Surrealism in design (Quintessentially)

Injecting a sense of humour, or at least a sense of fantasy, into design is a perilous business. For every person who loves a colourful Alessi espresso cup, there is another who feels like offering violence when presented with a grinning corkscrew or any other kitchen draw item that comes day in, day out with a personality and punchline. In the last few years there’s been a new movement taking place at the more adventurous and higher end of the design pitch, one that does embrace wit, but which has been looking to the anti-disciplines of classical surrealism to fashion inventive and radical pieces. It’s a movement that has developed in tandem with the way in which the furniture editions market has caught up with the fine art market, and developed a parallel kudos. These aren’t items to fill with salt and pepper, or to grate cheese with. These are grand, investment, showcase pieces. These are objects that, surface functionality aside, are unique and special, like any great work of art.

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You can physically sit on Fredrikson Stallard’s Pyrenees Sofa, a foam and steel structure that resembles an Alpine landscape, but a POA limited edition piece like this is unlikely to ever be troubled by a human bottom, even if its designers, Ian Stallard and Patrik Fredrikson, have a fantasy of seeing Jerry Hall splayed across it.

London-based partnership Stallard and Fredrikson are at the forefront of the surrealist movement in high-end design. ‘Form following function is so yesteryear!’ says Patrik Fredrikson. ‘It is a boring and imprisoning term. Any “law” like this backfires against creativity.’ The duo’s work, shown by the David Gill gallery at October’s DesignArt fair in London, has also been at the focus of the ‘art or design?’ debate. It is beginning to seem more and more of a moot point: Gill launched his gallery in the 80s with furniture by the conceptual artist Donald Judd, while the very name of DesignArt London suggests a collapsing of boundaries. ‘A new futurism’ is how Francis Sultana, the director of the Gill gallery describes it, often with a surreal or even disturbing tendency, such as Fredrikson Stallard’s urethane rug, The Lovers, which resembles two pools of intermingled blood, each containing the precise volume of liquid tissue held by the human body. ‘It would be amazing to see that piece in a monastery or convent,’ says Ian Stallard. ‘Though it would be equally exciting to see it in an elegant apartment on 5th Avenue.’

Much of what Fredrikson Stallard are doing taps into notions of pure sensation as well as the surreal: Their Rubber Table makes no sound when you place a glass on it, while Unit Number 4 is a coffee table made from solid ice. While that may be taking surrealism to the extreme, as much as a clothes iron with nails jutting out from its ironing surface, it’s no less arresting than Dutch avant garde interior company Moooi’s life size Horse Lamp, designed by Front in 2006, or any of Studio Job’s oversized Alice in Wonderland  white gold mosaic pixel tea service pieces which were rapturously received at last year’s Salone di Mobile in Milan. The pieces were surreal in scale, but in a very modern way: ‘If these objects were scaled down to their conventional sizes, the pixels would create the illusion of smooth silver surfaces,’ explains Nynke Tynagel of Studio Job. Rather like Margiela’s playful upsizing of doll’s clothes to adult size, Studio Job’s ‘eat me… drink me’ aesthetic says something about the unfettered imagination of childhood, and our place in the world of logic and scale. In the editions market, there are also practical concerns too. As the celebrated author and design critic Alice Rawsthorn says: ‘Big equals better… you can see that you are getting more for your money’. Equally, there’s no confusing an unusably gargantuan item – with the exception of perhaps Marcel Wanders’ cartoon-huge lamps which, no matter how much space they take up, still act as a light source – with a functional item, and a form that doesn’t follow function has to be interpreted as art, or at least as an extravagance in the same way that wearing a pristine white Chanel coat with a pencil skirt and perilous high heels suggests that you don’t get the bus.

Linked in with the seductive exclusivity and collectibility of the new wave of surrealist furniture is the notion of craft. Designers are reacting against mass-produced flat packed furniture by prototyping pieces that necessitate more care and attention from the human hand. The designer Hella Jongerius produces a range of what she calls ‘unique plates’, with animal figures in their centre. Each one is unique and is intended to ‘place greater emphasis on the manufacturers handcrafted products and to show the numerous steps involved in finishing a product.’ Her Props collection for Vitra last year consisted of simplistic looking vessels and spoons that had sprouted ears and wings. ‘They are a hybrid of functional product and a character from the fantasy world of animals fables,’ she explained.

In summer 2009 the V&A in London is showing Telling Tales, a collection of work by furniture and product designers split into three sections: The Forest Glade, The Enchanted Castle and Heaven and Hell. The exhibition will be a showcase not only of furniture that falls into the design art category by having a narrative and an inherent complexity that prices it way out of Heals and Habitat, but of the surreal tendency in design today. Studio Job will feature, as will Maarten Baas, who in the past has had shows based around antique furniture that he has burnt and charred, and whose ‘Hey, chair, be a bookshelf!’ is an assemblage of items subverting their function: A lampshade became a vase, a violin became a coat rack, etc.

Not all surrealist edition work is entirely avant garde in nature. David Linley is a designer whose work often has an edge to it (he has produced one-off couches with tribal-style slashes across the leather), but is more at home in plush, moneyed Mayfair than in East London lofts. His Time Table, produced in an edition of 20, is a wonderfully classic piece that is also classically surrealist. Like much of his work it is tasteful and, finished in rosewood, it has the air of the establishment about it. The acrylic clock dial set into its top surface is, however, quietly subversive – is this a table or a time piece? Can a form follow more than one function? No matter what your take on the surrealist trend in furniture, it’s certainly displaying a level of accomplishment and style that is in a different league from the world’s superfluous inane kitchen gizmos and jokey Mr Suicide bathtub plugs.

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One Response to “Surrealism in design (Quintessentially)”

  1. make mine loudly fun
    dash it with too much colour
    and wrap it up! please…

    Thank You!

    May All Beings Be Happy.

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