Spotlight on the Italian jetset’s principal designer Willy Rizzo

Spotlight on the Italian jetset’s principal designer Willy Rizzo
Burr thuya and brass coffee table with ice and bottle recess, 1973. WR. Christie’s.

If you've ever watched the Graham Norton show on BBC One, you’ve already seen some Willy Rizzo furniture. That decked steel and red lacquered metamorphic occasional table, with a divot for champagne and Rococo falls of fruit hovering before his guests, is a signature piece of Rizzo.

It says everything about this Naples-born designer and it’s perfect for the host – unusual, glamorous and with a touch of implied naughtiness.

Look again. It has a restrained neoclassical line and two colour tailoring – that table could sit in an 18th-century manor as easily as playboy’s fur-pelted pad – that was always Rizzo’s intent. Yes, it remains Italian and yet there’s some Bauhaus there (van der Rohe/Le Corbusier) some 1950s South Beach, some LA Art Deco excess.

Its geometry and abstracted form is startling, and Salvador Dali was an early client of this visionary designer. Rizzo suggested that the artist’s house in the South of France should be "disturbed" rather than redecorated.

Rizzo (1928-2013) had a fascinating past for a furniture designer increasingly talked about as 1970s style takes the floor on movie sets, television shows and vamping across the pages of lush illustrated interiors mags like Conde Naste’s World of Interiors.

He grew up in Paris and, recognised for his talented eye as an amateur snapper, was hired as illustrator/photographer by the upscale magazine Point de Veu and Cine Mondial, covering the devastation of the North African campaigns. These images brought his name to the attention of Life in the US – who published pictures of deserted artillery taken by the young Italian.

Burr thuya and brass coffee table with ice and bottle recess, 1973. WR. Christie’s.
Burr thuya and brass coffee table with ice and bottle recess, 1973. WR. Christie’s.

Best known for his later, high society work and interior design and furniture, Rizzo remained highly respected by editors and his peers in photo-journalism, and was one of the photographers chosen to cover the Nuremberg trials. Though widely published and exhibited it would be 2008 when, with the help of his son, he would finally open his own gallery displaying his pictures of popes, starlets and celebrities, on Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris at the age of 79.

He had moved into the area of the celebrity press with the magazine France Dimanche (still on the shelves and a French answer to the National Enquirer) following the social dandies and royalty of Europe around. By 1948 Rizzo was living between Paris and Hollywood, and went on to secure a two decades long relationship with ‘Paris Match’ documenting the glitterati of the entertainment world, helped on by his marriage to actress, Elsa Martinelli.

He took some of the last known and exquisitely intimate pictures of Marilyn Monroe, and in Paris made an important record of Coco Chanel’s studios in the 1950s, even flirting a smile out of the old bird on camera (Rizzo’s then wife Paule, was a favourite model of the fashion icon).

The opulent surroundings of the stars’ homes, their good looks, the fashion, the flash – it all fed into his imagination, and his network of rich friends and clients would later prove extremely useful. Prolific, brilliant, with a storyteller’s skill and bad-boy reputation, Rizzo was drawn to equally strong, talented individuals.

This immersion didn’t hurt his design commissions now or in the future, and always drawn to women and fashion first, he became design director at Marie Claire in 1959. Rizzo’s move into furniture and interiors is well documented – inspiring if you’ve ever considered a sideways slide in your own career.

Rizzo was living in Rome in 1966 and visiting a hairdresser on the Piazza di Spagna, near the Spanish Steps. During this taglio-di-capelli, he fell into a conversation with the cutter that would change his life. He was given a tip-off for a large commercial apartment in the area, and instantly took out a lease, furnishing it in his own bespoke designs obtained from gifted, artisan craftsmen in the Italian capital recommended by the same hairdresser.

The kitchen he dictated must be "‘the colour of money". Visiting friends were wowed at the golden walls and room-sets of the playboy palace, and the commissions began to pour in from the original ‘jet set’ (a term coined by one of Rizzo’s first customers, writer and socialite Ghigi Cassini).

His son’s biographer recounts that Rizzo senior deemed the trends at that time for Danish furnishings as "not either comfortable, nor sufficiently minimal". He went on to employ 150 at his warehouse in Tivoli, near Rome, with retail outlets in Europe, New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

1970s Étagère by Willy Rizzo, 1stdibs.com
1970s Étagère by Willy Rizzo, 1stdibs.com

From the beginning, the Rizzo’s collections were luxuriant, expensive, aimed like a golden-shot right at high society where the endless, oodles of lovely money lay. Contemporary in style they were still bespoke. crafted pieces with an old fashioned artisan attention to detail.

Today, Rizzo’s designs are referenced everywhere from Roche Bobois to Harvey Norman, and his close friendship with Le Corbusier can be detected in his seating, lighting and Étagères (shelving units). It’s about as far from Scandinavian bare as you can get in an accelerating 1960s V12, 330 GTS Ferrari, but has a pleasing classism to it that ensures four to five figures with collectors all over the world.

For an introduction to the bold world of Rizzo’s designs, take a look at his brass framed dining chairs in acute angles (from €1500-€5,000 per set), his sculptural lamps (try for a pair, €2000- €3000 depending on condition and desirability) or a table with elements of suede, plexi-glass and enamel (from €1,500 depending on size).

Good 20th century designs auctions often include Rizzo rarities and 1stDibs is hard to beat online – negotiate your way down from their stratospheric asking prices. Graham’s rotating TRG table? It’s appropriately priced to the rich and famous at €12,000 – €15,000 if you can even find a mid-century one.

New TRG tables are offered by Rizzo’s gifted designer/photographer son Willy Rizzo II, from his studio on the Rue de Verneuil, Paris, willyrizzo.com. POA darling - ciao!

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