As one of the most influential celebrity photographers of the 1950’s and 60’s, Willy Rizzo is equally revered for his sleek, sophisticated furniture design.

MY DESIGN EPIPHANY, so to speak, took place when I was eight. It was the
late 1970s and my great-grandparents were visiting from the South of France with photos of their apartment, nestled in the hills behind Cannes. Obviously I’d never seen anything like it — think Mies van der Rohe meets To Catch a Thief. Amid the odd antique piece, streamlined, almost futuristic furniture in highly polished metals and chocolate-brown suede seemed to float over travertine floors, framed by geraniumclad views of the French Riviera. Fast-forward three decades and I would discover the identity of the creator
of such dazzling furniture: famed Italian photographer
and designer Willy Rizzo.

Born in Naples in 1928 but relocating to France with his mother in the ’30s, Rizzo took to photography at an early age. His career began as a teenager, covering the Liberation nof Paris in 1944 for Ciné Mondial, followed by the Nuremberg trials, post-war North Africa for Point de Vue (his poignant photos of burnt-out tanks against the Tunisian sunset were also bought by Life magazine) and shooting a portrait of Winston Churchill that made the cover of Paris Match in 1949 — the first in colour.

However, it’s for fabulous celebrity photography that Rizzo is best known. In 1946, France Dimanche sent the young and charismatic photographer to cover the first Cannes Film Festival, where, in a chance meeting in the lobby of his hotel, Rizzo met Zina Rachevsky. The photographer not only convinced the young socialite/starlet to pose, he gained unfettered access to the glamorous elite when invited to a party being hosted by the girl’s father. “All the rich and beautiful people were there,” Rizzo recalled. “Diamonds, costumes, cars… and I took pictures.”

The photographer’s legend would soon mimic that of his celebrity subjects, firmly established through an illustrious career and his 1968 marriage to Italian actress Elsa Martinelli. Rizzo photographed many of the great 20th-century icons, from Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren to Marlene Dietrich, Coco Chanel, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. His 1958 portrait of Brigitte Bardot on her hands and knees on a boat in St Tropez is perhaps his most famous, although his most memorable subject was Pope Pius XII. His portraits of Marilyn Monroe are equally unforgettable: with Monroe in a fragile emotional state just weeks before she died, what began as a chaotic appointment transformed when she was in front of the camera. Rizzo described the actress
as an angel. “When she appeared, I fell in love.” He was one of the last photographers to shoot her.

In 1966, during the years of Italy’s famed la dolce vita, the photographer relocated to Rome and, by chance, fell into his ‘second career’. Having long admired the furniture designs of Ruhlmann, Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, he redesigned his apartment overlooking the Spanish Steps, creating sleek custom furniture that quickly captured the attention of his sophisticated friends.

Rizzo soon received commissions (fittingly, one of his first clients was Igor ‘Ghighi’ Cassini, who claimed credit for coining the term ‘jet set’) and in 1968 established his own design and manufacturing atelier in Tivoli, outside Rome. Over the following decade, 30 of his ingenious designs, including sexy modular sofas upholstered in wild boar skin and the iconic ‘TRG’ revolving coffee table, were handmade by a team of talented artisans — the look was modern but
each piece was crafted in an entirely traditional manner.

In 1978, Rizzo returned to his first love, photography. He would remarry, spending the remainder of his life in Paris with his wife, Dominique, and their three children. Never one to sit still, Rizzo opened a gallery on the Left Bank in 2010 (just three years before he died, at age 84), showcasing his talent as both photographer and furniture designer. Which is his greatest legacy?

Visit the gallery and decide for yourself.