room designed by Fornasetti, wit chairs, table, chandelier, and coat hanger
A room at the ‘Piero Fornasetti: 100 years of Practical Madness’ exhibition at Milan’s Triennale Design Museum © Triennale

Milan’s Triennale Design Museum had a sleeper hit this past winter. Twenty years in the planning, a stunning but little advertised retrospective of the work of Piero Fornasetti, the 20th-century Italian surrealist designer, confounded all expectations.

The success of the event – curated by Barnaba Fornasetti, the artisan-entrepreneur who is continuing to design under the label founded by his father – was a sign of the Italian design industry’s vitality after being hit hard by the financial crisis. It also showed how several design houses are following in the footsteps of the luxury goods sector and turning themselves into branded businesses.

Another Italian design house making news is Poltrona Frau, which is adopting some of the swagger of the high-end goods industry. Coincidentally, in the closing days of the Fornasetti show, Cassina and Cappellini designs – a majority stake in Poltrona Frau, and the group behind the Vanity Fair chair – was bought by Haworth, a large US office design group, giving it an international scale.

While Italian fashion houses such as Gucci, Prada and Valentino found a way in the 1980s and 1990s to turn Italian craftsmanship into a global industry, the path has by and large eluded the design industry. Leading design and furniture companies have, on the whole, lagged behind luxury goods companies because they have neither the scale nor the same lure for consumers: while a sofa may be bought to last a lifetime, a handbag may be bought only for a season.

Fornasetti’s Musicale chair
Fornasetti’s Musicale chair, which was printed, lacquered and painted by hand © Fornasetti

Stefania Saviolo, an expert in fashion and design at Milan’s Bocconi University, says the design industry will never fully be able to replicate the fashion world because of its fragmented nature: it is still built on artisan work rather than brands. That said, Saviolo says that Fornasetti and Poltrona Frau are standout examples of how design can follow the lucrative path of the fashion brands.

Some 40,000 people – a record for the Triennale Design Museum – came to see Fornasetti’s fantastical designs, including a room hung with dozens of his famous ceramic plates, a series called “Themes and Variations”, all printed with the face of a beautiful woman named after the 1900s opera singer Lina Cavalieri.

But the show was as much about the present as the past. Thanks to a turnround instigated by Barnaba Fornasetti, the design house is also celebrating a leap of 30 per cent in sales of its high-end reproductions in the US, where department store Barneys is a major client. Similar demand is growing in London.

“It was stunning. There was real soul behind the exhibition and it showed,” says Lilian Fawcett, owner of London’s Portobello store Themes & Variations, which has been the primary London stockist of Fornasetti for the past 30 years.

Barnaba Fornasetti is considered a rare talent in the design world. While he has continued to design in his father’s spirit – the striking Fornasetti wallpapers made by Cole & Sons are his – he is also the business brains behind the resuscitation of the brand. Saviolo compares him to Giorgio Armani as Fornasetti has emerged as the artisan-entrepreneur. Fabio Tamburini, a senior banker at UniCredit who looks after many small and midsized Italian fashion and design firms, says Barnaba Fornasetti is “a unique genius”. “Not many are able to do both parts of the business,” he adds.

“My theory is quality not quantity,” says Fornasetti in an interview in Milan’s Brera, the traditional district for artists and an enclave of the well-heeled. He says that the design house had a period of difficulty a decade ago but, in the past five years, he has led a turnround by firmly steering business towards very high-end design. He opened a new Fornasetti Atelier nearby. The 22 artisans in the Atelier produce almost entirely custom-made pieces. Meanwhile, he has taken a leaf out of the book of upmarket brands such as Versace and cut back on licensing, thereby getting rid of cheap replicas. Buying one of his bureaux at Themes & Variations will set you back £24,000.

Piero Fornasetti in his Farfalle bathtub outdoors
Piero Fornasetti in his Farfalle bathtub © Fornasetti

“I’m for slow design. There must be some contact with someone who is buying the product,” says Fornasetti. He approaches reproduction with a lightness and whimsy that he has tried to keep at the brand’s core, and describes his philosophy as “reinvention and re-edition”. Translated, that means that a couple who wanted a pair of chairs with Lina Cavalieri’s image on them for their Sardinia house were able to request that the design be adapted to include a scuba-diving mask.

Meanwhile, Poltrona Frau, which also includes the Cassina and Cappellini furniture houses, is the closest the design world has yet come to French behemoth LVMH, owner of Louis Vuitton and Dior, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Poltrona Frau was founded in Turin in 1912 by Renzo Frau with the aim of furnishing the estates of Italy’s royal family. Over the past decade, since gaining the backing of Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo through his investment fund Charme, it has grown – its revenues increasing from €30m to €270m in 2013. It acquired Cappellini in 2004 and Cassina in 2005, which includes furniture designs by Le Corbusier and Philippe Starck. Poltrona Frau has also expanded its business internationally. In 2002, some 85 per cent of its revenues were made in Italy, while last year it made nearly that percentage of sales from markets outside of Italy.

Notably, its chief executive, Dario Rinero, a former executive from Coca-Cola, has applied strategy from the world of fast-moving consumer goods. Unusually for design, Poltrona Frau has its own retail stores, says Saviolo. It sells pieces in 57 countries and has 60 stores worldwide.

The sale of a majority of the company to Haworth “represents the best conclusion of Charme’s adventures in Poltrona Frau”, says Matteo di Montezemolo, managing director of the fund set up by his father. The deal will give Poltrona Frau a far wider distribution network through the US. Di Montezemolo, who is also vice-chairman of Poltrona Frau, and Rinero plan to stay on in their roles at least for the time being.

Di Montezemolo says that “many brands have suffered during the deep crisis of the past five years, the worst ever experienced by our industry”. But, he says, companies that managed to look to the long term – by continuing to invest and develop new products – “are today in a much stronger position and are able now to benefit from the tremendous growth that high-end furniture and design is having in the world”.

Both Barnaba Fornasetti and di Montezemolo consider themselves poised to benefit.

Rachel Sanderson is the FT’s Milan correspondent

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