Inside a run-down apartment building, tin pot puppets sprout from shelves, copper birds dangle from the ceiling and painted canvases line the walls. A cross between a tinsmith workshop and an academic’s experimental laboratory, this is Professor Riccardo Dalisi’s art studio, down a narrow cobblestone street in the Naples district of the Vomero.

Dalisi introduces himself with a jovial smile and immediately offers to give a tour of his artwork. “They’re doing the tango,” he chuckles, holding up two tin pots with pointy noses, hats and arms soldered together.

Born in 1931, Riccardo Dalisi grew up in Italy during World War II when often he had nothing more than potato peels to eat. While still a child, he moved with his family to Naples from the small town of Potenza, southeast of the city. His father, a postman who loved working with his hands as a hobby, encouraged his son to do the same, and to study. Dalisi enrolled in the University of Naples department of architecture, earned a degree, and by 1969 he became a tenured professor there.

He found teaching very taxing and, believing that art should be for everyone, he embarked upon an experiment. In 1971 he set up workshops for children in the most impoverished district of Naples, the Rione Traiano. On his first day with the children, he brought along wooden sticks and strings. He told the children to design whatever they liked. They didn’t question him, but instead began to work without any inhibitions. From these simple materials, the children created complex geometrical designs that, Dalisi says, could have been signed by Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, or Marc Chagall.

In 1979 the household goods company Alessi asked him to create a new design for the Neapolitan Flip-Over coffee pot. Because the pot was made of tin, he began visiting countless tinsmiths and junk dealers in Naples. The pot reminded Dalisi of the 18th century Neapolitan theater movement’s opera buffa, which depicted common people in everyday situations. Often a pulcinella, a joker wearing a mask, came into the scene and overturned things. Dalisi began to sketch tin pots with stick arms and stick legs, forming characters such as vestal virgins, traffic cops and the pulcinella-like comedian.

Dalisi handed over his sketches to a tinsmith, Don Vincenzo, who took the designs and soldered the features onto the pots. Dalisi never met the old Neapolitan recluse, communicating with him only through a nephew, but together they created more than two hundred prototypes and sent them off to Alessi.

Alessi felt some frustration with the architect’s endless experiments but stuck with Dalisi. Its loyalty paid off: in 1982 he won the premier industrial design award in Italy – the Golden Compass – for his new rendition of the pot. MOMA – the Museum of Modern Art in New York City – exhibited Dalisi’s tin pots and they soon became part of the private collections of museums in Paris, Montreal, Milan and Denver, Colorado.

Today Dalisi, a retired professor emeritus, spends most of his time at his studio surrounded by artists and gallery directors. Since the 1990s he has devoted himself mostly to sculpture, using simple materials such as brass and copper. In one doorway, a female statue clasps her hands to her chest, her glassy eye welcoming people into the room. Strutting out in the middle, a Don Quixote holds a shield. Dalisi ambles to a table where a medieval farmer on a horse pulls shearing implements. “Horses used to be an important part of medieval Neapolitan culture,” he says.

Dalisi explains that modern art flourishes in Naples today. He not only cooperates with many other contemporary artists, but also uses the city’s history for his ideas. He lifts up a metal mask with a horse-like face, bulging golden eyes and mischievous smile, then explains that these masks were inspired by the theater masks of ancient Greece and Rome.

Accessible and friendly, Dalisi shows his studio to anyone who calls and makes an appointment.

Getting There: Studio Dalisi is at Calata San Francesco 59, Naples. Call at 081 681 405, or e-mail at studiodalisi@libero.it.

Here’s my interview with him (in Italian):