Surrealism is still alive and well and it never really went away

For the first time, Surrealism’s relationship to the design world is told up to the present day in a stunning exhibition at Design Museum London, UK.

Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 – Today.

For the first time in a major UK exhibition, Surrealism’s relationship to the design world will be told up to the present day. Artworks and objects from Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp and Leonora Carrington will be seen alongside pieces by Sarah Lucas, Björk, Tim Walker and Dior.

Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 – Today will open at the Design Museum in London in October. It will survey the groundbreaking Surrealism movement and how it not only revolutionised art, but also design: from decorative arts and furniture to interiors, fashion, photography and film. This is the first time the Design Museum has explored the relationship of fine art to design on this scale in a major exhibition.

@Roberto Sebastian Matta Echaurren, MAgriTTA, 1970 © Vitra Design Museum, photo: Jürgen HANS, copyright for the works of Roberto Sebastian Matta Echaurren: © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019

The Design Museum’s landmark exhibition is exploring Surrealism’s impact on the world of design.

Tim Marlow, the Design Museum’s CEO and Director, said: “From its very beginnings, Surrealism looked to design and everyday objects for inspiration, but few are aware of the movement’s decisive impact on design.

This eye-opening exhibition will take visitors on a fascinating journey through 100 years of this radical relationship, and it will bring the story right up to the present day for the very first time. The exhibition is both a landmark in the history of Surrealism and design and part of a rich and ongoing story of London’s engagement with one of the great cultural movements of the last century.”

 “If you think Surrealism fizzled out in the 1960s, think again. This exhibition will show that it is still alive and well and that it never really went away. The early Surrealists were survivors of the First World War and the 1918 influenza pandemic, and their art was in part a reaction to those horrors. Today, in the context of dizzying technological change, war and another global pandemic, Surrealism’s spirit feels more alive than ever in contemporary design.” – Kathryn Johnson, Curator of Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 – Today at the Design Museum.

@Horse Lamp, 2006, Front Design, Manufactured by Moooi BV, Breda /Niederlande, Plastic, metal. Vitra Design Museum

OBJECTS OF DESIRE: SURREALISM AND DESIGN 1924 – TODAY: The exhibition will cover nearly 100 years, and close to 350 objects will beon display.

Some of the world’s most famous Surrealist paintings and sculptures – such as Dalí’s Lobster Telephone and Man Ray’s The Gift (LeCadeau) – will go on show alongside dozens of contemporary pieces of art and design. Nearly a third of the objects on show are from the past 50 years. Most of the objects on show are on loan from the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, with other pieces coming on loan from private collections and leading institutions including Tate and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.

“Objects of Desire” is split into four sections, focussing on Surrealism’s influence on everyday objects, interior design, fashion and the body, and the mind.

It starts with an examination of Surrealism’s beginnings from the 1920s and considers the crucial role that design played in its evolution from the very beginning. Everyday objects and interiors were embraced by the movement’s early protagonists, as artists sought to capture the aura or mysterious side of ordinary household objects. Artists including Dalí, Magritte, Meret Oppenheim and Man Ray experimented with an entirely new form of sculpture, by creating absurd objects from found materials and items. Visitors will be able to see some of the most famous examples of these early surrealist sculptures, such as Man Ray’s Cadeau/Audace (1921) comprising of a traditional flat iron studded with nails, Magritte’s painting and sculpture This is a Piece of Cheese (Ceci est un morceau de fromage) (1936 or 1937), and Marcel Duchamp’s Porte-Bouteilles (1959 re-edition of lost 1916 original), a so-called ‘readymade’ artwork made from a bottle rack and considered one of the most influential sculptures of the 20th century.

@Wall plates no. 116 from the series Tema e Variazioni [Theme and Variations], after 1950, Piero Fornasetti, Silk print on porcelain. @Fornasetti Archive

It was from the 1940s when inspiration began to move in the opposite direction, as designers began looking to Surrealist art for ideas to create surprising, even humorous objects.

The humble bicycle became a common motif, and visitors will see Gae Aulenti’s Tour (1993), a table made from a glass top supported by four bicycle wheels set in chrome forks, Jasper Morrison’s own ‘readymade’ Handlebar Table (1982) and Sella (1957), by brothers Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, which is composed of a bicycle saddle mounted on a post fixed into a hemispherical base, blurring the boundary between furniture and art.

The section on Surrealism and the body will examine the movement’s embrace of the human form as a canvas.

