Strange Objects: Surrealism in Design

Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985) Traccia table manufactured by Gavina

Surrealism, a highly influential 20th century art movement, drew inspiration from the political theories of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. The term Surrealism was first coined in 1917 by the art critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and in 1924 it was used by the writer and theorist André Breton to describe a politically radical movement. This movement aimed to change perceptions of the world by exploring dreams, the unconscious mind, and the irrational. Surrealists employed “automatic” techniques, creating art without conscious thought to unearth unconscious imagery.

“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.” -André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism

Guido Drocco & Franco Mello ‘Cactus’ Coat Stand for Gufram, Limited Edition, 1303/2000 / Sold for $5,952

In the 1930s, Surrealism ventured into the commercial realm, with leading artists often engaging in commercial design, including advertising, graphics, theatre, and film, despite opposition from some Surrealists. Blending the old, the new, and the strange, Surrealists fashioned unique interior spaces, furniture, and objects that defied prevailing modern interior design trends. One of the most renowned domestic Surrealist interiors was Monkton House, owned by Edward James, a collector, poet, and patron of Salvador Dalí. In the mid-1930s, James transformed Monkton House into ‘a complete Surrealist house,’ for which Dalí and James created the iconic ‘Mae West Lips Sofa.’ The house also featured 11 of Dalí’s famous lobster telephones. Architects and designers were also embracing Surrealist ideas and aesthetics. Le Corbusier was among the first, with a 1929 Parisian rooftop terrace design for Carlos de Beistegui, and in the late 1930s Carlo Mollino began creating Surrealist interiors.

The Surrealist object was partly intended as a critique of consumer culture. However, in making the ‘fantastic real,’ by using commodities and directly engaging with the material world, they also highlighted the commercial possibilities of Surrealism and its application in the decorative arts. Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim designed the ‘Traccia’ table in 1939 and it has since been put into production by Cassina.

The conceptually driven design that Surrealism helped to initiate has had continued influence, including on the Radical Design movement of the 60s and 70s, as well as contemporary design movements today.

By Rebecca Stormont, Modern Design Specialist

Banner Image: The dining room at Monkton House with Dalí’s Mae West Lips Sofas / Alamy

November 2023