Of all art’s “isms”, only Surrealism ever made a real impact on design. From Meret Oppenheim’s furry teacup to Salvador Dalí’s Mae West-lips sofa, the joy in sex and subversion oozes through its artefacts, some intended for use, others for provocation, most for both. The problem for a design curator, however, is the sheer success and ubiquity of the surreal. No other art term has become such an easy cliché: it has shifted from its original sense of the uncanny and the unheimlich to the strange, the spectacular or the slightly odd.

It is, in its way, the perfect word for our age. With unseen technology monitoring and interpreting our desires, our cyborg world with its gaudy AI art experiments and its augmented realities, Surrealism has infected the algorithm and the everyday. Susan Sontag dismissed Surrealism as a bourgeois disaffection (“That its militants thought it universal,” she wrote, “is only one of the signs that it is typically bourgeois”). But its values have seeped into the mainstream. Or perhaps they were always there? 

Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design, 1924-Today, a new exhibition at London’s Design Museum (instigated, originally, at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany), does what design museums do every decade or so and revisits the surreal as a key influence in design, updating and reassessing it. It is a terrific-looking show, with a hint of David Lynch in its theatrically spot-lit red velvet curtains and dark rooms, and the exhibits are, from the first moment, the absolute lodestones of the movement, from Dalí’s paintings to Man Ray’s spiky iron.

A red sofa shaped like a pair of lips - with the seat as the lower lip, and the backrest as the upper lip
‘Mae West Lips Sofa’ by Salvador Dalí (c1938) © Salvador Dalí/DACS

Best of all is a podium of objects from eccentric poet Edward James’s house, with its Dalí-designed champagne glass lamp, that sofa and a carpet woven with his wife’s footprints. But another room-set, illustrated only with a few small photos and a magazine profile, suggests something else about Surrealism. Le Corbusier’s designs for Charles de Beistegui’s roof garden, conceived as a room with fireplace and overmantel mirror (along with a parrot), begin to suggest that Surrealism was not a rebellion, a distinct movement, but instead was shot through the whole history of Modernism. Think of the theatre performances or photography from the Bauhaus, the cabaret of Weimar or the paintings of Kandinsky and Klee, Picasso and the rest.

Then you might suggest that the whole history of Pop Art, the stealing from the shop window, the celebration of consumption and the fetishisation of the lowbrow, is itself lifted from Surrealism. The celebration of the industrially produced object and its reading as a metaphor or a dream machine is at the heart of Surrealism’s modernity. The French poet Comte de Lautréamont’s provocation of a sight “as beautiful as a chance encounter between an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table” exudes ideas of mechanistic cruelty and mechanical sex, an anxiety about the modern condition translated into a fetishism in which the umbrella is male, the sewing machine female, the dissecting table a bed. It is an interior tableau that prompted reaction from artists from André Breton to Andy Warhol.

A wooden chair is carved to look like a hand, its curved palm providing the seating area
‘Hand Chair’ by Pedro Friedeberg (designed c1962) © Vitra Design Museum

More than any other idea in art, the surreal is embedded in the object and it was instantly subsumed into design. At first, it was only for the interiors of Sontag’s intellectual bourgeoisie, but through the movies it reached a wider constituency, from Luis Buñuel to Walt Disney. It spread through the pages of fashion magazines (one vitrine here is stuffed with strikingly Surrealist covers and spreads of mid-century magazines, with gorgeous dresses by designers from Schiaparelli to Katrantzou) and then into more mainstream Modernism, until there was very little telling where one began and the other ended. By the 1960s — think of the interiors from Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (not featured here) or the Pop modernism of Joe Colombo or Allen Jones (also not here) — the surreal had become the language of the corporate interior and the commercial loft, the department-store window and the perfume ad.

A plate is printed with a black-and-white image of a woman’s face. One of her eyes opens like a door to reveal a smaller image of the same face
Wall plate no 116 from the ‘Tema e Variazioni’ series begun by Piero Fornasetti in 1952 © Fornasetti Archive

The essence of Surrealist design might seem to be its sacrifice of function for form, but perhaps that is the most modern thing about it. Now that most of our interactions with design have been reduced to caressing a black screen, the world of objects can be freed to retreat into dreams.

The broader problem is that Surrealism has so successfully infiltrated design with its ideas of storytelling, subversion and surprise that, effectively, almost all top-end design has become surreal, a play with scale and sense, with material, message and desire. What the London show adds to its Vitra predecessor is a section on the Afro-Surreal, bringing a re-enchantment of the ideas from the source, the cultures that inspired so many of the original Surrealists a century ago. A clip from Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 film Touki Bouki is a magical reflection on the strangeness of migration, and beside it the periodically flapping wings of Yasmina Atta’s bodysuit bring a touch of steampunk juju to the show.

Exactly what it sounds like: a lobster on top of the received of an old-fashioned telephone
‘Lobster Telephone’ by Salvador Dalí (1938) © Salvador Dalí/DACS

Once a word passes into the language as a catch-all for the unsettling, it loses specificity and meaning. The early objects here are almost too familiar, the newer ones too diverse, a net spread too wide. None of this, however, makes it less enjoyable. There is none of the subversive challenge of the original ideas any more but it remains a seductive display of kitsch. Despite its instigators’ insistence on Surrealism’s political intent, its degeneration into high camp is everywhere. Sontag’s dismissal of Surrealism, which sounded a little strident at the time, looks more trenchant with each passing year.

To February 19 2023, designmuseum.org

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