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The Power of Erotic Design

Start Date 02 May 1997
End Date 12 October 1997
Venue Design Museum
Location London, UK
Curator Catherine McDermott

“The twentieth century is the century of sexuality, and the erotic is about human responses and is part of design,” explains McDermott. “Key factors have shifted people’s perceptions, and eroticism is one of them. Take John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, for example; the body is back on the agenda in the Nineties.” So, amid neon panels and boudoirs featuring work by Carlo Mollino, stools by Philippe Starck and chairs by Gaetano Pesce to name but a few, visitors can get turned on by what have been selected as the most erotic designs of the century.

The century starts with artists whose “sexual subconscious was found in their shapes and forms” – Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Victor Horta and Antonio Gaudi, for example – it then moves on to Sigmund Freud. His theories on dreams and sex were avidly pounced upon by the Surrealists, who believed placing objects out of context sparked subconscious thoughts. Salvador Dali’s Mae West Lips Sofa and Elsa Schiaparelli’s perfume bottles have been brought in to arouse visitors.

Moving into the Fifties and Sixties women got in on the erotic act. Barbarella and the miniskirt made the headlines, and advertising came to the fore with its “sex sells” philosophy. The Cadbury’s Flake ad and the Levi’s ad of a guy stripping in a launderette are just two which run in the background.

Highlights from the Nineties include furniture from Agent Provocateur and a lace dress from Alexander McQueen’s 1996/97 autumn/winter collection.

“Flash car, small penis” is the modern day catch phrase used to express the long-lived relationship between sex and wheels – another theme of the exhibition. Carlo Mollino’s Lamborghini, the E-type Jaguar, Ursula Andress on a Vespa and the Fiat Coupe 20V Turbo are all on show. The aim of the exhibition is to convey that other products, from all spheres, have a place in the erotic domain.

More used to hosting small-scale biography-style exhibitions, the Design Museum is certainly sticking its neck out with this one. McDermott describes the show as “more like installation than exhibition”. The pristine white walls have been draped with black translucent material; graphics group Why Not Associates was called in to create neon signs flashing words such as “seduction” and “phallic”, as well as on-screen “abstract images of the flesh” explains Andy Altmann, partner at the consultancy. Anti-Rom has put together a CD-ROM installation, and the whole show is accompanied by a soundtrack of grunts and groans. “The aim is to make the visitor feel like they are inside a living organism,” says Altmann. “It’s going to be the Design Museum’s wildest exhibition ever.”

McDermott expresses her concerns about such a themed exhibition: “It’s difficult territory as the erotic/pornographic lines are hard to define. Nor are sexuality and erotica issues that the British public is familiar with.”

However, should its reputation be in danger of changing from one of cultural oasis to riverside bordello, the museum has lined up a safe bet for the future. “Our next exhibition is going to be on bicycles,” she says.