Substance Over Style
The Dr Susan Weber Gallery at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is, perhaps surprisingly, the institution’s first dedicated furniture gallery. Rather than following a chronological arrangement, its inspired display juxtaposes pieces from different periods and parts of the world, providing insight into a rich array of manufacturing techniques.
Edwin Heathcote, Friday, 23rd November 2012
It doesn’t sound quite possible, but only now, 160 years after it was founded, does London’s Victoria and Albert Museum have a dedicated furniture gallery. The museum’s extensive furniture collections used to be dispersed throughout, under all kinds of guises. The redevelopment is something rather different to what the museum’s Victorian founders might have expected. This attenuated, elegantly top-lit gallery, designed by NORD Architecture, formerly housed a densely packed mass of ceramics; now it is framed in striated dark timber, and highlights a collection of over 200 pieces of furniture spanning the world and the last seven centuries.
What makes the display of the collection unusual is the method of classification employed, as Keeper of Furniture, Textiles and Fashions Christopher Wilk explains: ‘This is not about designers or styles; it is about the way furniture has been made and decorated, from the medieval period to today.’ So, instead of the usual groupings – of, say clusters of Chippendale chairs or modernist masterpieces – there are fresh juxtapositions based on their manufacture. A cast-iron chair (c. 1825) by Karl Friedrich Schinkel shares a podium with Verner Panton’s plastic chair (1967); two upholstered stools (c. 1712) made for Queen Anne are positioned between an armchair (1928–33) by Charlotte Perriand and an inflatable armchair designed by Jonathan De Pas, Donato D’Urbino, Paolo Lomazzi and Carla Scolari in 1967 and manufactured by Zanotta last year. ‘It is a very “V&A” gallery,’ Mr Wilk continues. ‘It allows things to come into dialogue with each other; the surprising thing is, they don’t look odd together.’
Classification by craft is, indeed, a very clever approach. It allows a much deeper exploration of techniques and workmanship than would otherwise be possible, and chimes with an increasing interest in craft and manufacture as being more ‘substantial’ than style. Curator Nick Humphrey says: ‘We were keen to engage with the materiality, the making and the techniques; in some ways furniture reveals a much wider variety [of these] than the other arts – compared to ceramics or glass, for instance, if you think about the different technologies being used in cutting sheet, lacquering, casting or gilding.’He found himself surprised by the number of continuities between pieces from different periods and parts of the world. ‘These are diverse displays geographically and chronologically, with something from the 17th century next to something from the 20th, but they show that there isn’t a simple prog- ression from “primitive” old to “sophisticated” new.’ In other words, Mr Humphrey’s is not a modernist interpretation in which all
routes lead to the stripped-back aesthetic of the early 20th century; rather, he expects us to be grown up and either post-modern or Pevsnerish enough to accept and appreciate equally a Tudor chest, a bookcase encrusted with mother-of-pearl, or Michael Thonet chair.
The exhibits are organised into 16 techniques and seven designers. A worldwide survey was originally intended, however it was eventually decided that the museum’s collections weren’t strong enough in non-Western areas for this. That said, non-Western techniques are still included, to the extent that they have been adopted by Western designers and manufacturers. Nowhere is this better seen than in the gorgeous geometric folding lacquer screen (c. 1928) designed by Eileen Gray for her Paris apartment. Gray was the first Westerner to study, under Seizo Sugawara, traditional Japanese lacquering, and she brought back her knowledge to Europe, where lacquer would become one of the key facets of the art deco/moderne aesthetic. Her screen now stands beside two historic hybrids: an English ‘flat-pack’ hall chair (c. 1730) featuring Chinese lacquer and a mid 18th-century French commode mounted with Japanese lacquer panels.
The most traditional and obvious of the techniques comes under the title ‘Joinery and Cabinet-Making’. Here an Egyptian chair leg (c. 1550–1070 BC) stands beside an English panelled-oak clothes press (c. 1620); most impressive of all, however, is the Parisian veneered commode (c. 1780) by Mathieu-Guillaume Cramer accompanied by an ‘exploded’ modern replica that precisely reveals the original’s construction. The replica is a delightful object in its own right, just as architectural models with their cutaways and details form a typology of their own.
