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Surrealism Is Back

Thanks, Trump.

A light that levitates like magic. A dizzying analog-digital hybrid clock. A mirror that looks like a gateway into another dimension. A prismatic, color-changing lamp. A gilded table supported by avian talons. If you wanted to turn your home into a carnival fun house brimming with optical illusions and visual delights, look no further than MoMA Design Store’s spring catalog.

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There’s always been plenty to salivate over at MoMA Store, but this season the buyers and merchandisers flexed a decidedly whimsical perspective when it came to curating what’s on offer. Whether new or old, these products directly reference (or are conceptually indebted to) the Surrealist art movement, which was dominant in the 1920s and ’30s.

Why is a century-old art movement suddenly reappearing in our homes? It’s playful. It’s fun. It’s pretty. But there’s also a feedback loop between politics and art that’s making Surrealism particularly relevant today. Surreal art is a welcome escape from brutal reality–an endless barrage of despicable news stories and outright buffoonery. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

The MoMA Store began working on its spring catalog early last fall. “The Surrealist influence came from a number of individual products and also a desire to present a fresh perspective for the new season framed by surreal environments with surprising angles and suggestive shadows,” Chay Costello, associate director of merchandising at MoMA Design Store, says. “We were looking to set the stage for the fantasy and discovery of the products within the book.”

Clock Clock 24, by the Stockholm-based design studio Humans Since 1984, displays time through two dozen analog faces whose hands morph into a digital display. The trippy motion instantly reminded me of the melting clocks in Salvador Dali’s 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory. Meanwhile the sliver of blue sky in Ron Gilad’s Daydream Mirror made me think about a recurring cloud motif in Belgian painter René Magritte’s work, such as The False Mirror from 1928. And then there’s the Surrealist sugar bowl from British designer Peter Ibreugger–a derivative nod to the bowler hat in Magritte’s Son of Man painting from 1964. Ibreugger also designed an egg cup that riffs on Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a 1917 sculpture from the Dada movement, which rejected bourgeois privilege, protested war, and, like Surrealism, challenged cultural conformity.

“Surrealism has its roots in the 1920s and ’30s as the Western world was consumed with recovering from the First World War,” Costello says. “Old orders were ending and a new era was beginning, and that feeling is definitely being echoed today. Surrealism reflected those complicated times through asserting a nuanced version of reality.”

While the past can teach us lessons, we’re also prone to repeat its mistakes. In the present, the Trump administration is poised to undo the advancements to women’s reproductive rights, it has mandated discrimination via its immigration ban, and it is hell bent on building a border wall that’s being compared to Cold War-era Berlin. Historians are drawing parallels between the far-right political extremism of today and the rise of fascism in 1920s and ’30s Europe. Surrealism emerged from the political and social chaos of that time, which explains its relevance today.

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In 1924, French poet André Breton published his Surrealist Manifesto, which called for a creative revolution and whose ideology was associated with left-wing politics. “[T]he artists, writers, and intellectuals who joined Breton sought to creatively undermine what they viewed as postwar society’s excessive rationality and oppressive order,” the Museum of Modern Art writes on its website.

Surrealist artists and writers believed that unlocking the subconscious mind was an avenue toward this uprising. For example, Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim explored the relationship of women to the ideas of domesticity, sexuality, and exploitation. She famously fashioned a cup and saucer out of fur, fetishizing an object associated with feminine refinement. Her bronze-and-gold-leaf Traccia table, originally designed in 1939, is one of MoMA Store’s new offerings for spring.

For the past few years, the MoMA Store has noted the growing trend of designers who play with optical illusions, tricking the eye and the mind at the same time. Take the store’s Bulbing lamp by Nir Chehanowski, which uses a pattern of lines to make the 2D acrylic shade look 3D. This kind of work creates a moment of pause for the viewer, as the mind tries to make sense of what it’s seeing.

These designs will certainly breathe a little excitement into interiors and offer a nice little visual reprieve from a taxing time, but they too can be linked back to culture at large. “The present seems to be a moment where many previously held beliefs are being turned on their head, and one could draw a parallel to Surrealism with its dream-state connotations,” Costello says. “If the purpose of dreams is to resolve discordant thoughts toward a deeper understanding, designers can be seen as acting out that instinct through the surreal elements in their works, looking to gain perspective on an uncertain world around them.” Perhaps contemplating the ethos they embody might spark a creative breakthrough about how to approach problematic politics today. After all, as we’ve witnessed, facts and reason don’t work and don’t seem to matter.

“What endures is Surrealism as an alternative path to truths not easily captured through rational thought,” Costello says. Another reason Surrealism and optical illusions appeal right now: the proliferation of intrusive tech in our every day lives. “Technology, and with it the latest news and world events, infuses our homes. There seems to be no off button to staying constantly connected. Surrealist elements in the home open a door in the mind to confronting the present afresh, exercising your imagination and seeing the world in multidimensional ways, rather than flat talking points.”

Perhaps thinking like a Surrealist might illuminate a path forward through this haywire time. At the very least, it’ll make your house pretty damn fun.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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