Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design – exhibition review

This tremendously enjoyable exhibition explores how surrealism has marked everyday design

Dali’s Lobster Telephone (1938)
Dali’s Lobster Telephone (1938)
(Image credit: Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala- Salvador Dalí, DACS 2022)

Surrealism was a movement that emphasised “the fantastic and the absurd”, said Aisling O’Leary in The Daily Telegraph. Starting in the 1920s, its artists created “Freudian dreamscapes” that seemingly escaped all reason, but sought to make us see the world in a different way.

We know the movement mainly from paintings and films, but as this “fascinating” new exhibition shows, its practitioners were also influential on the world of design. The show brings together examples of furniture, fashion, interiors and architecture that sprang from the movement or owe a debt to it, along with some classic works of art, to explore how surrealism has marked everyday design – and continues to make its influence felt to this day. Taking in everything from Salvador Dalí paintings to Elsa Schiaparelli dresses to fashion photos by Tim Walker, it is a ride through a century of weirdness which presents “unexpected juxtapositions at every turn”.

This is an “orgy of bad taste”, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. Among the first things we see are two of the most immediately recognisable works of surrealist art: Dalí’s Lobster Telephone and the sofa he designed in the shape of actress Mae West’s lips, which we are invited to look at not solely as “outrageous sculptures”, but as “actual pieces of furniture”.

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Other surrealist masterpieces get the same treatment: we see Man Ray’s iron studded with nails, “an attack on domestic chores”; and Marcel Duchamp’s 1914 “readymade” of a spiky metal bottle rack – a repurposing of an existing design object as art. It’s all delightfully strange. Less successful, however, are examples of contemporary surrealist-influenced design. Seeing Galliano fashion accessories and Björk videos next to these “jewels of surrealist intoxication” just proves that “surrealism, tragically, is dead”. It was an “extreme and extraordinary” movement, whereas the later examples are merely playful.

If the original surrealist exhibits we see are at times “almost too familiar”, the newer ones are “too diverse”, said Edwin Heathcote in the Financial Times. The parameters of the show allow for almost anything to be described as “surreal”: the term has become “a catch-all” for the strange and unsettling. Nevertheless, it’s a tremendously “enjoyable” exhibition.

Perhaps the most intriguing section covers the lesser-explored phenomenon of surrealism in Africa: a clip from Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 film Touki Bouki is “a magical reflection on the strangeness of migration”, while a bizarre winged bodysuit designed by Yasmina Atta is probably best described as “steampunk juju”. Surrealism may long since have lost its subversiveness – but as the show proves, it can still be a lot of fun.

The Design Museum, London W8 (020-3862 5900, designmuseum.org). Until 19 February

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