Your details


Update your details || || Logout


Featured reviews

Glimpsing the history of the world through its furniture

— February 2013

Associated media

Installation view of the Dr Susan Weber Gallery, V&A

Clare Finn visits the Victoria & Albert Museum’s permanent gallery for furniture – the Dr Susan Weber Gallery

In December 2012, for the first time, the Victoria & Albert Museum opened a permanent gallery for furniture. While the museum has collected furniture for 150 years, until now it has been displayed only with other objects in galleries that deal with social or cultural contexts.

Ninety per cent of the pieces in the new gallery come from store and in the centre of the space the display is chronological, ranging from a mediaeval chest to a drawer unit acquired this year by the contemporary Swiss designer, Boris Dennler, titled Wooden Heap. The gallery’s outer walls are, however, given over to sections on the making and decorating of furniture; joinery and cabinetmaking, carving, veneering, marquetry and inlay, upholstery, cane and rush work, turning, gilding and silvering, stone decoration, digital manufacture, moulding solids, casting liquids, cladding and mounting, lacquering and Japanning, cutting sheet, painted and graphic decoration. Construction displays are alternated with others on decoration. Within each of these sections examples span centuries. Turning sees an ancestor piece, an Egyptian chair leg, juxtaposed with a late 16th-century Chinese washstand and a late 19th-century chair by the New Yorker George Hunzinger. 

Between these are seven niches devoted to specific makers, some well-known, others less so: the American Frank Lloyd Wright, with his stylishly architectural though unergonomic pieces; George Brookshaw, a  19th-century English painter-illustrator whose early career was spent as a cabinet-maker specializing in painted furniture; the German-Austrian firm Thonet and Sons,  famed for their bentwood chairs; Eileen Gray, who lived most of her life in France, becoming a doyen of Art Deco lacquering and the Modernist style; the Germans Abraham and David Roentgen, 18th-century cabinetmakers famed for their marquetry, secret drawers and mechanical fittings, whose commercialization of their craft saw early forms of flat-pack furniture; David Kirkness from the Orkneys, whose business model ensured the survival of an ancient craft;  and, of course, Thomas Chippendale, who in 1754 became the first cabinetmaker to publish his designs in his influential book The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director.

All these displays are accompanied with touch-screen labels that allow up to five related images of each piece to be shown. Other screens display short videos demonstrating specific construction techniques: how boule work was done, making of a precise dovetail joint, or mortice and tenon, about which someone was heard to murmur how years of misery in school woodworking classes could have been avoided if they had only been shown such films. Large digitally interactive materials tables in the gallery’s centre give information, not just on the range of materials furniture has been made from, but detail the wide range of woods used in furniture with information on their biological, geographical origins, uses and examples within the gallery. These interactive displays are to be linked to the museum’s website, which will give these displays a wider audience than its sixth floor position might draw. But for those that do find their way up there this beautiful gallery, with its long Victorian glazed top-light and spare white and dark stained-wood colour scheme sets off the pieces to great effect.


Clare Finn
Art historian and conservator

Media credit: © VIctoria & Albert Museum

Editor's notes

See the V&A website for more details about the Dr Susan Weber Furniture Gallery. A book covering the museum's collection, Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day, edited by Christopher Wilk, is published by V&A Publishing.

Other interesting content

Subscribe to Cassone – it's free and it's fabulous