In the section embracing ‘Turning’, an Egypto-Roman couch leg (c. 200–400) rubs up against a Chinese washstand and an elaborate American chair (1876) by George Hunzinger. The ‘Carving’ and ‘Veneering, Marquetry and Inlay’ sections, meanwhile, cover a lot of ground, as one might expect from a museum of decorative arts. In the former, an overbearing clothes press (1764–66) designed by Robert Adam with exquisite carvings by Sefferin Alken dominates one end, while the three-dimensional vigour of Grinling Gibbons’ carving is exemplified by some overdoor decorations (c. 1680) he did for Cassiobury Park, Watford.
Mr Humphrey points to veneering as typical of how furniture making has been refined through necessity: ‘It is a story of ingenuity, of furniture makers having to save money to make a margin. Veneer is a thin, applied sheet of expensive wood. But this technique was then developed in novel and ingenious ways to make more imaginative and showy pieces.’Marquetry is represented by such diverse items as a Mexican mother-of-pearl-smothered bureau (c. 1810), a Marcel Breuer designed plywood chair and a beautifully sculpted but also rather etiolated cabinet by Louis Majorelle. The latter was acquired from the 1900 Paris Exhibition by George Donaldson, a collector and dealer who promptly donated it and 30 other examples of art nouveau to the V&A, knowing that the style would come to be recognised as important. Apparently the Arts and Crafts designers who back then dominated the teaching staff at the Royal College of Art, then still based at the museum site, instructed students not to look at Donaldson’s gifts, lest their sensibilities be spoiled! The ‘Japanning’ section presents an interesting counterpart to Eileen Gray’s authentic lacquerwork, succinctly covering European imitations which spun off into their own styles. The niche devoted to ‘Stone Decoration’ highlights the extraordinarily time-consuming process of pietra dura with examples spanning the Renaissance (a Milanese virginal with hardstone decoration made by Annibale Rossi in 1577 [Fig. 7]) and Victorian Malta. ‘Cladding and Mounting’ throws up some odd pieces, such as a bracket clock (1675) by Jeremie Gregory featuring gilt-bronze mounts and a plywood cabinet (1929) faced with steel and copper by Isokon founder Jack Pritchard.
‘Upholstery’, in addition to featuring some extraordinary survivals, including very early 18th-century chairs from France and England, provides one of the best displays of changes in technique, as upholstery methods were adapted to fit new modes of furniture production in newly fashionable forms. (Here we find that inflatable Italian armchair, arguably one of the few ‘victims’ of the V&A’s classification – a Pop classic, it might perhaps have fitted better elsewhere.) Very different is the section dealing with ‘Cane and Rush’, a niche that seems to move effortlessly from the simple, beautiful vernacular of 18th-century England to Gio Ponti’s ethereally light Superleggera chair (1965) and Tom Dixon’s sensuously undulating rush chair (1987).
Between them, ‘Gilding and Silvering’ and ‘Painted and Graphic Decoration’ embrace highly decorated pieces like an Italian Renaissance virginal (1569) and a Dutch trompe-l’oeil wall cabinet (1670), as well as an orange-painted chair by Joe Colombo (1963) and a colourful Dutch casket (c. 1350–70) featuring scenes from the legend of Tristan and Isolde. Less expected than these techniques is ‘Moulding Solids’, comprising modernist classics like Hans Luckhardt’s cantilevered tubular steel chair (1929–30), Charles and Ray Eames’ plywood and steel chair prototype (1944) and Alvar Aalto’s familiar cantilevered plywood chair (1932–33) but also more surprising pieces: an English rococo gilded mirror with papier mâché frame (c. 1760–70); David Colwell’s smoky-tinted, unexpectedly comfortable acrylic chair (1968).
‘Casting Liquids’ is likewise populated by a number of surprises. These include Schinkel’s cast-iron chair beside a cast-aluminium chair (1945) by Ernest Race, and models (dated 1992 and 1996) for armchairs by Matthew Hilton. For me, most enjoyable of all was ‘Cutting Sheet’, which manages to encompass chairs by Josef Hoffmann, Marcel Breuer, a child’s folding cardboard chair (1994) by Peter Murdoch, another chair (c. 1760) after a design by John Linnell and, incon-gruously, a folding bookcase (1994–97) by Jan Schedin for IKEA.
