The surrealist art movement, dominant in the 1920s and 1930s, is characterized by a fascination with the incongruous, the irrational, and the bizarre. In his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, the French poet André Breton explained that the movement seeks to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality.” What started out as an art and literary style transformed into a movement, affecting everything from fashion and film to interior design.
Through unleashing the creativity of the unconscious mind with strange, dreamlike imagery, the surrealists created their own interior environment that offered a stark contrast to the prevailing views of interior design in the era. In this article I would like to share a few pieces of surrealist furniture from the era, and offer some modern alternatives you could incorporate in your home.
This is Then
Mae West Lips Sofa, Salvador Dalí, 1937
Easily one of the most famous surrealist artworks of the 20th century, the Mae West Sofa was created by leading surrealist artist Salvador Dalí for his long-time British patron, the collector and poet Edward James. The sofa was always intended as a sculpture and never for functional use. It pays tribute to the iconic Hollywood actress Mae West, who was renowned for her voluptuous figure. It was inspired by Dalí’s drawing Mae West’s Face which May be Used as a Surrealist Apartment (1934-35).
Upholstered in red satin fabric in the form of Mae West’s lips, this outlandish sofa remains a bold expression of surrealist design. There were five made, one of which became part of James’s country home, Monkton House, on his family estate in West Sussex. which was refurbished as “a complete surrealist house.”
“I try to create fantastic things, magical things, things like in a dream. The world needs more fantasy. Our civilization is too mechanical. We can make the fantastic real, and then it is more real than that which actually exists.” — Salvador Dalí
Leda Low Table, Salvador Dalí, 1935
Among Dalí’s furnishing projects, the gorgeous Leda Low Table took the idea from his painting Femme à la tête rose (1935). The table features sculptural lines, bringing Dalí’s surrealist imaginings to reality. The legs and tabletop are crafted from polished cast brass, and fashioned with a Carrara marble egg on top.
Traccia Table, Meret Oppenheim, 1939
Designed by German-born Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim, the bird-leg Traccia Table is a surrealist furniture piece that features an oval top with its shaped edge marked with footprints of a fantasy bird atop, finished in fine gold or platinum leaf. Traccia means footprint in Italian. As such, the claw feet forming the slender legs of the table playfully reference the footprints of an imaginative bird. The bronze-and-gold-leaf table is now housed as part of the collection at MoMA in New York.
This is Now
Playful and Quirky Furniture, Lila Jang, 2012
Transforming 18th-century French furniture into playful and quirky pieces ready to climb to the wall for a little more room, South Korean sculptor Lila Jang crafted surrealist artistic furniture as a way to escape “the often monotonous routine of real life.” It was also the only way she could actually fit furniture into her tiny Paris apartment where she was living at the time. As Jang explains, “my work represents who and where we are as human beings: in the midpoint of that constant struggle between reality and the ideal.”
Salvador Mirror, Jake Phipps, 2010
The smoked-oak Salvador Mirror designed by Jake Phipps is a direct homage to Salvador Dalí, boasting an inner frame of polished brass that literally peels back the mirror’s surface frame to reveal its contents — you. “The paintings of many surrealist artists were akin to windows into a strange world beyond waking life – often with an element of surprise,” says the designer.
Jeeves Wooster Bowler, Jake Phipps, 2011
Hats off to Phipps for this stylish lighting collection. Taking cues from the work of René Magritte, Phipps uses bowler hats in this playful take on lighting. The hats work as lampshades, with a gold metal lining. Available as hanging pendant lighting and table lamp pieces.
Decadence, Ortamiklos, 2019
French/Danish duo OrtaMiklos showcased their Decadence collection this year at Design Miami in an installation for Functional Art Gallery. Inspired by 1847 painting The Romans in Their Decadence the furniture collection morphs into fleshy, surreal sculptures. The chaise lounge is coral-like in structure, ready to come to life!
Even though we’ve left the 1930s behind, the popularity for surrealism has remained. I say keep it coming, and keep it weird!