No other modern art and design movement has focused so intensively on the body, sexuality and desire. The exhibition includes photographs showing the likes of Marcel Duchamp dressed as his female alter ego, Rrose Selavy, while Claude Cahun’s Self- Portrait (in the Mirror ) of c.1928 is a striking expression of her style and with a composition that blurs conventional gender indicators. Alongside these are contemporary works including Sarah Lucas’ Cigarette Tits , which uses the language of the tabloids to expose stereotypes of female sexuality, and Najla el Zein’s Hay , from her series ‘Sensorial Brushes’, which draws attention to the sensory pleasures offered by everyday materials.

@Hand Chair, about 1962, Pedro Friedeberg, Production this copy: c. 1965, Carved mahogany. @ Vitra Design Museum

The exhibition will also shine a spotlight on Surrealism’s specific significance in the UK.

This includes the partnership between Salvador Dalí and the British poet and art patron, Edward James, whose friendship and collaboration resulted in the creation of world-famous Surrealist interior design pieces. These included the Mae West Lips sofas, described as the single most important piece of Surrealist furniture in the UK. Five versions were originally created in 1938 by Dalí on the suggestion of James. The version on show in the exhibition is on loan from Brighton Museums and will be seen in the exhibition alongside a pair of Champagne Lamps, another of their collaborations. These take the form of a Victorian standard lamp but subvert it with a base made from whimsically oversized ‘champagne glasses’ in brass. These will be united with one of the four original Lobster Telephone works by Dalí, also commissioned by Edward James for his London residence. Where most Surrealism exhibitions usually show this piece in isolation as an art object, here it will be spotlighted as a piece of functional design, albeit a wildly imaginative and sculptural one.

@Schiaparelli, Look 6 Haute Couture, Spring/Summer 2021. Courtesy of Schiaparelli

Surrealism’s influence on fashion, which began in the 1930s, will also be a major strand of the exhibition.

Several Surrealist artists also worked as fashion photographers, including Lee Miller and Man Ray, and some such as Dalí and de Chirico created covers for fashion magazines such as Vogue.

Photographs and vintage copies of these magazines will be on show to highlight these connections, and they will be seen together with Surrealism inspired photography for modern-day magazines such as Tim Walker’s 2013 photo shoot with actress Tilda Swinton for W Magazine. Dalí’s collaboration with the French fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli resulted in several ground-breaking designs. Their first collaborative piece, the Telephone Dial Powder Compact, will be a highlight of the exhibition – this must-have 1930s accessory was so successful that it was widely faked.

The exhibition will also highlight Surrealism’s enduring influence on Maison Schiaparelli, the haute couture house created by Schiaparelli in 1927. Two stunning contemporary gowns will be on show: one uses Schiaparelli’s signature pink on a shocking minidress with a muscular shape, and the other is a modern reprise of her iconic Skeleton Dress.

Both demonstrate the maison’s creative director Daniel Roseberry’s contemporary take on Elsa Schiaparelli’s design language. Visitors will also see Maria Grazia Chuiri’s ‘Salvador Dalí’ ensemble, inspired by Dalí’s historical collaboration with Christian Dior on costumes for ‘The Ball of the Century’ in Venice. Mary Katrantzou, Iris van Herpen and emerging Afro-surrealist inspired fashion designer Yasmina Atta have also loaned garments to the exhibition.

@BLESSbeauty Hairbrush, 2019 edition of 1999 design, Bless, beech; human hair. Vitra Design Museum

Surrealists worked with the objects around them.

Today, those everyday objects include powerful technology systems that govern our lives in ways far beyond what was previously thought possible. The exhibition will examine how contemporary artists and designers are embracing these rapid changes to shake up the creative process, discover new tools, and think differently. For example, sketches will be on show by contemporary designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, who use an intuitive, automatic drawing process to discover new imagery and forms. This represents a 21st-century continuation of the strategies by which the early Surrealists hoped to invite chance into the creative process, allow the subconscious to find expression, and free themselves from conventional art and design practice.

Also on show will be examples of Sketch furniture which is traced by the designer’s hand and body in mid-air using motion capture. The spontaneously drawn forms are translated into a digital file, and then 3D printed to create functional furniture. Design studio Front innovated this method in 2005 to introduce instinct and physicality into the design process, and it is one of the most striking examples of how technology is offering exciting new avenues for Surrealist ideas.

Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 – Today A Vitra Design Museum exhibition opens at the Design Museum on 14 October 2022.

Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 – Today
A Vitra Design Museum exhibition
14 October 2022 – 19 February 2023\
At The Design Museum, London, UK.

@Dunne & Raby, Designs for an overpopulated planet: Foragers, 2009 photo: Jason Evans

@Sarah Lucas, Cigarette Tits [Idealized Smokers Chest II], 1999. Chair, balls, cigarettes, bra, 78.74 x 49.53 x 52.71 cm (31 x 19 ½ x 20 ¾ in) © Sarah Lucas.