That leaves only the inevitable section devoted to ‘Digital Manufacture’, which proved to be far more than the blobby faux- organic forms I’d imagined. Certainly Platform’s Fractal Table II (2007), looking like a cubist forest canopy, is predictably complex and dense in its digital imagery, but there is also Industrial Facility’s truly special Branca chair (2011; Fig. 10) for Mattiazzi, an intriguing blend of digital and robot manu-facturing techniques and traditional Italian craft producing a very human kind of comfort and beauty. The journey through these 16 sections is broken up by seven little niches devoted to designers and manufacturers. Frank Lloyd Wright is there, despite having designed some of the most uncomfortable – though admittedly striking – furniture known to mankind. So is Gerbrüder Thonet (founded 1853), which Mr Wilk calls ‘the first global furniture industry’. Michael Thonet got his international break when he won a bronze medal at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 (from whence the V&A emerged), so it is good to see him honoured here. ‘Not only did [Thonet] come up with new manufacturing techniques,’ says Mr Wilk, ‘but he also designed chairs that perfectly demonstrated the strengths of those techniques. He built factories in the forests of Moravia and even designed and built the hardware and machinery that went into them.’ The 18th-century makers Abraham and David Roentgen have a little stand demonstrating their remarkable mechanical furniture, and the final niche is devoted to David Kirkness (1855–1936), who made an industry out of reviving a vernacular Orkney chair of timber and rush – a template, perhaps, for the future of furniture in a post-industrial age.
These techniques and designers occupy the sides of the gallery rather like the curiosity shop windows in a Victorian arcade, while the centre is populated by a chronological series of designs ranging from the genuinely medieval to the faux-medieval of Edward Lutyens (an oak safe cabinet from 1903–04) and all the way up to a table-chest (1997) by Tomoko Azumi. Punctuated by designs by Carlo Mollino, Carlo Bugatti and others, it is a wonderful display. There is also a specially commissioned bench from designer Gitta Gschwendtner, a mix-and-match of backs and legs of classic models mounted on a chunky curving seat; slightly too reminiscent of Jurgen Bey’s ‘Tree-Trunk’ bench (1999), it is nevertheless fun, a piece of accessible, touchable design-art.
NORD Architecture’s gallery design, executed in a simple palette of dark stained timber and white solid surface displays, succeeds subtly. Vitrines, niches, podiums and platforms create a landscape in which the architecture itself recedes and the eye is drawn along the objects, driven by the perspective of the continuous, glazed Victorian rooflight. The curators are extremely proud of their interactive displays, which here take the form of iPad-style tablets that allow visitors to delve more deeply into the histories of the exhibits and also see photos of otherwise invisible details – the interiors of cabinets, the backs of cupboards, and so on. Added to this are specially commissioned commentaries from architects and designers – David Adjaye on Frank Lloyd Wright and Laurence Llewelyn Bowen on Chippendale, for instance.
Mr Humphrey notes that the exhibition charts the progress of furniture made possible ‘by a clientele, and what they are willing to pay for continual refinement’. The notion of an elite commissioning class could easily lead one to believe that the future of furniture at museum level might well be the kind of design-art that presents a very different picture of development and design than the items we can see here. Which is why it is so refreshing to see Industrial Facility’s Branca chair so prominently displayed: beautiful, comfortable furniture, well crafted and exploiting the most contemporary of manufacturing techniques, does not have to be self-indulgent; it can be as elegant and economical as a Windsor chair, design not as art but as the perfect blend of culture, industry, technology and craft.
The Dr Susan Weber Gallery, the new gallery for furniture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, opens on 1 December. For more information, visit www.vam.ac.uk
Edwin Heathcote is an architect and the author of The Meaning of Home (2012).
LATEST NEWS & COMMMENT
Brussels plays host to a trio of outstanding fairs at the Place du Grand Sablon in early June, and the ever popular Carré Rive Gauche – now in its 36th year – returns to the Left Bank in Paris.
The work of John Nash has often been overshadowed by that of his contemporary, John Soane. But his pragmatism, as well as his experiments with the picturesque, make him one of the most significant of all British architects.
Apollo is published in London, one of the world’s great art capitals and home to extraordinary, thrilling exhibitions such as last year’s ‘Bronze’ at the Royal Academy