Surrealism: How our strangest dreams come to life in design

“Surrealism is no longer design but an approach to art and design,” says Mateo Kries, director of the Vitra Design Museum, Germany, home to many of the most important Surrealist artworks. Those ideas are clearly at work in the exhibition called Strange Clay, at London’s Hayward Gallery. Among contemporary artists using “dope in an unexpected way” are David Zink Yi, whose giant alien squid (2010) explodes in a pool of glowing ink; Japanese artist Takuro Kuwata’s candy-colored Yeti-like creations; and Lindsey Mendick’s kitchen is full of ceramic slugs and cockroaches.

Seeing Klara Kristalova’s botanical scene, Camouflage, which is set there is like wandering through Grimm’s fairytale glade. Ceramic figures, often teenagers with extreme features, morph into weirder states – such as the Wooden Girl, trapped inside a tree stump, with twiggy arms; or a guy in street gear with a horse head. The artwork was inspired by seeing his backyard near Stockholm: “It’s a forest full of my abandoned paintings,” the artist tells BBC Culture. “Over time, they change, disappear and seem to grow anew. I find it a beautiful metaphor for life.”

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Kristalova grew up in an isolated part of Sweden, “my anxiety increased when my mother read me scary folk tales,” she says. His painter parents kept a lot of Surrealism books, which he devoured, and which “got into my back,” he says. “I loved Max Ernst, and I especially loved Meret Oppenheim. I found her work silly and playful, but it came close to being about women’s lives.”

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Oppenheim is often considered the most famous female Surrealist. In the late 1930s he designed Traccia, an elegant side table sitting on bird’s legs. A few years ago, in 1936, when he was 22 years old, he had made a belt out of a brass tube, and covered it with fur. It belonged to Schiaparelli, but she wore it to meet Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar at a cafe in Paris. His friends’ comments on seeing it – that anything can be covered with fur – inspired Thing, his cup and saucer covered in deer fur which, according to MoMA, “is the single most famous Surrealist object”.

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Today, when we are familiar with Oppenheim’s furry cup and saucer, it is a little too much to imagine the shock and madness it caused at that time. It begs the question: can Surrealist-inspired art, which relied on its power to disturb, still have the value of shock?

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