The Exotic, Romantic Designs of The House of Fortuny

Retrospect

The textile designs of Mariano Fortuny are some of the most enduring designs of the 20th century. Beloved by interior decorators (and prized by their clients), Fortuny patterns don't seem to ever get old. Let's take a look at the story behind these fabrics, as well as the surprising other designs of Mariano himself.

Mariano Fortuny (image 2) was born in Granada, Spain, in 1871, the son of an important genre painter (image 3). The family moved to Paris in 1874 and then to Venice in 1889. Along the way, it became clear that Fortuny was a talented artist in many media. In addition to painting and sculpting, Fortuny would bind his own books, make his own paints and dyes, and make his own photographic painter. Eventually, he patented several inventions, including an early dimmer switch and a boat propeller.

As a furniture design nerd, it was a surprise to me that Fortuny is best known for his fashion designs. In 1907, he began designing women's dresses. His overall aesthetic was clearly inspired by the classical past, with column gowns suggesting the draped folds of Grecian chitons and peploi (image 4). But the historicism of his clothes was balanced by the material, which Fortuny worked into tiny, fine pleats on machines he invented and patented — a process that has never been fully replicated (though you can get a sense for the effect if you've seen any of Issey Miyake's pleated clothes). Fortuny's dresses were also characterized by rich jewel tones, achieved through multiple dye baths.

Meanwhile, Fortuny was also experimenting with set and lighting design. He eventually created a cyclorama dome that facilitated lighting effects, as well as a lamp that both magnified and diffused light, giving unprecedented control over illumination (image 5).

Shortly after he launched his fashion career, Fortuny began designing the furnishing textiles he is still famous for (images 6-12). From the beginning, these designs were clearly inspired by Italian Renaissance textiles, which in turn were heavily influenced by Islamic, Persian and Morish art. Later Fortuny designs also incorporated the Symbolist art of the era, as well as new 'exotic' influences like Mayan design. With his textile designs and production, Fortuny combined his lifelong interests in engineering, art, color, design, decoration, fashion and history.

Fortuny designs are still created the way they were when Mariano was alive. As the company manager described in a 1996 interview*:

We use exactly the same methods as Fortuny did, first printing the fabrics by a photographic process he developed, which is a bit like lithography, and then painting them, using the 'Renaissance' system of building up layer upon layer of color. We still mix all our own colors, using mineral and organic ingredients according to Fortuny's formulas. About 80 percent of the work is done by hand.

Due to the nature of the process, every run is different, and has a visible handcrafted quality. Fortuny's fabrics are characterized by their elegant designs, painterly lines, and dusty jewel colors, often with a metallic sheen. There are textile companies that sell "faux-tuny" designs, but after you've seen a few Fortuny's up close, it's easy to spot the fakes, which inevitably lack the delicate colors, hand-painted quality and grace of the originals.

After Fortuny died in 1949, his widow turned the company over to Elsie McNeil Lee, a New York-based decorator who owned American distribution of Fortuny designs. She helmed the company for decades before selling to the Riad family, who owns it now. With an archive of around 800 original Mariano Fortuny designs, the company re-produces about 40 designs per year.

If you're in Venice, you must visit the Fortuny Museum (image 13), which was Fortuny's home and atelier and has all of his collections.


*Interview by Roderick Conway Morris in the New York Times, October 11, 1996.

(Images: 1 Bolts from Fortuny's Colourismo 2012 line; 2 Portrait of Mariano Fortuny via Pallucco 3 Odalisque by Fortuny's father, Mariano Fortuny i Marsal, 1862, via Wikimedia Commons; 4 Fortuny dress, c. 1930, at the Met; 5 Fortuny Lamp from Design Within Reach; 6 Close-up of cotton valance with de Medici pattern via Vintage Textile; 7 Antique Fortuny fabric on a headboard in a bedroom photographed by William Waldron for Elle Decor; 8 Orlando Diaz-Azcuy put Fortuny's Mazzarino fabric on this bed in House Beautiful, photographer David Duncan Livingston; 9 An Alessandra Branca design in House Beautiful, photographer Thibault Jeanson; 10 - 12 Vintage Fortuny Fabrics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Tapa with Stripe, Mayan, Jupon Bouquet; 13 Fortuny's library in what is now the Fortuny Museum in Venice.)