What’s that whizzing? It’s the sound of André Breton and the OG Surrealist crew spinning in their graves. The concept of this exhibition – 'surrealist design' – is as daft as, well, a lobster telephone.
We start in the 1920s with the familiar, fantastic first surrealist objects: violent, deliberately dysfunctional visual puns like Man Ray’s ‘Cadeau’, an iron with nails, or objects like Duchamp’s spiky bottle rack. They’re the opposite of easy on the eye. Unlike Salvador Dali’s kitsch 1930s icons, also here: the lobster telephone and the Mae West sofa, plumped into the shape of her lipsticked pout and looking a little shabby, sadly. Dali had a genius for advertising. Whatever incarnation you glimpse him in here – in a deep sea diving costume, charming Sigmund Freud or as a sleek, mustachioed immigrant collaborating with Disney in the USA – he is the ringmaster for popular surrealism, and for its application in advertising, department stores, film-making and more. There’s surely a special episode of Mad Men starring Dali just waiting to be commissioned, and you could fruitfully stage a show on his design and pop legacy alone.
Surrealism was on a rigorous mission to overthrow capitalist reality
Instead, ‘Objects of Desire’ goes large. It’s at its best with the objects and earlier artworks, showing the stories behind them, through original photography, notebooks etc. It makes less sense when it ventures forward, or away from domestic objects. Claude Cahun’s self-portraits, striking different gender identities, are bold and urgent but I don’t get why they’re included in a design show that flicks straight forward to Schiaparelli’s couture ballgowns, with gilded fins to accent anorexic hips.
There’s a clear line from Dali’s sofa and phones (commissioned by his wealthy British patron Edward James, for his home) to next gen design classics such as Gaetano Pesci’s 1969 La Mamma chair, a deceptively comfy red foam ball and chain, and Pedro Friedeberg’s beautiful 1962 wood Hand chair.
There are contemporary works by Brits too, including Sarah Lucas’s brilliant ‘Cigarette Tits’, a chair with a bra filled with fag butts, one of the few not designed by men. But most of the 1990s and noughties stuff seems random or banal. Why does Björk represent surrealism in music videos and Vogue magazine covers? Why not include more fantastic, purposeful examples of Afro-Surrealism? Increasingly, the contemporary pieces here are not objects of desire but merely desirable objects, with a pervy spin, like the horrid full-sized muscular horse with a lamp on its head. Yes, Surrealism was perverse but it used sexuality to electrify normality. These kitsch furnishings aren’t going to illuminate anything, except maybe crap sex with coked-up hookers in a shiny penthouse somewhere.
Surrealism was on a rigorous mission to overthrow capitalist reality. Whereas design – usable, commercial, marketable – is more often on a mission to sell furniture. But this show is a pleasant surprise. Yes, it’s kind of misconceived and it lays out two impossibly big and very different topics (surrealism and design) on its operating table. But it’s also fun, glamorous and rewarding. From an insurrection of artists to 60s design classics, to ‘Dude, that’s surreal’. That’s the story here, and it’s very well told.