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).

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower