Salvador Dalí <em>Mae West Lips Sofa</em> 1937–38 (1938) pictured in the dining room at Monkton House, West Dean, West Sussex.<br/>
© Alamy Stock Photo<br/>
© Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí. VEGAP/Copyright Agency, 2023

Surrealism and Design


To celebrate the forthcoming publication of Observations: Moments in Design History, along with the NGV’s recent acquisition of Salvador Dalí’s Mae West Lips Sofa and a first edition of André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, we’re sharing this extract from the chapter ‘Surrealism and Design’, in which Dr Kathryn Johnson explores the origins – and enduring appeal – of Surrealism. See below for further details about the book, available to buy from June 1.


To celebrate the forthcoming publication of Observations: Moments in Design History, along with the NGV’s recent acquisition of Salvador Dalí’s Mae West Lips Sofa and a first edition of André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, we’re sharing this extract from the chapter ‘Surrealism and Design’, in which Dr Kathryn Johnson explores the origins – and enduring appeal – of Surrealism. See below for further details about the book, available to buy from June 1.

Surrealism is much more than an aesthetic. It’s really an attitude, or a set of attitudes. Or, as one leading theorist of Surrealism, Professor Krzysztof Fijalkowski, puts it, it’s not so much an art movement as a ‘movement of the mind’.

Surrealism’s aim in its original form was to liberate the imagination. André Breton, the movement’s founder, talks in his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) of the imagination as an animal pacing its bars in a cage, an animal that needs to be set free. Many of the strategies that led to the creation of visual artworks and works of design were intended, really, to change the mind, and through that, to change the material world. I think it is as an attitude, as a philosophical approach to design and making, that Surrealism’s impact is most widely still felt today.

It’s important to remember that Breton was a poet, and that the word ‘surrealism’ was first invented by another poet, Apollinaire. The early Surrealists took as their ideal of beauty – or a way to express that ideal – a line from another poet, the French nineteenth-century poet Comte de Lautréamont. That line has since become famous and, translated into English, it reads, ‘As beautiful as the chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella’.

The photographer Man Ray was one of many to give these words physical form in a photograph of the same name, taken in 1933. This line is so important to the Surrealists because it really captures the principles on which they made art and designed objects: the principles of unexpected juxtaposition, of humour, playfulness and the chance encounters of unexpected objects. It also illustrates the fact that objects were at the heart of Surrealism from the very beginning, even when it was primarily expressed through literature. There was always a fascination with the material world and the impact objects could have on the imagination and, vice versa, the impact the imagination could have on creating new objects.

It sounds rather megalomaniac, perhaps, but Surrealists really wanted to change the world, and change our relationship to the world. Breton, again in the Manifesto of Surrealism, says that he imagines a future fusion of the states of dream and unconscious with the real world, and that these two will come together to create an absolute reality or surreality. I think that Surrealism’s emphasis on the fantastical has led to the perception that it is escapist – that it is, somehow, something apart from the real world. But, in fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth. What they were trying to get at was that dreams and the unconscious are always part of our experience of reality, and if we acknowledge that and represent it, we will arrive at a more absolute reality: a truer, less alienated version of what we actually experience in the world.

Looking at the design pieces that come out of Surrealism helps to correct that balance and underline the fact that Surrealism is not about escaping reality, it’s about appreciating it in new ways. In the 1920s and early thirties, making objects – and assemblages of unexpected objects – became more and more important to Surrealist practice. In Man Ray’s Cadeau (1972, image in the Vitra Design Museum, Rhein), we see a flatiron with nails glued into the base of it. This isn’t the original – the original was created almost in a throwaway moment as a statement and has since been lost. In the early seventies, Man Ray re-created the piece after it had become famous through photographs. Pieces like this prompted the critic Walter Benjamin to note that Surrealism had found a way to subvert the commercial world by stripping objects of their original function and opening them up to new readings and new associations. They had liberated these pieces and, to an extent, liberated us as consumers and users from being constrained by the original manufacturer’s intention. This apparently simple object, Le Cadeau, is, like many Surrealist works, rich in complex associations, potential readings and ambiguities. Who is this gift for? Is it intended to rip clothes? Is it a weapon? Is it something violent? Is it something more humorous? Is it intended to liberate us from domestic chores? All these interpretations are up for grabs and up for discussion.

