Objects of Desire
Surrealism and Design 1924 – Today

28.09.2019 – 19.01.2020

Vitra Design Museum

Surrealism was one of the most influential art movements of the twentieth century. Everyday objects played a central role in its dreamlike imagery: they were alienated, ironized, or combined to create curious hybrids. This led to the creation of numerous key works of modern art, from Marcel Duchamp’s »Bicycle Wheel« (1913) to Salvador Dalí’s »Lobster Telephone« (1936). In reverse, Surrealism also exerced a decisive influence on the evolution of design. On 28 September 2019 the Vitra Design Museum will open a major exhibition that offers a comprehensive look at the dialogue between Surrealism and design. For the first time, it will unveil the extent to which Surrealism has influenced design of the past 100 years – from furniture and interiors to graphic design, fashion, and photography. The exhibition will include works by Gae Aulenti, BLESS, Achille Castiglioni, Giorgio de Chirico, Le Corbusier, Salvador Dalí, Dunne & Raby, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Ray Eames, Front, Frederick Kiesler, Shiro Kuramata, René Magritte, Carlo Mollino, Isamu Noguchi, Meret Oppenheim, Man Ray, Iris van Herpen, and many others.

Surrealism was founded by André Breton with the first Surrealist manifesto of 1924 and quickly became an international movement that included writers, artists, and filmmakers. The subconscious, dreams, obsessions, chance, and the irrational were just a few of the sources the Surrealists used to create a new artistic reality. In the 1930s Surrealism began to influence design as well, and by the 1940s, it had become a trend that shaped fashion, furniture, and photography, making it onto the covers of »Harper’s Bazaar« and »Vogue«. To this day Surrealism is providing designers with manifold inspirations, whether motifs drawn from its fantastic imagery, its subversive approach, or its interest in the human psyche.

The exhibition »Objects of Desire« juxtaposes Surrealist artworks and design objects to reveal fascinating parallels and cross-references. Among the high-profile loans from the field of fine art are the paintings »The Red Model« (1947 or 1948) by René Magritte, Salvador Dalí’s »Giant Flying Mocha Cup with an Inexplicable Five Metre Appendage« (1944/45), and »Forest, Birds and Sun« (1927) by Max Ernst as well as such Readymades as Marcel Duchamp’s »Bottle Dryer« (1914) or »Gift« (1921) by Man Ray. The representatives of design range from works of the 1930s – such as Meret Oppenheim’s table »Traccia« (1939) – to the contemporary, including fashion designs by Iris van Herpen, objects by Front, Konstantin Grcic, or Odd Matter as well as critical design projects that question new technologies or gender roles in subversive ways. These works demonstrate that design is not just about function and technology but also about objects’ hidden realities, about our inherently secret dreams, obsessions, and myths – that is, the sur-real.

The exhibition begins with an examination of Surrealism from the 1920s to the 1950s in which the crucial role that design played in the movement’s evolution becomes apparent. The second section of the exhibition shows the ways in which Surrealists explored the archetypes of everyday objects and undermined the codes of meaning of a world we thought we knew. The third part of the exhibition is devoted to the themes of love, eroticism, and sexuality, which played a central role in Surrealism. The exhibition’s final chapter looks at what the French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called the »savage mind«: an interest in the archaic, in chance, and in the irrational which was as evident in the Surrealists’ enthusiasm for non-Western tribal art as in their experiments with materials and techniques like »automatic painting«.

The examples in the exhibition demonstrate the enduring vitality of the dialogue between Surrealism and design. Surrealism has encouraged designers to examine the reality beneath what is visible and to design objects that offer resistance, undermine routine, and disrupt the quotidian. It has liberated post-war design from the corset of functionalism and led our gaze away from the shape of objects to their hidden, unconscious messages. The exhibition »Objects of Desire« examines this phenomenon for the first time and thus directs our attention to one of the most significant dialogues between art and design of the past century.

You can find the exhibition programme here.


The exhibition is supported by Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne and sponsored by BOSS.