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Why Surrealist design is back

In 1916, in the middle of the first world war, Giorgio de Chirico returned to Italy from Paris and began painting rooms stacked with incongruous objects. It was a departure for an artist known for eerie street scenes and portraits of mannequins. In “The Jewish Angel”, made in the same year, drawing tools such as tri-squares and metre sticks are piled on top of one another to create a towering form, topped with a drawing of a single eye on a piece of paper, looking out at the viewer. It’s thought the painting was an abstract portrait of de Chirico’s father, who worked as a railroad engineer.

The Jewish Angel, 1916, by Giorgio de Chirico
The Jewish Angel, 1916, by Giorgio de Chirico © DACS 2022

In using everyday objects to give physical shape to an unconscious sensation, De Chirico seeded the ideas that would form the Surrealist movement (from sur, or above, reality), as defined by a group of French poets, led by André Breton, a decade later. Through their automatic writing, poetry and painting, the Surrealists pioneered a way of thinking that prized the “illumination of hidden places” in the mind, and “the progressive darkening of other places, the perpetual excursion into the midst of forbidden territory”. All of it part of the search for greater intellectual freedom.

In the decades following the publication of the first Surrealist manifestos in 1924, the twisted and warped objects that the artists depicted, such as fireplaces, rocking horses and clocks, have danced off the canvas and into the material world. It started with sculpture — with Dalí’s lobster telephone, and Dorothea Tanning’s Pincushion to Serve as Fetish — and then spread into commercial design, as the aesthetic was co-opted by fashion and furniture designers, architects and graphic designers.

One of Piero Fornasetti’s face illustrations, from 1952
Wall plates no. 116 from the series Tema e Variazioni [Theme and Variations], after 1950, Piero Fornasetti © Fornasetti Archive

Now Surrealist design is having another moment. It has re-entered the zeitgeist through the renaissance of Elsa Schiaparelli’s eponymous fashion house, and the proliferation of warped and wobbly architecture that appears to defy the laws of physics, as in Seoul’s 2018 The Imprint building. And it’s the subject of a major exhibition at London’s Design Museum this autumn called Objects of Desire. The question now is the same as the question back then: can the radical spirit of Surrealism survive commercialisation?

In 1926, Breton and Louis Aragon stormed the Paris premiere of the Ballet Russes’ Romeo and Juliet, for which Max Ernst and Jean Miró had designed the costumes, to protest against the commercialisation of the movement. Something similar seems unlikely today.

Early Surrealist design was able to critique a society increasingly in thrall to consumerism by hijacking everyday objects such as the telephone. Contemporary designers have tapped into this spirit by producing work that occupies imagined, rather than real — and therefore marketable — space.

Person forages wearing a green outfit
Dunne and Raby, Foragers 5, Between Reality And The Impossible, 2010 © Photography: Jason Evans

London-based studio Dunne and Raby, whose work is included in the Design Museum show, creates “fictional” and “impossible” objects to stimulate discussion around new technology. For its 2010 project, “Between Reality And The Impossible” it designed dystopian gadgets and photographed them in staged scenes that speculate on various undesirable futures. In one, foragers in a food-scarce Britain rummage through suburban habitats. They are dressed in neon protective suits and carry tubular DIY devices seeking “nutritional value in the urban environment”. In another, police carry out “scans” designed to detect suspicious brainwaves in suspected criminals. The photographs were taken in real environments, but the futuristic, sinister-looking costumes and props give the series an uncanny, disquieting quality.

In its furniture, Swedish design studio Front evokes the uncanny as a means of probing our relationship to our possessions, creating “unexpected reflections of how objects relate to the world around us”, as co-founder Sofia Lagerkvist puts it. Front’s horse lamp, also featured in the Design Museum exhibition, sits a lampshade atop the head of a life-size cast of a horse, creating the impression that a mythical apparition is lighting the room. Co-founder Anna Lindgren says the lamp prompts people to “remember their fascination for the forest they had as children”. But, in tapping into the nostalgia for a pastoral childhood, whether real or imagined, the horse lamp arguably stirs twee fantasies rather than revealing anything below the surface of the mind. It seems an ornamental, safe version of surreality.

