Listen to online or download these audio descriptions of the Furniture Gallery's designer and maker displays.
This display is devoted to an elegant semi-circular side table made in about 1785 by George Brookshaw – a specialist in painted furniture. With a radius of half a metre, it curves towards us on four carved and gilded tapering legs. The table top and its vertical front – the frieze – are decorated with colourful bands of flowers, some stylised and some naturalistic. These have been painted onto copper plaques fixed to the wood body. Much of the smooth surface is now crazed like broken eggshell by tiny hairline cracks.
On the table top, the decorative bands form concentric semi-circles. Working outwards from the centre, the first is a radiating green motif like an open fan with a pink scalloped edge. It’s bounded by bead-like dots and then two bands of stylised honeysuckle in coral pinks, green and dark maroon.
Next comes a wide expanse of delicate pastel pink. