How Dalí’s “lips” sofa began life… on the back of an envelope | Salvador Dali

One of the world’s best-known pieces of furniture, Salvador Dalí’s Mae West lip sofa, began life as a sketch on the back of an envelope, a house archive search revealed countryside of Sussex.

The sketch was unearthed in West Dean near Chichester, the former home of Dalí’s boss Edward James, and experts say it reveals how much James was involved in creating the 1930s sofa. lobster phone, also the result of a collaboration between Dalí and James, it is one of the emblems of the surrealist movement.

The discovery was made as part of the on-going preparations at West Dean to digitize and share James’ 2,300-item online archive, which includes a tantalizing array of correspondence, early editions, and sketches from a host of great twentieth century artists linked to James. These include Dalí, whose work James funded at one point for an entire year, as well as surrealist artists such as René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Leonora Carrington and Jean Cocteau. It also includes Pablo Picasso and writers Aldous Huxley and John Betjeman.

Edward Carrick sketch on the back of a sofa cover. Photography: EA Carrick

Highlights include Magritte’s preparatory sketch for a portrait of James titled The pleasure principle; a Cocteau sketch of a coat dressed by Elsa Schiaparelli; decades-long letters from and to Carrington, sketches by Picasso and original musical scores by Francis Poulenc, Igor Stravinsky and Bertolt Brecht.

According to Hugh Morrison, director of collections at West Dean, the genesis of the Mae West sofa was James’ 1936 idea to give the living room of his London home on Wimpole Street an entirely surreal interior. “This idea sparked Dalí’s imagination, and the two began to discuss it, each feeding off the other,” he says.

Dalí had previously sketched out the outline of a project he described as “the face of Mae West that can be used as a surreal apartment” in honor of the movie star, and at one point, James suggested that West’s lips might be the inspiration for a sofa, and said he would take on its production. The sketch on the back of an envelope found in the archives is believed to have been the work of Edward Carrick, a designer with whom James was working at the time.

According to Christopher Wilk, custodian of furniture, textiles and fashion at the V&A, who owns one of five known versions of the sofa, West Dean’s sketch concerns the first of the sofas to be produced – certainly in Britain. It was a satin pink version to match the shocking pink hue of designer Schiaparelli’s lipstick, which apartment it may have been intended for.

Letters in James’ archives also reveal that his original intention was to have this sofa upholstered in leather, until he discovered it was a misconception that Schiaparelli liked the idea; in fact, she hated him and said she would much prefer him in satin. This version is now in the West Dean collection; the V&A version is a later model, covered in bright red wool with black fringe.

Wilk says the story of the lip sofa raises interesting questions about the authorship of artistic works. “The envelope sketch and correspondence help explain James’ role in creating these sofas, and it’s pretty clear that while the original concept was Dalí’s, much of the demanding work in creating the pieces was due to James, ”he said.

Edward James in the 1930s.
Edward James in the 1930s. Photograph: Unknown

James (1907-1984) was a colorful and complicated figure whose life was often controversial: there was speculation that he was the grandson of King Edward VII, who was a regular visitor to West Dean where he allegedly saw his illegitimate daughter Evelyn, Jacques’ mother. James used his vast wealth, the product of two inherited fortunes, to finance the work of Surrealist artists in Europe and also in Mexico, where he spent much of his time and where he created a surrealist sculpture garden in concrete, Las Pozas.

Morrison says James has kept a phenomenal amount of paperwork and the records have taken many years to unravel. “It’s full of treasures, and we are now almost ready to share them with a wider world through digitization,” he said. West Dean became an art school in 1971, towards the end of James’ life, and the ambition is to mark his 50th birthday with the virtual opening of the archives.

Wilk says the lip sofa reached its iconic status in the 1960s and ’70s when it became proto-pop and was given a new lease of life. Copies followed across the world, and celebrities including Kylie Minogue, Beyoncé and Katy Perry were pictured posing on them. “It’s such an outrageous play, and it was one of a kind – there was nothing else like it,” he said. “Back in Dalí and James’ time, his open sexuality was not widely acceptable, but today it’s very different. It has entered its time, and it has become an emblem of sexualization.

Temptingly, it is possible that another original sofa exists, probably in France. “We know that one or two other sofas may have been created by French designer Jean-Michel Frank in Paris, so there is always the possibility that we get lucky one day and another emerges,” Wilk said.

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