The V&A’s new furniture gallery
offers a far more enjoyable afternoon’s browsing than your local IKEA: it’s the equivalent of what one imagines a furniture showroom would be like in heaven, with superlative examples of design and production from medieval caskets to present day design-art experiments. It opened last Saturday at the top floor of the museum and continues the enlightened refurbishment works at the museum, following on from the recent renovations of its ceramic, fashion and jewellery galleries.
Dr Susan Weber Gallery. ©V&A images
Cradle designed by Richard Norman Shaw RA c.1861. ©V&A images. The spine of the huge gallery is a chronological display of over 20 key pieces. This includes an oak cradle by nineteenth-century architect Richard Norman Shaw RA (who, by the way, was responsible for important works at the Royal Academy, including a staircase) conceived in such an eerie Gothic revival style that any child might get nightmares; as well as a functional, elegant storage unit by modern masters Charles and Ray Eames, dating to 1949–50, that appears completely contemporary. It's a clear precedent for the ‘storage solutions’ one finds in the aforementioned Swedish store.
On either side of the central reservation are themed displays that foreground how different techniques have developed across the centuries, such as lacquer work, epitomised by a sixteenth-century Japanese chest inlaid ornately with mother-of-pearl shell – it features a beguiling image of birds in flight on its interior.
Storage Unit by Charles and Ray Eames, 1949-50. Credit line: ©V&A images. Touch-screen panels and films give an insight into the immense craft behind these objects. This emphasis on production ideas and execution is a departure from how museums tend to exhibit furniture; the V&A in the past showed its furniture collections with other types of object, usually in geographical, social or art-historical contexts. As well as famous figures like Frank Lloyd Wright and Thomas Chippendale, the gallery gives attention to lesser-known names who helped created masterworks in the medium, such as George Brookshaw, who made and painted imitation Japanese furniture for the English elite in the eighteenth century.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine