Willy Rizzo: The essence of La Dolce Vita

“I wanted something that didn't exist. At the time, you could buy a lot of modern furniture, but it was more Swedish style [and] very cool; it made you feel like you were in a doctor's waiting room.”

Willy Rizzo (1928-2013)

Imagination and necessity launched the already successful photographer, Willy Rizzo, into the world of furniture design. As a photographer of playboys and starlets, he had a ready-made customer base eager to build their living quarters around an ultra-modern Rizzo piece and items that remain as timeless as his images.

Rizzo’s original venture into furniture design began in Rome and took place during an often reported visit to a Roman hair salon on Piazza di Spagna in 1966. By testing the hairdresser’s knowledge of local real estate agents, Rizzo ended up signing a six month lease on an abandoned commercial apartment, barely habitable and without running water.

Rizzo quickly set about turning the empty office into a living space, complete with brown and gold walls and custom-designed sofas, coffee tables, consoles and hi-fi storage units.

Though never his intention to become a furniture designer, Rizzo’s friends, clients and contacts, many forming the upper crust of the fashion and film industries, fell in love with his creations and he was swamped with orders and requests.

The grandson of a Neapolitan magistrate, Willy Rizzo was born in Naples, Italy in 1928 and moved to France with his mother in the 1930s. His passion for photography began very early. From the age of twelve, in the Italian college of Sédillot Street, Paris, he began shooting portraits of his schoolmates with the Agfa Box given to him by his mother.

Willy Rizzo travertine table, 1974

Following WWII and the occupation of France, Rizzo was hired by Point de Vue and travelled to Tunisia to photograph the aftermath of the conflict in North Africa. Capturing the burned out husks of tanks set against low sunsets aroused the attention of Life Magazine, who bought his report.

Following this period, Willy Rizzo was recruited by France Dimanche, a publication which covered the private life of celebrities, an arena Rizzo would come to know very well. Willy was sent to Cannes with unlimited funds to cover the first Film Festival. Due to his skill, charm and flair, Rizzo managed to capture images of princes, princesses, playboys and starlets that no one else did.

Attracted by the allure of the US and the then still mythical world of the Californian celebrity, Willy Rizzo travelled to New York to work with the Black Star Agency in the developing America of the post-war years. During this time, he succeeded in capturing and reporting on Hollywood legends, such as Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper.

In late 1948, Willy Rizzo began an illustrious twenty year career with Paris Match that would have him photograph some of the greatest names of the golden age of photojournalism. Married at the time to actress Elsa Martinelli, Rizzo enjoyed unparalleled access to the stars; Brigitte Bardot, Sofia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Jane Fonda, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso all found themselves in front of Rizzo’s lens.

Willy Rizzo photographed Marilyn Monroe in July 1962, two weeks before her death. Rizzo was the last person to photograph the actress.

Assignments with Paris Match would also take him to the Nuremberg trials and the French Indochina war.

Willy Rizzo Francia table, circa 1970s

Come the late 60s, Rizzo began to focus on furniture design, an area in which he had no prior experience but would enjoyable considerable success, with significant thanks to the contacts he had made as a photographer of high society.Using a small group of local artisans recommended by the hairdresser who pointed him toward the accommodation, Rizzo completed the customised apartment, which acted as a template of sorts for the majority of his commissions to come.

Fittingly, Rizzo’s first commission came from Ghighi Cassini, the American Hearst newspaper columnist and socialite who coined the term ‘Jet Set’ to describe the socialites and socialite lifestyle that Fellini immortalised in La Dolce Vita. Willy’s work for Cassini effortlessly blended the neo-classical with the modern and its success brought a swathe of Italian high-society to Rizzo.

Willy Rizzo was uniquely placed as a designer for the Dolce Vita, being himself a part of the world he was designing for. Infamous playboys, such as Rodolfo Parisi, Gigli Rizzi and Franco Rapetti, were more of his earliest clients. Salvador Dali commissioned a number of pieces as did Brigitte Bardot for the interior of La Madrague in St. Tropez. Himself a consummate playboy of the era, Rizzo’s client list is testament to how close his furniture was to the mark.

By 1968, Willy’s work was in constant demand, leading to the setting up of his own firm and the establishment of a factory just outside Rome at Tivoli, which employed over 150 staff, including the original team from his early apartment transformation.

Over the following ten years, Willy Rizzo designed and produced more than thirty pieces of furniture, including the famous, steel-banded travertine dining tables and bronze table lamps, all of which were hand made. He opened boutiques across France and Europe and had points of sale in New York, Miami and LA. However, come 1978, Rizzo gave it all up to return to photography, his first love.

Willy Rizzo revolving coffee table with bar, circa 1970s

Willy Rizzo’s furniture design channelled the sophistication of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, his pieces combining clean, simple lines with bold geometric forms and a delicate handling of materials. Willy’s lack of formal training in furniture design placed him outside Italy’s strong, indigenous design traditions, making his style utterly unique at the time

While Rizzo bought into the modernist principles of functionality and simplified forms, he deliberately avoided mass production, modern materials and industrial design, despite designers such as Gio Ponti endorsing the movement. Rizzo remained focused on a doctrine of traditional materials and craftsmanship, a response to the contemporary cultural environment, as opposed to current design trends.

Willy Rizzo lamps, circa 1970s

“It was never about recreating classic styles in modern furniture, that wasn’t the point. It was about creating something new for a traditional setting,” Rizzo explains.

Willy Rizzo’s furniture is now widely exhibited, notably in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He returned to furniture design for a period in the late 80s and then again in the mid-2000s, in collaboration with Paul Smith and Mallet. In 2010, at the age of 82, he opened his first gallery in Paris with the help of his wife and son, Willy Rizzo Jr.

UPDATE: Willy Rizzo died, aged 84, in Paris on 25 February, 2013.


- Biography Willy Rizzo. 2012. Biography Willy Rizzo. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.willyrizzo.com/Biography-Willy-Rizzo. [Accessed 12 June 2012]
- Nick Kilner (1997). Willy Rizzo. England: Mallet & Son Antiques Ltd. p4-11.

Image references:

'Willy Rizzo revolving coffee table with bar, circa 1970s', sold by Rago Arts and Auction Center.

'Willy Rizzo lamps' accessed at Apartment Therapy.