Textile Talks: Fortuny and the Timeless Tides of Design

Through a mysterious Venetian mist, you may have heard of ‘the magician of Venice’ and his fine-art fabrics found on the island of Giudecca. To those who cherish classic design, Fortuny is well-known. But for those still unaware, the shimmering light of these particular textiles awaits.

Fortuny’s founder, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo (1871- 1949), was born in Granada, Spain to a family of renowned painters and art patrons. In Mariano’s infancy, his father, respected painter Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, passed away. After this, his mother, Cecilia de Madrazo y Garreta, moved her young children to Paris to be near her family.

Under the influence of his grandfather and uncle, both of whom were painters, Mariano was exposed to many prominent artists of the Belle Époque period. He experimented with painting, etching, sculpture, photography, theatre and lighting design.

Living in an age when contemporary art was making giant leaps into modernity, Mariano was a diligent student of the past, preferring to study the old masters over the French Impressionists making their mark at the time.

In 1889, tired of noisy and crowded Paris, the Fortuny family moved to Venice, where Mariano quickly steeped himself in nostalgia for the city’s glorious past. His early years in Venice were a flurry of innovation – synergising art, technology, science and craftsmanship.

In 1899, Mariano moved out of the family home and into the Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei, where he had the space for his creations and ambitions to grow larger. He was a true Renaissance man, taking easily to any artistic or engineering endeavour he sought. Mariano filed patents for more than 20 unique inventions, including dimmer switches, the Fortuny Dome for stage lighting, boat propellers and his unrivalled pleating technique, which brought the world the Delphos gown.

Mariano’s career in fashion owes much to his partner, Henriette Negrin. The two met in Paris, and in 1902 she joined him in Venice. The world was first introduced to Fortuny’s extraordinary fabrics in 1906, with printed velvets and a silk veil later known as the Knossos scarf. Together, Mariano and Henriette created a design studio whose reputation flourished among Europe’s stylish and elite.

As their success grew, so did Mariano’s passion for innovation – perfecting new dyeing and printing techniques and reinterpreting thousands of classic designs. Following the difficult years of the First World War, Mariano saw the opportunity to provide the market with more durable and affordable textiles. Printing on long-staple Egyptian cotton achieved marvellous effects.

Eventually employing 100 workers at the Fortuny workshop, Mariano looked to expand, purchasing a derelict convent on the island of Giudecca in 1919. The Fortuny factory opened in 1922 to support the demand for his magical, finely printed fabrics.

Fortuny was able to survive the hardships of 1930s Europe through a fortuitous partnership with young American interior designer Elsie McNeill, who had fallen in love with his fabrics on the walls of the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. In the late 1920s, Elsie became the exclusive dealer of Fortuny fabrics in the US, and from the next decade onward, she maintained Fortuny’s most important market.

After leading an extraordinary life of creative accomplishment, Mariano entrusted the factory’s operations to one of his associates, and spent much of his final years painting and travelling. Then, on 2 May 1949, just shy of his 78th birthday, Mariano passed away at his home in Venice.

The legacy of artistic craftsmanship and innovation of Mariano Fortuny could not have been kept alive by one man alone. Through the loving efforts of his wife, Henriette Negrin, the entrepreneurial spirit of Elsie McNeill and the commitment to quality and artistry now continued by the Riad family, the Fortuny brand has long been established as a timeless classic in home decoration. It’s the secret your decorator may not be telling you about.

To find out more about Fortuny, visit their website and follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

Photographs © Mickey Riad; Fortuny and Erik Kvalsvik

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