19.12.2014 by Andrew Nixon
A History of Culture in 100 Sofas (and other furniture) - 1. Salvador Dali’s Mae West lips sofa (1937)
Here at sofa.com we believe that not enough attention has been paid by scholars to the role of sofas, chairs and beds in the history of culture – after all, we spend a huge proportion of our lives in one or other of them. That’s why we’ve invited Andrew Nixon, editor of the leading culture blog The Dabbler, to create a new series looking at iconic, influential and unique items of furniture that have made our culture what it is. In this first instalment, he examines a sofa designed by the surrealist artist Salvador Dali...
“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing”, said Salvador Dali, once. When it came to producing furniture designs, what the great surrealist and self-publicist liked to imitate most was the face of the Hollywood bombshell Mae West.
At the Dali Museum in Figures, Spain, there is an entire room composed to look like the actress. If you peep through a specially-angled lens you’ll see Mae’s visage framed in a wavy-blonde doorway, with two photographs that cleverly make the eyes, a nose-shaped fireplace, and finally the plump, red, pouting sofa of the mouth.
And what a sofa it is. Never mind the floppy clocks and long-legged elephants, I’d argue that the Mae West seat is Salvador Dali’s finest work, being audacious, witty, aesthetically-pleasing and instantly recognizable. It’s surely his most famous object (except perhaps for the gloriously silly lobster telephone) and while ‘iconic’ is an overused word, it fits here.
The face of Mae West
Mae West was just Dali’s sort of muse: curvaceous, bawdy, highly controversial and a lot of fun. As a comic writer and actress in movies she was notorious for pushing the boundaries of decency and frequently fell foul of the censor. This of course only helped increase her fame (she once quipped: "I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it") and her popularity, especially with the male audience: in World War II Allied aircrew called their lifejackets "Mae Wests" due to their resemblance, when inflated, to her buxom figure.
It is hardly surprising then, that the mischievous and erotica-obsessed Salvador Dali was drawn to her. In 1934-35 he created a painting based on a photograph of the actress called The Face of Mae West which may be used as a surrealistic apartment. In it, West’s facial features became elements in a living room: the eyes were framed pictures, the nose was a fireplace and the lips a voluptuous sofa. At that point however it was just a surreal painting rather than an actual design.
A surrealist paradise
The chance for Dali to turn his sofa idea into physical reality came a few years later, when he was working under the patronage of the wealthy collector and poet Edward James. James was a great enthusiast for the surrealist movement and an important figure in it – there’s even a portrait by Magritte of him looking into a mirror at the back of his own head.
At the time when Dali visited the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, James happened to be in the process of renovating Monckton House on his West Dean estate in Sussex. Discovering that Dali was rather broke, James offered to pay him a salary in return for his entire artistic output for a year, and together the two of them began working on turning Monckton House into a surrealist interior designer’s paradise. The Mae West sofa - based on Dali’s painting - arose from their collaboration.
The £62k sofa
There were actually five sofas produced in 1938, all of which James kept, with ownership passing to the Edward James Foundation after his death in 1984. Two were subsequently sold and when one of those was auctioned by Christie’s in 2003 it fetched an impressive £62,140.
The successful bidder was anonymous – but whoever they are, they’re unlikely to be using it for sitting on to watch the telly. Despite the inviting-looking red satin fabric, the Mae West sofa is not, apparently, very comfy: Dali claimed that he partly based the design on a cluster of particularly uncomfortable rocks near the seaside resort of Cadaques.
So, as visually splendid as it might be, lacking any practical use in the home I don’t suppose Dali’s Mae West lips piece would qualify for the sofa.com sofa portfolio. But for its audacity, its perfect encapsulation of the funny side of the Surrealist movement, and its demonstration of just how far you can separate a piece of furniture’s value from its function, it is worthy of its place as the opening entry in our History of Culture in 100 Sofas (and other furniture).
A History of Culture in 100 Sofas (and other furniture) - 1. Salvador Dali’s Mae West Lips sofa
What: Wood and red satin sofa, 86.5 x 183 x 81.5 cm
Why it’s culturally significant: The high point of cheeky surrealist wit
Next: John and Yoko's 'Lie-In' Protest Bed