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Cabinets of Curiosity

Rakesh Ramchurn visits the V&A’s new permanent exhibition dedicated to the craft of furniture-making

When I first heard the V&A was about to launch a new furniture gallery, I did wonder – haven’t they got enough of those already? A short walk through the museum will take you past all manner of gilded tables, opulent cabinets and delicately carved chairs. But the new permanent exhibition on the top floor of the V&A doesn’t use furniture to tell stories of art movements or historical periods. Here, the story is furniture itself.

The new exhibition on the top floor of the V&A doesn’t use furniture to tell stories of art movements or historical periods. Here, the story is furniture itself

‘This is the first time we have had a gallery purely devoted to furniture,’ says Nick Humphrey, co-curator of the exhibition. ‘Elsewhere in the museum, we show furniture in terms of things like style, such as Rococo or Baroque, or in the way furniture has been used as an aspect of fashionable living, but here the focus is on the way the furniture itself has been made and decorated.’

Manufacturing methods such as carving, gilding, joinery and upholstery are explored through 16 dedicated displays, each containing a selection of items from the V&A’s vast collection to show the development of these techniques. The focus is on Western furniture from about 1400, but various pieces from Ancient Egypt or Asia are included which have had a particular impact on the West or which demonstrate how methods have evolved across continents.

One of my favourite pieces is a folding screen made c1928 by Eileen Gray, the Irish designer and architect who moved to Paris and became one of the first Europeans to learn the craft of lacquer, under Japanese master Seizo Sugawara. But rather than emulate the traditional designs of East Asian lacquer, she created a sleek piece decorated in geometric forms instead. Gray’s screen is shown alongside an original Japanese lacquered cabinet made in 1850, and other works produced through the method of ‘Japanning’, the European technique which imitated the East Asian imports that became popular in the West in the 17th century.

More contemporary craftsmanship can be found in the display devoted to digital manufacturing, with pride of place given to Fractal Table II, designed in 2007 by Gernot Oberfell, Jan Wertel and Matthias Bär. This intricate table was formed from epoxy resin, solidified by laser sintering in layers until the product had been built.

Dotted around the gallery are seven ‘portals’ which focus on key designers and their careers in furniture making, and it’s no surprise that a couple of them are architects. Frank Lloyd Wright is represented here by three very different wooden chairs made between 1902 and 1937. Unlike many other Modernists, Wright didn’t believe in standardised furniture; instead his concept of ‘organic architecture’ led him to design pieces specifically for his buildings or clients.

Slicing through the centre of the long gallery is an exhibition which provides a chronological sweep through 600 years of furniture making. It starts at one end of the room with a medieval book desk made from oak sourced in the Baltic region in the 1420s, and ends with Wooden Heap, a stackable drawer unit by Swiss designer Boris Dennler acquired this year by the museum’s Design Fund. Between these two pieces lie a number of eye-catching works, such as a flamboyant sofa made in 1856 by Rococo revivalist John Henry Belter and a Gothic oak cradle made by Richard Norman Shaw in 1861.

A handful of Modernist pieces include Charles and Ray Eames’s Storage Unit (1949-50), which came with interchangeable parts that allowed customers to choose the colour, material and finish of their units, and Carlo Mollino’s lithe Arabesque Table (1949), his most famous furniture design, whose glass top was based on the curves of a woman’s back as seen in a drawing by Surrealist artist Leonor Fini. Contemporary works include Ron Arad’s Bookworm Bookcase (made in 1995), a length of PVC which can be shaped according to the whim of its owner into a serpentine, wall-mounted bookshelf. It’s a startlingly simple design, yet a late landmark in the evolution of such products.

‘We have brought them closer to bench level, the height at which furniture is made or prepared, to get people to look at them in a different way’

In a welcome move, items in the gallery have been raised on plinths, emphasising the fact that they are to be examined like any other museum curiosity. ‘We have brought them closer to bench level, the height at which furniture is made or prepared, to get people to look at them in a different way,’ Humphrey says, adding: ‘With the items in the centre, the difference is that you can view the backs of the pieces, so you can really see the way they are constructed.’

True enough: as most furniture is designed to be put against a wall, looking at the back of a wardrobe or cabinet reveals the guilty secrets of joinery or material which the front often hides behind paint, marquetry or some other decorative device, much as many terraced houses are all cornicing and bay windows where they face the street, but a mess of drain pipes and vents at the back.

Hardly any of the exhibits are behind glass, which makes the pieces more immediate. Interactive technology adds to the exhibition; instead of written captions, touchscreens provide visitors with background information as well as photographs of the exhibits with doors opened or draws pulled out – after all, furniture is functional and it would be tempting to play with the pieces otherwise. Audio devices provide commentary from current designers – there’s David Adjaye commenting on Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, or Amanda Levete on Eileen Gray – and short films show the evolution of products, from raw material through processing to the final work.

The Furniture Gallery has no overarching narrative; instead it allows visitors to learn more about the methods or materials involved in the craft of furniture making.

‘At a fundamental level, the gallery is just about showing people what’s involved in making furniture,’ says Humphrey. ‘There’s no great intellectual structure, although there are many interesting stories on the way.’

And each piece does have its own story. If you enter the gallery from the east entrance, the first object you come to is the Master’s Chair of the Joiner’s Company, the City of London guild that protected the rights of many furniture craftsmen. The chair, made in the 18th century, is intricately carved in mahogany and upholstered with horsehair and red leather. It’s more of a throne than a chair, which underscores the fact that traditionally, armchairs such as these were restricted to the most important person in the room, hence the term ‘chairman of the board’; it was the chair that gave him his authority. After exploring the evolution of furniture craft, it’s easier to understand how such a seemingly straightforward object as a chair can be given such prestige.

 

The Dr Susan Weber Gallery, the V&A’s new permanent gallery for furniture, opened on 1 December. Admission free www.vam.ac.uk/furniture

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