Luxury retail is adopting a surrealist mindset to create resonating brand experiences. Michael Sheridan, founder and chairman of retail and brand design agency Sheridan&Co, shares his insight.
Surrealism is nearly a century old, and the thematic explorations of this intriguing avant-garde art movement are manifesting in modern culture and retail today.
The heart of the movement lies in its ambition to revolutionise human experience, which is not too dissimilar from the motivations of the fourth revolution, now taking place. Rejecting convention and ‘rational’ ideas, surrealism examines the unconventional, the outmoded and the unconscious. Surrealists were drawn to the innate beauty found by poets and artists in the unexpected.
This exploration into luxury retail is particularly beguiling if you look at Tiffany & Co.’s treatment of so-called ‘everyday items’. The jewellery brand re-imagined expensive materials into more humble items such as a ball of yarn and a tin can.
Selfridges developed this notion further with its year-long campaign entitled ‘Radical Luxury’, presenting to its consumers a world where mass-produced ice-cream and even bin bags can be labelled luxury. The word itself has become associated with something predictable, prosaic and banal. In line with surrealist thinking, the store became a poetic exploration, inspiring visitors to reignite their imagination and question whether luxury is in fact found in an object or rather, an idea.
Meanwhile, The Flipside at The Old Selfridges Hotel earlier this year welcomed visitors to experience the diversified states of luxury and transient realities brought to life through a surreal mirroring of the store’s accessories hall. Surrealists questioned the dialectic notion of time in relation to consumption, and this sentiment materialised in Selfridge’s radical luxury concept via an interview the department conducted with Natalie Melton, a co-founder of London-based furniture company, The New Craftsmen.
Melton says ‘you cannot buy time and it is only over time that an object can become priceless’, explaining how, as our consumption evolves we (hopefully) become less concerned with the regular consumption of stuff and much more considered in our purchases. Only then will we see a new sense of luxury emerging. Adorning the Selfridges windows is the statement ‘discover the objects and ideas redefining the value of things.’
This idea of time and consumption in surrealist experimentation is not a far cry from the fundamental concepts at the heart of minimalism. In fact, drawing on inspiration from Freud’s early work of the unconscious, surrealists indulged in experiments of the mind.
To escape everyday reality and explore new ideas, they would induce a state of mania through pure psychic automatism by undergoing sleep deprivation, and intoxication. Their main motivation was to remove all essence of control. Interestingly, our subconscious thinking has become a beguiling communication currency for both brands and retailers. We will see this pursuit of the unconscious manifest in new and interesting ways within culture and consumer-led environments in the future, alongside the complex and unexplained territory of spiritualism and its relation to science.
As the wellness sector burgeons, we look towards neuroscience to understand how well-being and sleep are intrinsic elements to productivity and creativity. Ultimately, dreams lie at the heart of surrealist thinking, and this way of thinking can be the platform for meaningful engagement and consequently, brand innovation. Ideas are the new currency, to wonder is an aspirational pastime and to delight in the unexpected becomes a necessity. Never has this whimsical thinking been more important for brands as they seek to create dreams money can buy.
Brands, therefore, should embrace surrealism as a muse in their creative strategies as it can offer a wider understanding for brands to build upon and, therefore, create empathetic engagement and lasting connections with their clients. Exploring the territory of the unconscious, we can consider how in-store activations and brand communications translate to mental liberation. And, of course, experimenting with the mysterious territory of dreams may also enable us to nurture self-expression and facilitate consumer creativity and escapism in new, daring and resonating ways.