Willy Rizzo – My Mentor and Inspiration


Celebrity photographer Willy Rizzo passed away on February, 26, 2013.

I met Willy 20 years ago. I was a young photographers assistant at that time, freelancing for the Parisian based photo agency SYGMA.

Willy has been my mentor and my life inspiration ever since. We worked together for 10 years, traveling the world photographing the aristocracy and worldwide celebrities.

Thank you so much Willy,  I have learned so much from you.

You will be missed.



Willy Rizzo started his career in Paris where he photographed stars and starlets for « Ciné Mondial », « Point de vue » and « Image du monde ». He even covered the Trial of Nuremberg and accomplished big reports, notably in Tunisia on the « line Mareth ».

In 1947, the English Blackstar agency sended him to the United States « to photograph what surprised him »: of a $1 machine which distributed low nylons in drive-in in cinemas. But he prefered women, fashion and started a new life in Los Angeles.

Max Corre, with whom he had collaborated in « France Dimanche », called him to announce that Jean Prouvost was creating a big magazine in Paris, he came back and met Hervé Mille. Here is the beginning of Paris Match adventure. and is still lasting.

His report on Maria Callas inspired Hergé in « Les bijoux de la Castafiore » by creating his caratere : The Paris Flash photographer, Waler Rizzoto, as for his friend  Walter Carone.

In 1959, he became the artistic director of Marie Claire and collaborated with the biggest fashion magazines like Vogue, where Alex Liberman asked him to work « with his look ».

In 1968, he married Elsa Martinelli. The have lived in Rome and Willy began his job of designer for his personal needs. According to him, « the Scandinavian or old pieces of furniture were not either comfortable or rather simple ».

In front of request, he created his workshops. But at the end of the seventies, the fall of Cinecitta and the rise of terrorism gave an end in his Roman life. The « dolce vita » was over. Willy sold his business and because of his nostalgie, he came back to Paris.

Today he continues to draw and still photographs the prettiest women of the world, of whom his wife, Dominique, who gave him three children.WILLY RIZZO


Grand son of a Neapolitan magistrate, his passion for photography began very early. From the age of 12, in the Italian college of Sédillot street in Paris, he makes portraits of his schoolmates with the AgfaBox that his loved mother gave him.

Photographie de Willy Rizzo

Willy Rizzo is one of the few photographers who was 20 years old during the Occupation.

In 1944, still a teenager, he bought his first Roleiflex on the black market and met a wonderful unknown photographer, Gaston Paris, who became his idol. He once said to him: « when you take a picture, just try and think that you make Fragonard! But in some cases, shoot and think after. » As he rides his bike to the studios of Billancourt, Joinville or the Buttes Chaumont, he photographs stars of the French cinema. Later, those same stars will only talk about him. He is hired in Point de Vue where he learns the job of reporter. He goes to Tunisia in order to photograph tanks burned on battlefields.
There, he makes his shots during the sunset to have a low and different light. The results is spectacular and Life Magazine buys his report. After the war, Willy is recruited by the weekly « France Dimanche », headed by Max Corre, a success photographer specialized in private life of celebrities. Willy is sent to Cannes to cover the first Festival without expenses limitation. Because of his brilliant skills, he is the only one who has photographed many people : princesses, playboys, starlets and stars in front of his lens Zeiss Sonnar 180. Later on, America attracts him. He first leaves with the agency Blackstar to New York where his life is according to the rhythm of the city, in particulary when he meets with Edith Piaf while she was singing at the Versailles or his friends at El Morocco.

He looks carefully at pictures of Richard Avedon, Erwin Blumenfeld. He discovers still mythical California and suceeds in many reports on stars: Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark, Gary Cooper, Ann Baxter… that are very well sold.

When he comes back in France in 1949, Jean Prouvost is creating a new great magazine in colours : Paris Match. Gifted, charmer, plated, Willy Rizzo gets dressed with the best suits, drives sports cars, surround himself with gorgeous women.

This big Lord surrounded of “beautiful people” affords all extravagances. He succeeded in transforming the picture of the photographer street acrobat blocked by a bric-à-brac of heavy equipment in figure smart and full of humour. Willy signs Paris-Match very first colored cover with Winston Churchill.

A new aristocracy of photographers is emerging around this merry band of boys, young and first romantic daredevils who like distinctive sign of their nobility only Leica, brandished like a trophy.

