Rearranging the deckchairs
New technology and an attention to craft enriches the experience of the new furniture gallery at the V&A
It’s hard to believe it has taken the V&A 160 years to launch a gallery dedicated to furniture, given its origins in William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. But the end of 2012 saw the opening of the Dr Susan Weber Gallery − named after its sponsor − with a focus on furniture-making techniques.
You’d have to be a serious furniture fan to trek up to the sixth floor of Aston Webb’s 1909 building where the long narrow gallery is tucked away at the end of the museum’s extensive ceramics section. Nor is the space, designed by architects NORD as a monochrome backdrop to the exhibits, a place of pilgrimage for contemporary design buffs. It doesn’t offer the catalogue of creative celebrity you might find in a gallery in Milan, or at a design art fair. Curators Nick Humphrey and Leela Meinertas have instead addressed processes of furniture-making over the ages.
So, while the gallery features tiny ‘cameos’ of acknowledged stars like Frank Lloyd Wright and Eileen Gray, the less familiar Orkney joiner David Kirkness, who blended straw and wood in his Arts and Crafts pieces, gets equal billing. Balancing the crafty charm of Kirkness is exquisite mechanical furniture by 18th-century German makers Abraham and David Roentgen, who currently also have a retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, among specialists in lacquering and the like.
Most exhibits are set around the perimeter of the gallery in 16 sections categorised by fabrication techniques: for example, Veneering, Marquetry and Inlay; Cutting Sheet (Jane Atfield’s 1992 RCP2 chair made of recycled plastic bottles); and Casting Liquids (Verner Panton’s 1960 Stacking chair). The centrepiece is a fairly random chronological display along the spine of gallery.
All exhibits are from the museum’s collection and haven’t been shown publicly at the V&A before, which means many obvious designers and pieces are missing. So the gallery will more likely inspire furniture designers and makers than attract members of the public in droves.
That said, there are pieces by 20th-century Italian design giants like Gio Ponti and Joe Columbo, alongside more recent work by British stars Jasper Morrison and Matthew Hilton and London-based Ron Arad. And, in the spirit of evolving process, there is a section given over to digital making, represented by Industrial Facility’s conventional-looking Branca chair, 2010, by robots, and the Fractal table by Platform Wertel Oberfell, 2007 − an early triumph for 3D printing.
There is also a horseshoe-shaped piece by London-based German designer Gitta Gschwendtner, entitled Chair Bench and playfully honouring six seminal chairs in the gallery. But the overall impression is one of traditional, crafted furniture dating back to the 15th century.
That is particularly so if you enter the gallery via the ceramics section. Facing you is the 18th-century carved mahogany Master’s Chair from the Joiners’ Company. By contrast, if you enter from the other end you walk in on Wooden Heap, a walnut storage unit created this year by Swiss designer Boris Dennler to resemble a pile of wooden strips.
The gallery’s emphasis on process is in line with the curatorial thinking behind the V&A’s hugely successful The Power of Making and Heatherwick Studio shows over the past year. It is also attuned to the attitude of the new wave of makers in Hackney whose experimentation with materials and form is broadening the scope of UK design and will be a valuable resource for them as they update traditional crafts.
For the rest of us, though, the real breakthrough has little directly to do with furniture. It is the use of digital technology to enrich visitors’ knowledge and experience through interactive Materials Tables and exhibit descriptors. Created by digital agency All of Us, these are a welcome departure for the V&A, which has used technology successfully for one-off shows − such as Cosgrove Hall animations for the 2006 Leonardo da Vinci show designed by Stanton Williams − but been slow to adopt it to explain its permanent collection.
The V&A plans to evolve the furniture gallery. Let’s hope it means more focus on newer technologies not just in how things are made, but in how they are presented.
The Dr Susan Weber Gallery
Venue: Victoria & Albert Museum, London