When Salvador Dali created his Lobster and White Aphrodisiac telephones in 1938, they were certainly intended to invoke the bizarre dream mentality of the Surrealists. But unlike the melting clocks he painted, the phones were functional objects: designed for the poet and arts patron Edward James’s house and produced by a decorating firm, the White Aphrodisiac was, above all, a telephone, though we rarely think of it that way. “We tend to focus on these familiar objects as art, even though they originated in design,” says Ghislaine Wood, a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. “They’ve been divorced from their history.”
Wood hopes to set the record straight with “Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design” (which runs through July 22), the first exhibition ever to examine Surrealism’s love-hate relationship with commerce and the decorative arts. Despite its early ties to Communism and social rebellion, Surrealism grew hugely fashionable in the 1930s, and its members recognized that design could give them the potential to spread their cultural influence beyond the gallery and into chic boutiques and fashion magazines. Oscar DomÃnguez’s satin-lined wheelbarrow, for example, had a fashion moment when it was photographed by Man Ray with a model sitting in it for the Surrealist review Minotaure. Meret Oppenheim’s salacious fur teacup, which evolved from her jewelry design for Elsa Schiaparelli, is still having a moment, e.g., Christofle’s recent line of fur-handled cutlery.
Both these iconic pieces are among the 300 examples of furniture, graphics, photographs and interiors that Wood has assembled to demonstrate how they provided a natural platform to promote whim and fantasy over Modernism and the aesthetic of streamlining, Surrealism’s natural-born enemies. Central motifs like Freudian subtext, fetishism, biomorphism and chance were easily translated into three dimensions. Occasionally the process was linear, as the artists used design to put specific theories into practice — like DalÃ’s 1935 gouache of an apartment with furnishings rendered from Mae West’s facial features, which gave rise a few years later to his Mae West Lips Sofa (also on display at the V&A). But it could also mean simply happening upon the right combination of materials or found objects, as Alberto Giacometti did when he piled several disparate items on a table, including a disembodied doll’s head frozen in a horrified expression, and coated the whole thing in white plaster to create La Table Surréaliste (1933). “You can’t really say there’s a Surrealist style, only the juxtaposition of things and the slippages in reality it created,” Wood says.
Design allowed the Surrealists to evoke that all-important feeling of disconcertedness. To that end, the exhibition features a 20-foot-long walk-through model of Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery Art of This Century. Like the original tunnel-like space, which Frederick Kiesler designed in 1942, the model falls dark every few minutes and echoes with the eerie sound of a passing train. Wood has also included pictures of Edward James’s plum-colored Monkton house in Sussex, England, which was filled to the brim with works by DalÃ, René Magritte and Jean-Michel Frank, illustrating how the archetypal dreamscape could come to life.
James’s interiors also demonstrate another point: the Surrealists may have been the first to inject humor and taboo into home furnishings, but that didn’t make nose-shaped fireplaces and phallic umbrella stands any easier to live with. Even at its most authentic, Surrealist design could never have amounted to more than a passing fascination among the cultural elite.
Still, “Surreal Things” reminds us that Surrealism clearly left a legacy behind. While the movement itself may have died after World War II, it’s impossible not to notice its tropes reflected in contemporary design. Some of Droog’s process-driven furniture displays a similar obsession with chance, like Tejo Remy’s improvised chest of drawers or Frederik Roijé’s Spineless Lamp, which withers at random during the firing process. Oppenheim’s 1939 Table With Bird’s Legs had several reincarnations at the Milan furniture fair last year, while the fetishes inherent in Magritte’s painting of hair-sprouting shoes and DalÃ’s hair curtain are reflected in the hirsute vases of FredriksonStallard and a blond-locked brush by Bless.
But the movement’s current influence is a matter of appearance rather than intent, which is why Wood included in the exhibition only pieces that were designed by its original members. “The later history is so subjective and hard to pin down,” she says. Most of what might have passed for Surrealism in the ’30s and ’40s would be lumped under the heading of irony now. Though their brush is cited in the “Surreal Things” catalog, Bless’s designers themselves disavow any outright inspiration. “Our hairbrush is often seen as a Surrealist object, but the intersection happened unconsciously,” they insist. FredriksonStallard’s Ian Stallard echoes the sentiment, adding, “Surrealism made it perfectly acceptable to create pieces that don’t make sense functionally or aesthetically, and this has broadened the horizons of design.”
One thing the modern designers say they can’t quite reproduce is Surrealism’s shock value. At the Future Perfect boutique in Brooklyn, for example, necklaces made from gold-plated dental retainers hang cheek by jowl with “cocaine mirrors,” and no one, presumably, is offended. “Sex is no longer shocking, and people are much more accepting of outlandish ideas now,” says the store’s owner, Dave Alhadeff. “They’re automatically fashionable. If Surrealism has had any impact on design and on our culture, it’s in the way it changed our perception. Things feel ‘surreal’ because the movement itself altered the way we look at objects.”
On the other hand, Wood worries that our postmodernist viewpoint — and our high level of exposure to items like the Lobster Telephone that have become part of pop culture — will make it hard to envision just how jarring the work included in the show was at the time. “I just hope people will stop and try to understand what it was like then,” she says. “I mean, imagine what it must have felt like to put a lobster to your ear?”
It must have been a gas.
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