exhibition curator Coen, who took the role of art adviser throughout the project, there is a clear line to be drawn between the early 20th century and now. Coen’s epic survey brings together more than 200 works of futurist and vorticist art, objects and furniture displayed across the two museums, tracing the influence of these radical art movements within the FuturLiberty collection and exploring its links to Liberty’s avant-garde heritage. It’s a captivating visual voyage. “Much like today, it was a moment of great uncertainty and crisis,” she says. “These artists were trying to create a parallel world full of colour, line and dynamism.”
This compulsion to escape into a more vibrant reality continues to resonate. Drawing on the spirit of Nevill’s textiles, the designers have brought the avant-garde verve of the futurists and vorticists to life. Generating designs in pencil, gouache and watercolour, and often working by hand and by eye, also proved revelatory. The goal, says Forquet, was “to capture the moment, the colours, and the light”. Borrowing their palette from nature, Forquet focused on notions of “rhythm”, “momentum” and “crescendo” within pattern – referencing a time in his youth when he was a promising concert pianist – to conjure the dynamism of the futurists. “The lines flow off the frame; the paint and the energy starts from the centre of the canvas and expands outwards,” explains Coen of the designs.
Employing couture-level craft techniques, the results are as dazzling as they are unexpected. There’s the bold angularity of Trepak, a swirling, dancing pattern that recreates an artwork from Nevill’s Jazz collection; Future Federico is a reimagining of the psychedelic geometric-print jumpsuit worn by Ziggy Stardust in 1972; graphic embroidery infuses Explosion and Forquet’s “effervescent” favourite, Shadow Stripe. Sold off the bolt, or used on everything from shirts and scarves to throws and cushions, the designs feature across both fashion and homewares.
“He caused complete chaos,” says Dunkley of the playfulness of Forquet, who is currently curating a new series of ceramics and fine-arts rooms at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. For starters, “he only conducts meetings in person, and doesn’t have an email address”. For Dunkley, this analogue way of working, where colour is experienced through thread rather than via a screen, felt pure and joyful – even radical. “We could never have imagined the creative doors Federico would open,” she says. “How fantastic that it took a nonagenarian to truly disrupt Liberty.”
Fabrics throughout, Federico Forquet for FuturLiberty collection at Liberty