Design Museum exhibition explores “surrealism and why it matters now”

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Design Museum exhibition explores “surrealism and why it matters now”

Curator Kathryn Johnson explains the story behind surrealism and its impact on design in this video Dieen produced for the Design Museum about its latest exhibition.

Titled Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 – Today, the exhibition features nearly 350 surrealist objects spanning fashion, furniture and film.

Curated by Johnson, the exhibition explores the conception of the surrealist movement in the 1920s and the impact it has had on the world of design since then.

The exhibition features almost 350 works of art, design, photography, fashion and film

It contains some of the most recognized surrealist paintings and sculptures, including pieces by Salvador Dalí, Man Ray and Leonora Carrington, as well as work by contemporary artists and designers such as Dior and Björk.

“Surrealism was born out of the horrors of World War I, in a period of conflict and uncertainty, and it was a creative response to that chaos,” Johnson said in the video.

“It saw in the breaking of the world an opportunity to shake things up, to do things differently, to think differently, and to recognize the subconscious and its importance to our everyday lives.”

Chairs, sofas, red curtains and other objects displayed inside the exhibition
The exhibition explores the beginnings of the surrealist movement in the 1920s

The exhibition explores Surrealism’s impact on contemporary design, with nearly a third of the objects on display dating from the past 50 years.

“We want to start a conversation about what surrealism is and why it matters now,” Johnson said.

The name of the exhibition refers to the importance of the concept of desire within the movement. In the video, Johnson explained that the surrealist movement began with poetry, with French poet and writer André Breton writing the first surrealist manifesto.

Breton described desire as “the only motivating force in the world” and “the only master that men ought to recognize.”

Visitors look at surreal artworks displayed in the exhibition
The exhibition’s name refers to the importance of the concept of desire within the movement

The exhibition is divided into four themes. It begins with an introduction to surrealism from the 1920s and explores the movement’s influence on everyday objects, as well as its pivotal role in the evolution of design throughout the twentieth century.

Another part of the exhibition explores surrealism and interior design, as early protagonists of the movement were interested in capturing the aura or mystery of everyday household objects.

Objects on display include Marcel Duchamp’s Porte-Bouteilles, a sculpture made from bottle racks, and Man Ray’s Cadeau/Audace, a traditional flat iron with a single row of 14 nails.

Close-up of the horse lamp created by design studio Front in the exhibition
Early surrealists were interested in capturing the mystery of ordinary household objects

The exhibition moves to the 1940s, where designers began to use surrealist art for ideas to create surprising and humorous objects. Items carried from this include Sella by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni and Jasper Morrison’s steering table.

A key part of the exhibition includes a spotlight on the significance of surrealism in the UK, documenting the partnership between Salvador Dalí and the British poet and art patron Edward James, whose collaboration led to some of the most notable works of surrealism such as the Mae West Lips banks and the Kreef Telephone.

Salvador Dalí's lobster telephone
The exhibition features a number of pieces by Dalí, including the Lobster Telephone

Another section of the exhibition explores surrealism and the body in relation to the human form, sexuality and desire.

Included in this section are Sarah Lucas’s Cigarettes, which uses the language of tabloids to expose stereotypes of female sexuality, and Najla el Zein’s Hay, which highlights the sensory pleasures provided by everyday materials.

Photographs, vintage magazine covers and fashion items are on display to show the impact of surrealism on the fashion industry from the 1930s.

Visitors view four mannequins wearing fashion inspired by surrealism
The exhibition features fashion and objects that explore the human form, sexuality and desire

According to Johnson, “Surrealism attracted more women than any other movement since Romanticism.” As a result, she wanted to ensure that there was a wide representation of female artists and designers in the exhibition.

“I think it was partly because of concerns about the body, about sexuality, and how the house was key themes of Surrealism from the beginning,” she said.

“But those themes were approached in a very original and critical way by the women associated with the movement – some of whom would not have considered themselves surrealists, but were in dialogue with those ideas.”

A chair with a bra upholstered on the back
Surrealism attracted more women than any other movement since Romanticism, according to Johnson

The final section of the exhibition looks at the surrealist preoccupation with challenging the creative process itself and how this resulted in original artwork and design.

According to Johnson, contemporary designers still use ideas from early surrealism, such as welcoming chance into the creative process, or using techniques such as automatism.

“The surrealists try to write and draw without thinking, and we see in the exhibitions and studies where they draw in an automatic way. But now, of course, contemporary designers have other tools to use to try to bypass the familiar and the conventional. ,” Johnson said.

Visitors looking at a surreal light sculpture
The exhibition can be seen at the Design Museum until 19 February 2023

An example of this in the exhibition is Sketch Chair by the design studio Front, which was produced using motion capture technology to translate the movement of drawing in the air into a 3D printed form.

“The surrealists knew that changing minds would change the material world and we are now at this scary but exciting time where we are creating a computerized intelligence that can be creative,” Johnson said.

Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 – Today opened at the Design Museum on 14 October 2022 and is on view until 19 February 2o23.

Tickets are available at

Partnership content

This video was produced by Dezeen for Design Museum as part of a partnership. Find out more about Dezeen’s partnered content here.

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