In celebration of a sumptuous new book, Italian Textile Design, Sara Pierdonà explores the development of Italian textiles in the 20th century, discovering the people who shaped trends and taste that continue to influence us today.



Delve into the history of 20th century Italian textiles, and you'll discover ramified and fascinating cross-references with many other complex themes: the ancient Italian figurative tradition; the Futurist movement's battle for an aesthetic regeneration; the economic boom; or the discovery of synthetic materials and their use in industry.

Some of the people who traverse this history are world famous; everyone knows them from the internationally renowned fashion houses that still bear their names. Other figures in this story are known only to a small niche of experts, but these artisans, designers and historians keep their memory alive, along with precious archives that reconstruct a history of trends and taste that still influences us today.




Mariano Fortuny's story is well known: he was a multifaceted artist, a tireless entrepreneur and an extraordinary innovator. Moreover, as his biographer wrote: 'He succeeded in a goal his father had failed to achieve: living in Venice.' There is no visitor left unimpressed by his Venetian atelier, now converted into a museum and housed in a monumental Gothic-style palace, Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei.

Not everyone knows, however, that his ultra-recognisable fabrics, destined to make history and patented in those damask halls immersed in half-light, were only made possible by specific technical inventions, the result of his trial and error.

Initially, production involved clothing fabrics inspired by the Minoan and Hellenistic civilisations. At a later stage, the production of cottons for furnishings was also started, devising a semi-industrial process to cope with the increased dimensions, but preserving the original artistic authenticity.



1950-1960: FEDE CHETI

Fede Cheti produced work during two decades of cultural experimentation, in which manufacturers frequently involved artists and creatives in search of innovative visions with which to renew colors and shapes inherited from tradition.

Pattern printing was the most immediate expressive tool, and also the most suitable for inserting a note of irony: models from the past were in fact reinterpreted by making the shapes more convoluted or stylised, and given brighter colors. Cheti founded an art studio focused on the production of textiles, in which artists of the calibre of de Chirico, Dufy and Sironi collaborated.




Ottavio and Rosita Missoni's first workshop was in their home: he, a former Olympic athlete, already owned a business dedicated to the production of sportswear; she had experience in shawls and household linen.

From these premises, combined with a love of colour and daring combinations, the brand that was to revolutionize knitwear made in Italy was born. The pair are unmistakably associated with the modernisation of patchwork, zig-zag and put-together knitwear. As well as a scandal: clothing worn without a bra.




In the mid-1980s, owning a Naj-Oleari accessory or garment was nothing less than a status symbol that every young Italian aspired to. And to think that the company had begun, half a century earlier, by producing priestly clothing!

The colourful cottons that had made the brand iconic were derived from a reinterpretation of waterproof umbrella fabrics (hence the abundance of small-scale flowers and stylised decorations). 




Gaetano Pesce's work is mainly associated with sculpture and experiments with resins. They appear moulded into fluid, almost organic forms, except for the colors, which are almost psychedelic. Nevertheless, true to the principle of breaking the boundaries of art with design, and of design with everyday life, Pesce has often lent himself to diverse collaborations and the use of novel materials. 

In this context, we also trace the fabric he developed for Cassina, which is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. As many as 570 different figures appear in the pattern, used as a metaphor for the heterogeneous contemporary society. The fabric plays on an overturning of values and is inspired by a fabric developed during the Russian Revolution by Oskar Petrovich Gryun, in which the silhouette of a uniformed boy holding a flag is repeated, equal to itself, ad infinitum. 

In Gaetano Pesce's vision, however, it was variety that had to be emphasised. As he once said: “My people are young, old, fat, not fat, women, men, they do different jobs, everything we find in a cross section of society.”




Italian Textile Design: From Art Deco to the Contemporary, by Vittorio Linfante and Massimo Zanella is now available at the Cabana Bookshop.

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