Christian Dior, in expert, said that the Paris-Match in rue Pierre-Charron was “the most beautiful car in Paris.” For twenty years, Willy Rizzo will feature hundreds of charm and style with the same control and this constantly renewed invention that characterizes the great press photographer. “Our business is a perpetual challenge,” said Willy Rizzo. “When an hour with a celebrity, talent must be immediately delivered. We must find an immediate idea, accessory, which brings together the personality, such as lenses to photograph Dali or a turntable for Marlene Dietrich. I have great admiration for people like Doisneau or Cartier-Bresson, but they have the leisure to wait for hours or days the magic moment. With fashion and the stars is different. This is not the same job!”


When you have started your career as report photograph, was it the eye of the journalist that had dictated the choices of the photographer? Is this a feature of your work?

Indeed, two go hand in hand. I always try to manifest, to announce an event, to give an information with fastness, accuracy and if possible, with talent. An originality is needed to give something furthermore. Of charm, humour.

Photographie de Willy Rizzo

2- In 2009 we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Paris Match, in which you have signed the first One with Winston Churchill … Would you consider it was a golden age for photojournalism and how do you see its evolution until today?

The golden age is in business not in creation. I always saw my of photographer as a business creator on the lookout. It is difficult to generalize Photographers. Major fashion magazines such as Vogue or Vanity Fair have at their head their own photo service for people who each photographer has his profession, his profile and it is painfully apparent in relation to tariffs. I borrowed my motto from Harry Meerson: “It depends on what is in front but what is in front, is also what’s behind.”

3- How do you drag the photo to fashion and celebrities?

I began very interested in fashion in the sixties, when I worked for Match. I worked a lot in this area that fascinated me. For me it’s the most difficult discipline. It provides such a field of dedicated research and inexhaustible invention. With the only decoration of a white or gray background, with a Nikon or Hasselblad, in daylight or with electronic flash, and in addition we need magic to transform an elegant model, but the material, dream creature.

4- Your link with the world of cinema has led to great friendships and even led … in front of the camera for the film “Hoffa”. Tell us how it happened?

I receive a phone call from Danny De Vito telling me he was the producer and director of the movie Hoffa, the story of the truckers’ union compromise in a crime. He was sent by Jack Nicholson who was the principal actor of the film, and asked me if I would agree to participate by playing the role of the Godfather. I was invited to California as a star, plane tickets to first class, limousines and I had my trailer with my name printed on the door … a very fun experience.

5-Nowadays, do you still “shoot” for magazines?

Yes, when there are many interesting subjects as Bruce Willis or Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Cartagena. I make those deals, and the job is the same as if I were staff. I have just ended a portrait of Fanny Ardant and I prepare other things.

Willy Rizzo


“Imagination and very modern style, which joins well with any environment defines the Italian style of years 1965-1980 which Willy Rizzo claims. As reported by the designer so well, it all starts in a hair salon located Piazza di Spagna in Rome at the end of 1966. While his wife Elsa is getting a hair cut, they both discuss their moving to Italy, where their respective careers so often leads. As Willy likes the neighborhood, he askes the hairdresser where he could find a real estate agent close to the salon. “Of course, just around the corner but you’ll need a miracle to find an apartment.” And the miracle happened in a second floor occupied by a manufacturer of folders with views over the Piazza di Spagna. It was a commercial apartment, abandoned, without water inlet and virtually uninhabitable. He signs right away a lease of six months and returns triumphant to the salon, all in 45 minutes. With a group of neighborhood, Willy turns this room into an apartment. He wants brown and gold walls, a kitchen color of money, land and ceiling black. Then, he designed furniture: sofas, coffee tables, consoles, hi-fi furniture and everything else. The result is very chic. Willy Rizzo never intended to become a designer of furniture, as his friends saw what he had done in his apartment they fell in love with his furniture’s. And as he had many friends in fashion, film, orders poured. One of his first clients is Ghighi Cassini, newspaper columnist social Hearst American who invented the phrase “jet set” to describe the universe and the lifestyle that Fellini immortalized in La Dolce Vita. Cassini wanted an apartment in a modern classical Palazzo. Willy Rizzo has always loved beautiful things, beautiful antiques, he has managed to create contemporary furniture that fit perfectly with the old one. This command has called others of the jet set and high society wealthy Italian. Famous playboys like Rodolfo Parisi, Gigi Rizzi Rapetti and Franco were also part of his prestigious clientele, as the directors Vicente Minnelli, Otto Preminger. Salvador Dali has commissioned several pieces and Brigitte Bardot for the interior of the Madrague in Saint-Tropez.

