Surrealist Design Is More Relevant Than Ever

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In the late 1930s, British arts patron Edward James transformed his family home in West Sussex—an Edward Lutyens–designed, early-20th-century farmhouse—into his very own surrealist fantasia. The facade of Monkton House, as it was called, was painted metallic purple. Inside, walls were covered in dizzying squiggles, ceilings were painted in clouds, and much of the furniture—from lobster phones to sofas inspired by actress Mae West’s mouth—was designed by the one-and-only Salvador Dalí. 

Just shy of a century later, as reality becomes ever more difficult to believe (a global pandemic, 10-minute jaunts to outer space, an endless string of biblical natural disasters), a penchant for the postwar art movement is back. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art just mounted Surrealism Beyond Borders (through January 30, 2022), and Frida Kahlo’s eerie self-portrait Diego and I sold for nearly $35 million at Sotheby’s earlier this week. Even shoemaker Birkenstock recently emblazoned their signature clogs with imagery from two René Magritte paintings. Perhaps not surprisingly, the witty and wonderful art movement is finding its way back into homes across the globe.

Vincent Darré’s surrealist Paris apartment.

Photo: Jérôme Galland

“Surrealism is a merging of the absurd with our reality in such a way that it delivers an unexpected dose of optimism,” says AD100 designer Ken Fulk, whose new Surreal World collection of fabrics for Pierre Frey conjures fantastical scenes featuring forests, neoclassical architecture, and celestial motifs—the last of which he employed in his room for Dallas’s Kips Bay Show House. “The past few years have had a lot of absurdity and sometimes not enough optimism,” says Fulk. “Launching our collection with Pierre Frey this month seemed like a perfect time to deliver a bit of joyous fantasy to our current state of affairs.”

A vintage Lips sofa—inspired by Salvador Dali’s original—holds court in fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg’s Manhattan home. 

Photo: Francois Halard

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