Design: Dinah lights the way at the V&A

How do you take three centuries of British decorative arts out of their dusty cabinets and bring them alive? Easy, says Dinah Casson. Nonie Niesewand learns how.

The architect Dinah Casson stands in the awesomely gilded rococo room at the V&A, transplanted from elsewhere, and considers the task before her - it is exciting but challenging; no less a thing than trying to revive interest in the British Gallery of decorative arts 1500-1900 (Henry VII to William Morris).

"I want people to gawp, and swoon and smile at things." says Casson. "Gawp at the scale of the Melville Bed. Or at the Margaret Laston bodice, so exquisitely made and tiny that it's breathtaking. And I want them to swoon at the beauty of 17th-Century formal gardens all executed in tiny stitches on a 7 metre long embroidery called the Stoke Edith hanging."

It is, as its curator, Christopher Wilk, calls it "one of the most remarkable collections of design and art in the world." And yet, with the exception of the three period rooms, it is housed in galleries, 15 of them, so overstuffed and dimly lit that average time that visitors stay is no more than 11 minutes.

In June, the galleries will close for air conditioning to be installed and (lottery funds permitting) that will the beginning of a transformation which Casson, her partner Roger Mann and decorator David Mlinaric will bring about. The whole project is expected to cost just under pounds 34m.

Getting Dinah Casson to design the displays was enlightened. She has a playful approach to interiors - the offices she designed at Turner Cable Network have a fishtank for a reception desk and cacti growing in the boardroom like coat hooks, while the Institute of Practising Advertisers, in a Grade I listed Knightsbridge building has a shiny metallic entrance wall made of crushed aluminium cans.

In the scale model she has made of the V&A British Gallery, walls are coloured in intense indigo and aquamarine. A miniature she's made of the gigantic State Bed from Melville House, which is 5m tall from its clawed foot to the top of its ivory silk canopy, stands against a crimson wall. If a tapestry dating back to Charles II needs a shocking pink surround, it will get one.

Dinah who likes contrasts, sees nothing wrong in placing a Queen Anne chair against a bare concrete wall, and she has every intention of using repro chairs that people can sit down in to admire the original in front of them.

She isn't a bit intimidated by working with more than 3,000 priceless objects. Editing the collection so that people won't be bored or overwhelmed, she wants to turn it into four storylines that people can follow.

The first narrative is called "Cultural Authority", which is really a political story about taste makers, from the king and courtiers to the Grand Tour and neoclassicism, with Gothic influences continuously making appearances, and ending with William Morris and his merrie band of craftsmen.

Then there's "Development of Style", which shows foreign influences as well, so you can see where Chippendale got his Chinese scrollwork and Brettingham his rococo flourishes.

"Fashionable Living" explains just why people through the ages bankrupt themselves to buy a silver rosebowl or petit fours dish. As Casson says, "Nothing changes. We still look for designer labels - whether it's a Gucci watch or an Alessi kettle"

The fourth theme shows how things work. She plans to lift the hemline on sofas to show the stuffing, and to place mirrors on the floors under tables and cabinets, and turn chairs around to give us another look at it. Not just undersights, but insights.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Project Coordinator

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

    Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

    £350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

    Embedded Linux Engineer

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

    Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

    £50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz