5 art inspired chess sets on International Chess Day

From Memphis to the Bauhaus, here’s how the modern and contemporary art world has reworked the game
Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp playing chess with Man  Ray's chess set
Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp playing chess with Man Ray's chess set

It may have been invented in ancient India, but chess has preoccupied artists since the dawn of Modernism. Here are five museum quality sets, befitting any art-loving player.


Marcel Duchamp's chess set
Marcel Duchamp's chess set

Marcel Duchamp Though his influence 20th and 21st century art is hard to understate, the French artist Marcel Duchamp devoted more of his life to chess. Born into a family of keen amateur chess players, Duchamp played throughout his early adult life, while creating such works as Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, The Large Glass and Fountain.

By the early 1920s, he was no longer a practising artist, preferring instead to play the game. He was awarded the title of chess master by the French Chess Federation in 1925, joined the French Olympic team and played in a number of international tournaments during the 1920s and 30s.

Duchamp did, however, find ways to work art into his love of chess. He staged a number of chess-themed exhibitions, played chess with his friend Man Ray in the 1924 film Entr'act, and in 1968, performed a concert with John Cage, wherein sounds were triggered by photoelectric cells set into the pair’s chessboard. Around 1917 he created his own chess set, and went on to make chess-piece stamps to play chess via mail, and a portable set. Duchamp’s original set is not commercially available though 3D printing enthusiasts have tried to recreate the pieces.



Man Ray's chess set
Man Ray's chess set

Man Ray Though a less devoted and prominent player, Man Ray's friendships were partly conducted over the chess board. “One of the factors that may have contributed to Man Ray’s close friendship with Marcel Duchamp was a shared love of the game of chess,” explains our sister site, Artspace, “which both artists appreciated for its emphasis on abstract, unseen mental processes.”

Man Ray also designed a chess set, employing both sleek, modernist, geometric forms, and ancient reference points; the pyramidal king piece, for instance, refers to the burial pyramids of the Egyptian Pharaohs. You can buy this set over on Artspace.


The Bauhaus chess set as featured in Phaidon's Design Classics
The Bauhaus chess set as featured in Phaidon's Design Classics

The Bauhaus Stonemason and woodwork master Josef Hartwig created this wooden set for the world-famous design school in 1923 and 1924. Hartwig trained as a mason, making gravestones in Berlin for a time during 1914, and also worked as an interior designer. He worked at the Bauhaus in  Weimar from 1921 to 1925, before going on to teach sculpture in Frankfurt until 1945. His set, fashioned from pearwood, reflects the simple, easy-to-use, yet markedly modern principles that lay behind much of the work created at the world’s most famous design school. The shapes of the pieces mirror the direction in which they should be be moved. Very Bauhaus.


Karim Rashid's chess set
Karim Rashid's chess set

Karim Rashid The Egyptian-born designer and former pupil of Ettore Sottsass created his bright, acrylic set for Bozart Toys in 2001. Though the product has since been discontinued, gallery goers can catch sight of it every now and again, as a set forms part of the permanent collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There are also of course, sets to buy on ebay and its equivalents.



Marcel Dzama OK, don't expect to play with this set any time soon. The contemporary Canadian artist Marcel Dzama is a keen admirer of his namesake Marcel Duchamp. In 2014 Dzama produced his film Une Danse des Bouffons, which imagines Duchamp being rescued from his chess obsession by the girl featured in his final work of art Étant donnés. Dzama created a chess set of costumes for dancers the film, based on Duchamp’s designs. The moves played in the movie follow one of Duchamp’s games played as a representative of France on the national Olympic chess team. Former Sonic Youth bassist turned artist Kim Gordon appears in this film.

For more on Duchamp take a look at out Surrealism and Dada books; for more on Man Ray consider The Photography Book; for more on the Bauhaus get our Josef Albers book; for more on Karim Rashid's influences consider our Sottsass books; and you can get to know one of Marcel Dzama's closest friends and collaborators by buying our Raymond Pettibon book.



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