Photographie de Willy Rizzo

He furnished aristocrats apartments in the Palazzo Borghese and Palazzo Ruspoli. Rizzo style marked an era. Regarded as the designer of Dolce Vita, he also personified. The demand was such that in 1968, he decided to start his own company. He establish his locations outside of Rome, in Tivoli, where his team grows from 8 employees to 150. In the following years, he created more than 30 furniture’s, steel tables with travertine shelf, table lamps in bronze, all handmade. His furniture is contemporary in style and always based on natural and noble materials such as wood, marble, stainless steel, brass, wild boar. He opened a shop Willy Rizzo, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and several in France and Europe as well as outlets in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. His creations are published in many magazines and are at least fifteen times the coverage of “Maison et Jardin”.

In 1978, Willy sells and returns to his first love, photography. “I’ve never tried to become a businessman and I’m starting to get bored. I miss my bohemian life of photographer, “he says. During these 10 years, Rizzo, great admirer of the sophistication of Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Ruhlmann, developed a style easily recognizable today. These pieces have clean lines with geometric shapes marked in materials carefully selected, inlaid in brass and chrome. It has always remained faithful to the traditional use of materials specific to artisans, not to return to the system of mass production and plastic that was in the air. The style was first defined by its customers and interior decorating. Comfort, strength and convenience are also important. Thus, modular sofas were lavishly covered with skin and with a control panel that controls the light and the volume of the stereo. The doors of his apartment open and close by snapping in hands. And the tables were equipped with a bar. It has been said that his photos are beautiful because they have a rare simplicity, we can say that his furniture work well in contemporary as they have an elegant simplicity and a purpose. The originality of his furniture comes from its independent creator who has never worked or copied, which explains this striking style and so different. Some of the furniture have been exhibited in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, most recently at the gallery on Madison Mallett and London with Paul Smith. His photographs were published in the book Star Society in 1991, from Schirmer-Mosel, and My Stars, at Hachette-Filipacchi in 2003, pending an exhibition of war photographs at the Museum Niepce in Chalon-sur-Saône.


1- How came this interest in furniture that made you appreciate creation and design ?

As for photography, I try to make my furniture have a unique, something more, sometimes a gadget. I love my job: the pictures give me a quick appreciation, especially now with digital. To design is much longer. Millimeter when the drawing is ready, it takes a long time to appreciate the furniture. Between the idea and furniture production, several months go by. Once it is finished, it always requires some visual corrections, because I am a visual. I am a photographer who makes furniture.

2- How would you qualify the Rizzo style?

The furniture that I create is original, you may like it or not. Before there use to be the Swedish furniture, but I never approved it, it wasn’t comfortable nor banded. This is why I created my furniture. In 1967, my style was a major change in Italy, and then very quickly I sold my furniture in France, America and North Europe. Any physical space gives the idea of a different stand. For example, in the apartment of my friend Cassini, one of the room is round, so I created my first roundtable.

3- What about Willy Rizzo furniture’s? Are they still manufactured? Where can we find them?

Some of my furniture is republished in small series, sometimes with minor changes due to changes in the eye. They are found in New York, with Mallett, in London, with Paul Smith and in Monaco, at the Opera Gallery. We fight the counterfeits and copies with some help and new laws. Copies are often made with poor materials and false steps. That is why my furniture is always accompanied by a certificate of authenticity

4- In this area, do you still want to create?
Yes, we have a department where we have now created a new lamp, a dresser, a bedside table and Mallett, a frame.


I met Willy in Milan at a dinner hosted by … Playboy Magazine! Since then, we became good friends. In addition, Willy “looks just like my father.” We meet regularly, and we joke all the time. I cause all the time on the paparazzi. ( “I tease him all the time, I make fun about him and his paparazzi way”). I love the photos of Willy a French touch, especially in the artistic direction. I consider it a great photographer and I admire not only his work but also his career. “

Jack Nicholson (september 2002)

Lenny Kravitz « Mr. Kravitz describes this low-slung look of this contemporary designer’s furniture as « very strong, very masculine and really funky ». Picture display a coffee-table designed by Mr. Rizzo with a built-in bucket for chilling champagne. »

More info at: www.willyrizzo.com