An elephant in a porcelain store: Hermès gives luxury a surreal spin

(CNN)Luxury brand Hermès' new exhibition at London's Saatchi Gallery is a trip in more ways than one.

Dedicated to flânerie, the 19th-century French art of the leisurely city stroll, Wanderland is a fanciful, immersive ode to urban exploration.
"Flânerie is a concept. It's almost a philosophy. It's an attitude, it's a way of living," says Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Hermès artistic director, who came up with the theme. "It's about strolling, it's about wandering, and it's about being curious."
And there are indeed many curious sights to be seen in the 11-room installation. One space has been converted into the Café des objets oubliés ("Café of Forgotten Objects"), complete with patio seating and surrealist still lifes. Elsewhere, an elephant balances flatware in a shop window; a floor speaks when stepped on; a video of a man dancing with collectable canes plays on loop.
"You have to have to walk through the show room by room and allow yourself to get lost, allow yourself to lose control and accept that you're going to experience something new," says Dumas. "I think kids will understand right away what this is about, and adults are going to be maybe challenged because it's not your usual art exhibition at all."
It is an unexpectedly whimsical exhibition for a 178-year-old brand associated with tradition, refinement and unassuming (but pricey) leather goods. Hermès' last touring exhibition, 2013's Festival de Métiers, was a fairly staid affair that let visitors watch its craftspeople work in a pop-up atelier.
But under the guidance of curator Bruno Gaudichon of France's La Piscine Museum, and set designer Hubert Le Gall, Hermès has created an imaginative show that makes you forget the Birkins and saddles. It's Alice in Wonderland meets New Wave cinema, meets a window display at Harrods.
"I invited [Gaudichon and Le Gall] to build this imaginary journey where they could choose any objects they wanted from the Hermès collection, or from the Émile Hermès collection [19th-century items collected by Dumas' great grand-father.] They have somehow this kid-like approach to creativity."
The pieces they selected -- including a $13,000 branded bicycle, a pencil wrapped in Madras goatskin, and an heiress' ransom in handbags -- are just as opulent as you'd expect. Dumas hopes each one will elicit an appreciation for the workmanship it represents, and the relationships we forge with our own possessions.
"An object is somehow a depository of everything that happened to it -- that means the person who made it, the history of its material," he muses. "Maybe objects have a soul, meaning maybe objects are alive. Maybe objects can actually choose you, and not you choose them."
Funnily enough, his favorite piece from the exhibition isn't a luxurious brand keepsake, but a blink-and-you-miss-it art work found in the makeshift café: a small watercolor box with video projections where its pans should be, created by French artist Nicolas Tourte.
"These tiny videos, I find them absolutely incredible because I really believe in the fact that we can find infinity in the details. This is why I love objects."
Wanderland is on at Saatchi Gallery in London until May 2, 2015. It will show in Paris in September.