Let’s move on now to a very famous piece created by one of the most influential women associated with the movement: Meret Oppenheim. Fur bracelet was originally designed in 1936 for Elsa Schiaparelli. The story goes that Oppenheim was wearing this fur-covered bracelet when she met Picasso and others in a cafe in Paris. The discussion prompted by this bracelet led them to think of other things that could be covered in fur – for instance, the cup and saucer on the table in front of them. Oppenheim went on to make a fur-covered cup and saucer, which has a few different names – sometimes it’s called Breakfast in fur or Luncheon in fur. These were names given to it by Breton, but Oppenheim herself tended to just refer to it as Object (1936). Object was shown in an early Surrealist exhibition and immediately snapped up by Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who exhibited it in the mid-1930s in America. He wrote at the time:

Few works of art in recent years have so captured the popular imagination . . . this fur-lined tea set makes concretely real, the most extreme, the most bizarre improbability. The tension and excitement caused by this object in the minds of tens of thousands of Americans have been expressed in rage, laughter, disgust or delight.

Breton, reviewing Object in the context of that original Surrealist exhibition, declared that this piece best fulfilled his demand to, as he put it, ‘hunt down the mad beast of utility’. Obviously, it takes away the functional purpose of the cup and saucer and in its place starts to evoke erotic – perhaps unpleasant, perhaps pleasant – sensations of fur in the mouth, and a strange juxtaposition of textures and associations.

It’s interesting to reflect that the success of Object drove Oppenheim, who was then only in her early twenties, into a period of retreat. I think it’s worth remembering that it took genuine courage at the time, perhaps particularly for women, to break the rules and to create and exhibit pieces that could provoke rage and disgust, just as much as laughter and delight. There could be a very personal cost to success on those terms.

It’s partly for that reason that the pieces that survive and the artists who went on to have the most commercially successful careers, like Salvador Dalí, were those who enjoyed the support of wealthy patrons and collectors. There were quite a few patrons active at the time, like the de Noailles couple in France and later Peggy Guggenheim and others, who supported Surrealist artists. Edward James, the British poet and aristocrat, was one of the most influential. He supported not just Dalí, but also Leonora Carrington, Magritte and many others associated with the movement. And he was more than a generous patron and a collector, he was also a collaborator and a like-minded ally in artistic experimentation of the wildest kind.

Mae West Lips sofa , 1937–38, is not the craziest of James’s planned collaborations with Dalí. Other unrealised projects included a house shaped like an artichoke, and a room with walls that would be lined with fur and would inflate and deflate slowly like the stomach of a dog. In the end they weren’t able to practically realise the latter.

Magritte’s portrait of James that we see in The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James) (1937), with his head obscured by an exploding flash of light, is wonderfully suggestive of the liberated range of James’s imagination. As James says himself in a later film:

If I’m a Surrealist, it’s not because I got linked with the movement, it’s because I was born one. A great number of people are Surrealist without ever having heard of the movement. But it is people who are close to their subconscious. The world is not completely logical all of the time.

He said these people, like himself, ‘make the illogical, logical, and they make it more vivid than life, in the way that dreams can sometimes be more vivid than actuality’. It was in the service of making things ‘more vivid than life’ that James created objects like the Mae West Lips sofa for his own home, Monkton House in Sussex in the UK, which was one of the most complete examples of a Surrealist interior anywhere in the world. It housed James’s wonderful art collection, but it was also an artwork in itself.

It took a very complicated process and a lot of craftspeople to make the Mae West Lips sofa ‘more vivid than life’. The idea originally came from a painting by Dalí, the title of which is Mae West’s face which may be used as a Surrealist apartment (1934–35). James, having seen this, wanted to create a sofa in the shape of Mae West’s lips, as seen in that painting.

We’re only now realising the extent of James’s involvement in the final look of the piece. You could say that if Dalí provided the catalyst, James actually saw it through and directed the craftspeople who were making this sofa. Pieces have recently been discovered – including a literal back-of-the envelope sketch – that show James’s specific instructions for details like the fringing.

James was closely involved with the worlds of dance and performance, and set designs informed many of his later room and interior design interventions. Surrealist interior design is, in many ways, like creating a stage set within your own home, and this is intended to have a very strong impact on your imaginative and creative life. There are some obvious parallels between the interior of the home and the interior of the mind that are enhanced and elaborated on through Surrealist interior design. It’s an aesthetic that is characterised by unlikely juxtapositions, visual discontinuities, and surprises around every corner. It’s not necessarily a cosy or welcoming or even relaxing aesthetic. It’s quite challenging. To me, it seems that many of these designs, the Mae West Lips sofa included, are only completed in use. They invite performance, they invite you to sit on them, and by doing so, you bring the piece to its most complete realisation.

