By  on September 28, 2007

PARIS — Willy Rizzo, the photographer and furniture designer, gives the impression of having seen and done everything in the high-flying tradition of the great international playboys. He's been drunk with John Wayne, is tight with Jack Nicholson (they holiday together to this day) and photographed Marilyn Monroe on the eve of the actress' tragic death.

His first wife, Paule, modeled for Coco Chanel, while Rizzo personified the "La Dolce Vita" lifestyle in Rome in the Sixties with his second wife, Elsa Martinelli, the Italian actress. But now in his 80s, Rizzo has settled into a quieter life, with three teenage children and his beautiful third spouse, Dominique, to whom he has been wed for over 30 years.

As an aside to a highly successful photography career — his portfolio contains memorable shots of Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Gene Kelly, Pablo Picasso and others — Rizzo forged an equally sharp reputation in the decorative arts with cool, modernist furniture design, which is enjoying a renaissance among collectors.

Both of his talents will be celebrated in a show in Manhattan at Mallett & Son opening Wednesday and continuing until Oct. 13, to be followed by a show at the Paul Smith store in London Nov. 14 to 24.

"I've always followed my heart," confides the affable Rizzo, dressed in blue jeans and a blue sweater, as he sips coffee in his Parisian apartment, a veritable mishmash of styles in which his own sexy suede sofas rub shoulders with Louis XVI tables. "Most of the things I've done have been thanks to favorable twists of fate."

He points to his first career, photography, which he started in his early teens after landing a job as an assistant in Paris at 14. "Instantly I was fascinated with images," he says. "I knew that's what I wanted to do."

It didn't take Rizzo long to build a reputation as one of the most prestigious photographers on staff at Paris Match, known for turning an incisive eye on some of the world's best known celebrities. On the side, he even did a bit of fashion photography for Vogue. "It's funny how there are different métiers in one métier," he says."Fashion's really hard to be good. It took me seven, eight years to be good at it. It's so subtle. When you see [Irving] Penn or [Richard] Avedon, that's great fashion photography. Penn looked at the models with such finesse. It's not the technique that counts in photography. The kind of camera you use doesn't matter. It's the eye."

It was an assignment from Vogue to shoot Martinelli, his future wife, that took the Italian-born Rizzo on an indirect path toward furniture design. "I married my model," he jokes.

The couple went to Rome, where Rizzo rented a rundown apartment that used to belong to a shirtmaker. He decided to renovate it himself. "It was the psychedelic era, the 1960s," he explains. "I didn't want that look, and I didn't want something Scandinavian and cold. I wanted something eccentric, but not bizarre."

He reworked the house with verve, giving it a sensual juxtaposition of old and new that would become his trademark decorative scheme. The walls were painted brown with flecks of gold, the floors and ceilings were black, and he built all the furniture from scratch, including sofas, lacquered cabinets and bronze coffee tables that were both voluptuously curved and rigorous.

Being well connected, Rizzo's admiring friends soon asked him to revamp their homes, too. "It all happened by chance," shrugs Rizzo.

One of his first commissions came from Ghighi Cassini, the Hearst newspaper columnist who coined the term "jet set." Other projects poured in, including one for film director Otto Preminger; Salvador Dalí and Bardot ordered furniture. By the late Sixties, Rizzo was operating a factory just outside of Rome and later opened a boutique in Paris.

His mantra became to make top-quality pieces that would look modern but wouldn't look out of place in a grand aristocratic palazzo next to fine antiques. "The mix is everything," says Rizzo of his style. "Pieces have to be beautiful. Beautiful plus beautiful equals beautiful. It's simple." Trademark Rizzo could be a travertine dining table finished with bronze, a circular revolving coffee table with a basin to hold whiskey and gin bottles, or a black lacquer dining table with a lazy Susan. "I didn't want to copy anybody," explains Rizzo. "I wanted all of the materials to be of the highest quality. That's what shows in the end."Rizzo believes part of the reason he's enjoying renewed interest today is because he never was keen to create so-called "design," but objects that worked on a more personal level.

"I don't want to say that so-called design is not good," he says. "It's not that I don't like Bauhaus. I think it's fantastic. Mies van der Rohe was a genius. Le Corbusier was brilliant. But I don't want to own those pieces today. That's what you see when you go to the doctor's office or to your dentist — especially the dentist."

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