22 October 2019

Objects of Desire

Dreamlike objects, alienated objects, curious hybrids, powerfully sensual and ironic products. In a word, Surrealism. Co-founded by André Breton in 1924, the movement had a pivotal influence on the entire design scene, turning everyday objects into modern art works and revolutionising the canons of graphic art, film, photography and fashion, even appearing on the covers of magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. This forms the basis for the retrospective Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 – Today at the Vitra Design Museum: an exhibition that explores the relationship between Surrealism and design, analysing what went on behind the scenes, probing the continuous parallels and cross-references between the two world. The artistic masterpieces that symbolised the movement proved extraordinary influential for the design world, which was eager to incorporate dreamlike elements, sexual taboos, phobias and lusts for power into its own aesthetic.

Objects of Desire opens with a look at the period spanning the 1920s to the 1950s, when the importance of design for the evolution of Surrealism really began to make itself felt. Inspired by Giorgio de Chirico, artists such as René Magritte and Salvador Dalí strove to capture the aura and mystery of everyday objects. Exploring their narrative potential influenced designers and architects of the calibre of Le Corbusier. The Paris apartment he designed for Carlos de Beistegui, a leading collector of Surrealist art, was just one such example. When a number of Surrealist exponents emigrated to America following the rise of National Socialism and the occupation of France, the movement also served to inspire designers on the other side of the Atlantic, including Ray Eames and Isamu Noguchi.

The second part of the exhibition examines the way in which the Surrealists analysed archetypal everyday objects and undermined the codes of meaning of a world we thought we knew. Many designers employed similar strategies after 1945. Take Achille Castiglioni, for example, whose projects were often based on the concept of ready-made. A large number of Italian Radical Design pieces, including Piero Gilardi’s Sassi (1967/68) and Studio65’s Capitello armchair (1971), call to mind Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico’s fragments of decontextualized objects. During the 1960s and 1970s, Surrealist artists such as Man Ray and Roberto Matta explored the opportunities offered by the new plastic materials to turn their ideas into chairs, armchairs and furniture. Even more recent designs in the exhibition are based on the decontextualization and the estrangement of what we thought we knew, such as Front’s Horse Lamp (2006) and Konstantin Grcic’s Coathangerbrush (1992), for whom Marcel Duchamp was a major source of inspiration.

The third part of Objects of Desire is devoted to the themes of love, eroticism and sexuality, which played a central role in Surrealism. During the post-war period, these themes caught on in interior architecture, as the installations and furnishings created by Carlo Mollino, and Salvador Dali’s Mae West Lips sofa (1938) show. The latter was turned by Studio65 into the iconic lip-shaped Bocca sofa (1970). The design work of Gaetano Pesce, Maarten Baas and Studio Wieki Somers was also seminal during that period.

The last part of the exhibition focuses on what the French ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss called “wild thought,” meaning an interest in the archaic, the casual and the irrational, which reflected both the Surrealists’ enthusiasm for so-called primitive art and their experiments with materials and techniques. Similar themes can be seen in design, particularly as of the 1980s, when experimental approaches were encouraged, and designers began to deconstruct both the shapes and the typologies of objects. A prime example of this is the Pools & Pouf! sofa (2004) by Robert Stadler in which a classic Chesterfield sofa appears to liquefy the way objects in paintings by Salvador Dali do. Similar approaches can be discerned in Inga Mauer’s Porca Miseria! lighting system, which looks as if it’s exploding, and in Nacho Carbonell’s Cocoon8 hybrid table lamp (2015).

Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 – Today is well worth seeing because it illustrates just how topical the dialogue between Surrealism and design is, and how it encouraged designers to go beyond the visible and the functional in order to concentrate on the message encapsulated by and inherent in the object.

Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 – Today

28th September – 19th January 2020

Vitra Schaudepot
Weil am Rhein – Germany


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