Room at the top for old V&A furniture


You may feel like you are window-shopping at Harrods or the Burlington Arcade when you step inside the slick new furniture gallery at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, which opens in December.

The collection of furniture from the 15th century to the present day will be displayed in off-white painted recesses, framed in ebonised oak to look like a series of shop fronts – each focusing on a different furniture-making technique.

Beds, chairs, stools, wardrobes, clocks and mirrors are packed into 580 square metres on the top floor of the museum in the former ceramics gallery. This is the first time there will be a dedicated gallery to furniture on site. Previously the collection was scattered around the museum and held in the V&A's storage unit in Olympia. Some items have not been on display for more than 30 years.

It has taken two years to refurbish the gallery space and it has been designed by Nord Architecture, who also did the electricity substation for the London Olympics.

“The range of furniture and materials is so extensive that this neutral design was the best solution. We didn't want to clash with the furniture,” says Graeme Williamson, consultant with Nord Architecture.

It is not a chronological display of furniture through the ages but an exhibition which will tell the story of how British and European furniture was made and decorated for over 600 years – exploring materials and techniques.

The furniture includes a 1950s storage unit designed by Charles and Ray Eames; a bling bureau bookcase (1780-1820) made out of mother-of-pearl, which would have required craftsmen to saw shells for 5,000 hours; and a glass top Arabesque table from 1949 by Italian designer Carlo Mollino, which follows the curves of a woman's back but looks more like an ironing board. The newest piece, Wooden Heap, (2012) from Switzerland's Boris Dennler, looks like a stack of wood, but consists of six drawers. It recalls a 19th-century chiffonier but with drawer units manufactured in metal and plastic.

There are some star pieces, like the Robert Adam clothes-press-turned-wardrobe (1767) – but a lot of the furniture is made by lesser-known or even anonymous designers.

“It's not a simple progression from primitive to sophisticated,” says the V&A's co-curator of furniture, Nick Humphrey.

“There were important technical developments in furniture design –tubular steel, plastics and digital manufacture – but, looking across 600 years, a piece of 16th-century furniture may be more sophisticated in design technology than a recent piece of furniture.”

Dr Susan Weber Gallery opens 1 December (