Obituary: Ferdinando Scarfiotti

Ferdinando Scarfiotti, production designer: born Porto Recanti, Italy 1941; died Los Angeles 30 April 1994.

CINEMA's power is primarily visual. Design in cinema changes our lives, influencing the way we view the world, a world subtly different because of what we have seen on the screen. Ferdinando Scarfiotti had a larger influence than we know, as the production designer of some of the best-looking movies of our time: Death in Venice (1971), American Gigolo (1980) and The Last Emperor (1987), among others.

Born in Porto Recanati, Italy, Scarfiotti was graduating in architecture at the University of Rome when he attracted the attention of Luchino Visconti, who asked him to design his stage production of La Traviata for the 1963 Spoleto Festival. Throughout the Sixties, Scarfiotti was responsible for the magnificent 'look' of Visconti's operas and plays, including Der Rosenkavalier, Falstaff and Simon Boccanegra, plus such dramatic works as Goethe's Faust, Natalia Ginsburg's The Advertisement, and The Cherry Orchard, in venues as diverse as La Scala, Milan the Royal Opera House, in London, the Vienna Staatsoper, and in Dallas, Amsterdam and, of course, Spoleto. Soon Scarfiotti was designing for other talents including Franco Zeffirelli and Eduardo di Filippo.

Although theatre was in his blood, Scarfiotti was a great movie fan, especially of the Hollywood masters. He knew and loved Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris (1951) and George Stevens's A Place in the Sun (1951). By his own count he had seen Gone with the Wind 15 times by 1985 and he adored William Cameron Menzies's use of Technicolor. 'If you watch that movie carefully you can learn from it every aspect of movie-

making,' he once said. Unsurprisingly, he was also a big admirer of Walt Disney, and in the early Sixties he responded to the new 'style and detachment' (his words) of Godard, Pasolini and Antonioni.

In 1971 the director Bernardo Bertolucci asked Scarfiotti to design the film The Conformist and to help select locations in Rome and in Paris. The look of The Conformist was inseparable from the overall technical design, and Scarfiotti established a unique relationship with Bertolucci and with the cameraman Vittorio Storaro. Scarfiotti used Hollywood Thirties Art Deco as a background to the suppressed homosexual drama of the plot, and managed to reawaken popular taste to the joys of Deco.

His work on a second feature with a homosexual theme, Visconti's Death in Venice, won the 1971 Bafta award for art direction, and he rejoined Bertolucci on Last Tango in Paris (1972), largely shot in a cramped block of flats in Montparnasse. Peter Bogdanovich invited him to recreate the world of Henry James's Daisy Miller (1974), and for Billy Wilder he art-directed the wickedly funny Avanti] (1972).

But in 1980, in the United States, Scarfiotti made what was probably his greatest fashion statement. The film was Paul Schrader's American Gigolo and the image of the Armani- clad Richard Gere staring at a harsh Los Angeles blue-grey bedroom illuminated by slatted lights became a poster icon for the next two decades. Schrader 'cast' Scarfiotti from The Conformist and he built sets for Schrader like those of Citizen Kane, sets with hard ceilings designed in a grey monotone so that the walls could be used to create shadows and light forms, brilliantly photographed by the underrated cameraman John Bailey. Scarfiotti and Bailey worked together again on two completely dissimilar movies, Schrader's Cat People (1982) and John Schlesinger's Honky-Tonk Freeway (1981), in which, Bailey says, 'Nando did a fabulous job of catching a certain gone-crazy pop Americana.' The style of American Gigolo was massively influential, simultaneously clinical, brash and camp, and caused Brian de Palma to hire Scarfiotti for Scarface (1983) with its hyper-expensive mansion that drugs built in which Al Pacino's Tony Montana sinks into a slough of white powder. It influenced the television series Miami Vice and Scarfiotti became known as the Designer's Designer.

Scarfiotti was based in Los Angeles, credited as a 'visual consultant' until his green card came through. Michael Apted asked him to design the set for a Sting concert and it was duly filmed in 70mm as Bring on the Night (1985).

But Scarfiotti's finest 70mm moments were the now classic opening sequences revealing the Last Emperor, whose fabulous red and gold both established and embellished the glory of the Forbidden City in China. Scarfiotti won the 1987 Academy Award for Art Direction as one of the nine Oscars won by The Last Emperor. Scarfiotti and Storaro had worked out a colour scheme for Bertolucci that subtly played upon the audience's emotions: it was the very essence of cinema in a film that couldn't quite live up to the quality of its design.

Barry Levinson's long-gestating personal project Toys (1992) was a Scarfiotti delight. His richly multi- textured bold designs were, alas, the only watchable elements in a tedious movie, but, once again, the poster remains a classic, a sort of sub-Magritte Robin Williams with an open window in his crimson derby, at one with Scarfiotti's crazy world, and as far removed as possible from the half-lights of American Gigolo.

The Sheltering Sky (1990) reunited Scarfiotti with Bertolucci, and its period reconstruction was immaculate: however the film was over- length and virtually plotless. Nevertheless, Scarfiotti's reputation was well able to survive both Toys and The Sheltering Sky for there could be no doubt that Scarfiotti was, in the words of Paul Schrader, 'the most influential film designer of the last three decades. His work has influenced an entire generation of directors and designers.' And, Schrader might have added, the very way that the cinema-going audience now views the real world. Scarfiotti's last work is the Warren Beatty-Annette Bening remake of the classic romance Love Affair, expected from Warner Bros this autumn.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...