V&A acquires Mae West Lips sofa

V&A's acquisition of Dali Lips sofa an "absolute triumph"

London's V&A ended months of speculation about the fate of one of Salvador Dalí's rare Mae West Lips sofas after purchasing it for its permanent collection.

Widely considered to be one of the most important examples of surrealist furniture ever produced, the sofa, which is modeled on the lips of actress Mae West, was commissioned by Dalí's most dedicated British patron, Edward James.

It was purchased this year by the V&A with support from Art Fund, V&A members and a bequest from Derek Woodman. The sale follows a period of uncertainty over the sofa's future after it was originally put up for sale and sold by the Edward James Foundation in 2017.

After the buyer applied to export it from the UK, the British government placed an official 180 day temporary export deferral on it.

V&A made purchase "as no other institution came forward"

The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art – part of Arts Council England – imposed the stop, arguing that as the sofa had been in the country for over 50 years it would require an export licence.

The export stop meant that in order for the red sofa to remain in Britain, a buyer who could match the asking price of £480,281 plus £16,600 VAT would have to be found before May 2018.

The Mae West Lips sofas in drawing room of Edward James's Monkton House

During the first 90 days of the deferral, museums across the UK were invited to express interest in the purchase and, on this basis, an additional 90 days was granted for fundraising purposes.

"As no other institution came forward, the V&A decided towards the end of the first 90 day period to attempt the acquisition of the sofa and mounted an effort to raise the funds required," Christopher Wilk, keeper of furniture, textiles and fashion at the V&A, told Dezeen.

"We were successful just in time to meet the final deadline, which was at the end of the 180 day period."

Sofa design based on Dalí newspaper collage 

The design for the sofa came about after James suggested that he and Dalí should create a seat based on Dalí's gouache, graphite and newspaper collage titled Mae West's Face which May be Used as a Surrealist Apartment.

In the collage the features of West's face are transformed into a room set with framed paintings representing her eyes, a chimney for a nose and a sofa for lips.

Working with Dalí, who he first met in 1935, James made five Mae West Lips sofas in total, each in different fabrics. Previously, a pink satin version of the sofa was on long-term loan to the V&A and was showcased at its 2007 exhibition Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design.

The newly acquired version has bright red felted wool upholstery, green decorative appliques in the form of larvae and black wool fringing. It is one of a pair designed specifically for James's country home, Monkton House in West Sussex, which was originally designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1902 for James's parents.

Working with architect Kit Nicholson and interior decorator Norris Wakefield, James completely renovated the house, inside and out, in the mid-1930s to create a series of surrealist interiors.

One of 20th century's "best known pieces of furniture"

"The sofa is one of the most original and best known pieces of furniture of the 20th century and a very exciting acquisition for us," said Wilk.

"But really I should say that while its image is well known it turned out that the story of the original sofas and its various versions all made in 1938 were not so well known and had never really been unpicked."

"This only became evident during the research related to the export case where it became clear that only this sofa and its pair were made expressly for one of the most remarkable of 20th century interiors in Britain, that of Monkton House, continued Wilk.

"It [Monkton House] was a remarkable melange of 1930s taste which included Victorian and Edwardian elements mixed with touches inspired by James's great friend Salvador Dalí."

Sofa redesigned by James

This specific version of the sofa, although based on a Dali drawing of Mae West's Lips, was re-designed by James who elongated the lips to make the proportions, in his view, more successful as an actual sofa.

He then added black fringing below the seat, draped over the green base, to fit in with black, crocheted pelmets that hung over the windows of the room at Monkton House and other black-fringed elements.

The fringing was, in James's words, intended "to look like the embroidery upon the epaulettes of a picador or the breeches and hat of a toreador". The red of the seat and back was reflected in the striped curtains of the dining room.

"The sofa is a fascinating piece of interior design history, albeit one unfortunately removed from its original setting," stated Wilk. "It represents international Surrealism in all its glory and especially the tremendously significant involvement of a British patron and poet in the Surrealist movement."

As Britain's most distinguished supporter of Surrealism, James was a large-scale collector of Dalí's work, and the pair embarked on various artistic collaborations over the years. His Dali collection was one of the largest and most important in the world, although most of it has now been dispersed.

"The sofa also represents a great example of modern interior design, Monkton House, and reminds us of what a loss its sale was, despite the concerted attempt by English Heritage, SAVE Britain's Heritage and leading architectural writers to keep the house as it was."

Important examples of design "can be very expensive"

When the Edward James Foundation put Monkton House up for sale in 1986, its remaining contents, including the sofas, were moved to the foundation's headquarters in West Dean.

"Truly important examples of design and decorative arts can be very expensive nowadays so this is not an everyday occurrence," said Wilk of the sale.

"We tend to acquire this sort of object when we are the most appropriate place to acquire in terms of the fit with our collection and displays or when no other institution is able to buy."

Stephen Deuchar, director of Art Fund, which supported the purchase, commented: "Salvador Dalí and Edward James' Mae West lips sofa has become both an iconic piece of 20th century design and a joyous expression of Surrealism.

"For the V&A to save this for the nation is an absolute triumph," he continued. "I am sure that it will be a huge favourite with visitors from around the country and the world."