IoS visual art review: The Dr Susan Weber Furniture Gallery, V&A, London

3.00

A new furniture gallery at the V&A has some stunning pieces, but the brilliance on show is let down by clunky presentation

In the V&A's new furniture gallery there is a delicate and prettily painted corner cupboard from the workshop of the great 18th-century cabinet-maker Thomas Chippendale. Its provenance is well recorded: we know it was made between 1768 and 1778, its curvaceous front and slim legs owing something to the emerging taste for the Classical style, and its painted chinoiserie a nod to a new, exotic taste for the Orient. We also know that it was supplied as part of a bedroom suite to the celebrated actor David Garrick for his villa on the Thames, a detail that allows us a peek into the most intimate life of one of theatre's brightest stars.

Furniture is full of history like this, a rich source of narratives that tell us about changing fashions, materials and production methods, as well as how people from different social groups lived. And the V&A has more than 14,000 such items in storage, which must have made selecting 200 pieces for its first dedicated furniture gallery extremely difficult. Those that made the final cut are arranged in a handsomely restored run of rooms, complete with shining parquet floor and black-and-white colour scheme which, like the entire V&A these days, is so sparklingly lit and beautiful it almost takes your breath away.

The good news continues: many of the objects selected to illustrate 600 years of design history are just as wonderful. Down the centre of the galleries a catwalk show of around 25 remarkable pieces tells the story of European furniture. Among the highlights are a German chest from 1520, an 18th-century bureau that belonged to Jonathan Swift and a table owned by Napoleon. This story continues through the Arts and Crafts movement, past Ron Arad's 1993 Bookworm shelf, right up to a wooden chest of drawers by Swiss designer Boris Dennler completed in 2012. In side niches, seven designers, including Chippendale and Frank Lloyd Wright, are honoured with dedicated displays. The most interesting of these is devoted to Michael Thonet, manufacturer of perhaps the most successful piece of furniture ever; the ubiquitous No 14 bentwood café chair went into production in Austria in 1859. By 1930, more than 50 million had been sold. A dismantled example shows how 36 chairs could be packed into a one-metre-square box, prefiguring flat-pack culture.

The bad news is what the curators have done with the remaining 150 or so gems of the collection. These are grouped around the gallery's sides and classified not according to date or style but by the techniques used. Thus under Casting Liquids, Verner Panton's iconic plastic Pop Art chair of 1968 is displayed alongside a cast-iron garden seat by Karl Friedrich Schinkel of 1835; meanwhile a plywood chair by Bauhaus master Marcel Breuer is included in Veneering, Marquetry and Inlay beside a 1780 Mexican mother-of-pearl bookcase.

The problem with this approach is that it reduces these works, many loaded with the same kind of history as Garrick's Chippendale cupboard, to the sum of their parts. We are unable to see how styles change and progress, or how movements such as European Modernism blossom. (It doesn't help that the curators have done away with labels, experimenting with interactive touch-screens for which you have to queue if somebody else is using them – why not both?). All of this reminds me of the time when the Tate decided to hang its collections by genre, which resulted in the much-derided scenario of a Monet landscape next to a Richard Long installation. The Tate quickly backtracked. No doubt the V&A will eventually do the same, but in the meantime don't be put off: the contents of this new gallery are five star, it's just the methodology that's mad.

Critic's Choice

Water, water, everywhere .… Random International's vastly popular Rain Room is still at London's Barbican Curve gallery. Perverse as it may seem to queue to get rained on, its sensor-controlled scheme makes for an immersive experience from which you emerge bone dry (till 3 Mar).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn