I recently enjoyed a visit to the new Furniture Gallery at the V&A so much, that I returned there the following day. There is a lot to see, crammed into a relatively small space. The intimacy of the display space is key. Instead of a spacious showroom or historic hall, the pieces are tightly juxtaposed and within reach for easy comparison and scrutiny by the viewer. Thus one can enjoy the detail of the furniture.
For example, the nuts and bolts and end-caps are visible in Marcel Breuer’s Model B3 Chair. The 1925 design was revolutionary in using bent tubular steel. Breuer transferred the new seamless tube technology of his Adler bicycle handlebars into his furniture designs. The displayed chair is an early (1928) production model using nickel-lead tubular steel with fabric straps. A more reflective chromium-plated tubular steel and leather version was later mass-produced as the “Wassily Chair”.
The high quality black lacquer of Eileen Gray’s folding screen is instantly obvious, looking as smooth and polished as the day it was made in 1928. Gray learnt her technique from a Japanese master in Paris but replaced the traditional ornate decoration with modern abstraction. Eileen Gray created many large screens with Art Deco surface patterns.
In the “Fauteil Transatlantique” or “Transat” armchair, 1925-29, also by Eileen Gray, the chromium-plated joints express structural nodes and reference yacht chandlery. However, the corner joints of the sycamore frame are barely visible, expertly mitred with hidden mortise and tenons. Incredibly, despite this and many other original designs, the misogynist world ignored Eileen Grey until her first exhibition in 1972.
Another eye-catching exhibit is the 1902 chair for the Willits House by Frank Lloyd Wright. The chair was designed with an elegant tall back that helped to define a sub-space with matching chairs around the table of the dining room. The solid stained oak construction is rigorously rectilinear and regular. The back slats are approximately 15mm wide with spaces of approximately 9mm. A few have warped with age but generally they are impressively straight and slender considering the structural span.
There are a hundred other diverse and notable pieces on show, including a 1945 three-legged prototype chair by Charles and Ray Eames, rejected because it was unstable, and a 3,500 year old wooden chair leg from Egypt, hand-carved in a very familiar way. I’ll certainly be returning for another visit soon.