Salvador Dal&iacute;<br/>
<em>Mae West Lips Sofa</em> 1937-38 (1938)<br/>
Purchased with funds donated by Paula Fox AO and Fox Family Foundation, Mavourneen Cowen, Tim Fairfax AC &amp; Gina Fairfax AC, The Betsy and Ollie Polasek Endowment, King Family Foundation, John and Jenny Fast, and Ralph Ward-Ambler AM and Barbara Ward-Ambler, donors to the 2023 NGV Foundation Annual Dinner and 2023 NGV Annual Appeal in memory of Robert J. Wylde, 2023<br/>
&copy; Fundaci&oacute; Gala-Salvador Dal&iacute;. VEGAP/Copyright Agency, 2023

This style of Surrealist interior design quickly became popular, although not accessible. It was really in these quite wealthy spheres of James and others that it was adopted. Take the rooftop garden on Plaisir de France no.18 that Le Corbusier, the Swiss architect, created and designed for the – again, fabulously wealthy – patron Carlos de Beistegui in Paris in 1936. Through the unlikely juxtaposition of severe, clean-cut modernist lines and fantastical objects in this rooftop, we arrive at something which does spark the imagination, and invites us – the users, the performers – to enter into this stage set and think differently because of the environment in which we have put ourselves.

In perhaps Dalí’s most famous creation, again for Edward James, the Lobster telephone (1934), you can see a similar dialogue between a severe aesthetic and a functional modern design, as exemplified by the telephone and the lobster, which is a symbol of dreams and subconscious erotic impulses – at least in Dalí’s mind, because he saw the lobster as an erotic symbol. The idea was that by picking up the telephone, you’re almost kissing the lobster – again, there’s that same performative element and challenge associated with this piece. In Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 – Today, the exhibition I curated for the London Design Museum in 2022, we put an example of a Mae West Lips sofa next to a Lobster telephone. This was not how they would have been seen in real life because Lobster telephone was created for James’s London residence, whereas the Mae West Lips sofa stayed in his Sussex house. But the reason for the juxtaposition in this case is to highlight the fact that although we tend to see the telephone as a sculptural object, it is actually a functional piece of design as well. It was in use as a telephone, several of them in two colourways, throughout James’s house, and I just love to think of him sitting, having conversations, creative and otherwise, on this piece.

Dr Kathryn Johnson is Curator and Head of Exhibitions at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol. This is an extract of an essay published in Observations: Moments in Design History, available online and in the NGV design store from 1 June.

The NGV warmly thanks Paula Fox AO and Fox Family Foundation, Mavourneen Cowen, Tim Fairfax AC & Gina Fairfax AC, The Betsy and Ollie Polasek Endowment, King Family Foundation, John and Jenny Fast, Ralph Ward-Ambler AM and Barbara Ward-Ambler, and donors to the 2023 NGV Foundation Annual Dinner and 2023 NGV Annual Appeal in memory of Robert J. Wylde, for their generous support towards the acquisition of Salvador Dalí’s Mae West Lips sofa 1937–38.

You can see Salvador Dalí’s Mae West Lips Sofa and a first edition of André Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism (Manifeste du Surrealism) at NGV International from July.

Michael Pham

Observations: Moments in Design History collates transcripts from the landmark NGV seminar series Observations: Moments in Design History, which took place online during 2023. It weaves through almost 400 years of design innovation across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas to explore the materials and technologies that shaped global design in times of change, and the key manufacturers who defined the course of design history.

With a focus on the NGV’s collection of historical decorative arts and design, Observations: Moments in Design History traverses three chapters. By retaining the spirit of each presentation, this publication seeks to offer myriad perspectives from the early modern period to the late twentieth century, bringing together the illuminating research and scholarship of academics, writers and curators from across the globe to shed light on design as a continuum.

Featuring authors, commentators and art historians including Dr Kathryn Johnson, Alice Rawsthorn, John Whithead FSA, Dr Carolyn Sargentson and Divya Thakur.

Michael Pham

Purchase Observations: Moments in Design History online and in the design store at NGV International from 1 June. Pick up a copy at

Observations is generously supported by an Anonymous donor.