Black horse lamp
Horse Lamp, 2006, Front Design © Vitra Design Museum

For its Anomaly range, Front stretched pink, flesh-coloured leather over nugget-like forms with stumpy trotters for legs. These seats and footstools are intended as “objects to awaken your curiosity, your affection or perhaps even repulsion”. “We were curious about how we read a new object and associate it with our previous experiences and references,” explains Lindgren, who says that the Anomaly range prompts a multitude of reactions. “Many people pet the stool as if it were an animal. Some laugh. Some find it cute and others associate it with aliens, tumours or growths on a body.” In provoking these visceral reactions, the chairs point us towards our unconscious phobias or fetishes. (I find the chairs breast-like; my boyfriend said they looked like scamorza affumicata, the smoked Italian cheese.)

The quality of surreality isn’t necessarily visual, though. It can be atmospheric or behavioural, too. LA-based design practice Bureau Spectacular aims to use architecture and product design as a medium for storytelling, inspired in part by the dreamlike paintings of 15th-century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. “Once we look at the paintings, we might question our own reality,” says founder Jimenez Lai. His furniture collection Shadows of Things We Wished We Had attempts to render invisible dynamics visible. One sofa, for example, is higher on one side than on the other, with a smooth, slide-like curve connecting the two levels. It is part peach-pink and part deep-sea blue, the gendered colours not unintentional.

“I was thinking about the dynamics of two people sitting together,” Lai says. “If you can’t sit on the same level with somebody, what does that do to the relationship?” There is a function, he believes, “to thinking about what kinds of stories we can tell, and what kinds of things we can build in reality, that change our realities a little bit”. The sofa is a sleek, attractive object, but one that might also make something unconscious conscious.

Salvador Dalí’s Mae West-inspired Lips sofa
Salvador Dalí and Edward James, Mae West’s Lips sofa, c. 1938. Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust, Brighton and Hove. © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí DACS 2022

The incongruous, isolated body part, Surrealism’s most ubiquitous influence on contemporary design, can be traced back to one of the movement’s first objects: the Mae West Lips sofa. Designed by Salvador Dalí in 1938, it was inspired by his idol Sigmund Freud (who did not return the admiration, considering the Surrealists to be “cranks”) and Freud’s idea that, in a dream, a room symbolised a woman. Dalí made a painting of a grand room to look like the face of the Hollywood icon Mae West, his paradigm of womanly beauty, rendering her lips as the sofa. It was his patron Edward James who suggested Dalí create a physical version of the seat for his Surrealist design project Monkton House, in West Sussex.

A Maison Schiaparelli guipure dress with a belt
A Maison Schiaparelli guipure dress with a belt © Schiaparelli

The red woollen fabric and black tassel fringing of Dalí’s sofa, however, take on a darker set of meanings in light of James’s comment that the fringing was chosen “to look like the embroidery on the epaulettes of a picador or the breeches and hat of a toreador”. Dalí also revealed that the shape was inspired by “some particularly uncomfortable rocks” near his home in Cadaques, Spain. The dream-symbol of perfect womanhood, then, is actually a rendering of a provocative seductress, alluring but inhospitable. It is a Freudian symbol of another, perhaps unintended, kind: the perfect woman who elicits murderous aggression in her observer (as the bullfighter does the bull) is also a description of the Oedipus complex.

Some of the sofa’s successors fail to live up to the intentions of their creators. This summer, Schiaparelli’s Daniel Roseberry designed a series of belts studded with “surrealist anatomical details”: golden noses and ears with breasts for lobes. Playful and beautiful, weird and intriguing, they are indicative of Roseberry’s skill for designing irreverent and witty yet elegant clothing. But when held up to the Surrealists’ founding impulse to ridicule commodity culture and question the structures of desire and consumption on which the modern economy relies, they fall flat. They divert from reality, but ultimately lead nowhere.

Can an object explicitly designed to be bought and used also be a radical statement? The early Surrealists argued that painting and sculpture weren’t immediate enough mediums to allow for the pure expression of the subconscious (they preferred writing). By that standard, an object designed for the market would be even less so. But an object or image can snag something deep in the recesses of the mind. Dunne and Raby’s eerie futuristic visions, which allow us to explore unsettling situations from a place of safety, or Front’s Anomaly chairs, which expose our unconscious associations, are testament to that. At its best, contemporary design of this kind recalls the original Surrealists’ excursion towards forbidden territories, and the illumination of what’s hidden.

“Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924-Today” is at the Design Museum, London from October 14-February 19

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