Double Take Design: The Return of Trompe L’oeil

As modernism fades, visual trickery fills its place.


Design no longer has a single dominant school, as it did in the heyday of modernism. Instead of one organizing principle we have a thousand flowers blooming, to borrow a coinage from Chairman Mao. The design scene is a rich plum pudding of small and medium-scale ideas variously driven by fashion, technology, sustainability and pure whimsy. It’s an unordered Darwinian field: Some inklings will evolve into full-blown trends over the coming season; most will snuff out after brief runs.

Magritte Museum

The modest resurrection of trompe l’oeil is one such trend-in-embryo. It’s the kind of visual trickery that serves as a backlash against the earnestness of modernism and a trippy corrective to modernism’s super straight rectitude. For example, in the months leading up to today’s opening of the Magritte Museum in Brussels, the building has been cloaked in a tromple l’oeil screen. The construction site itself became a surreal tableau the master himself might have produced.


The current tromple l’oeil may be an offshoot of the photorealistic wallpaper that started showing up in the last few years, like these birds in flight from the wallpaper firm Trove.

front sofa

Front, a Swedish design group, showed a handful of furniture pieces at the Milan Furniture Fair in April that used photographic images on textiles to create an illusion of movement, or to impersonate materials. The sofa above, for example, appears to be–but isn’t–draped in flowing silk. Front also showed a comfortably supple sofa masquerading as a hardwood bench and side tables with fictional shadows. These are tricks performed for the eye alone. Like sleight of hand, the effect is everything.

Maison Martin Margiela

In Milan, the French fashion house Maison Martin Margiela showed its first line of home furnishings in a re-creation of its Paris studio, with black and white tromp l’oeil doors and rugs, lending it a Gothic Edward Gorey touch.

Juniper house

Tromp l’oeil can be used to unify architecture with its surroundings. On Gotland, an island west of Stockholm, the architect Hans Murman wrapped his summer home, a modest one-story box made of pine, with a plastic screen on which he printed images of the surrounding Juniper trees. The result is a house that becomes part of its landscaping.

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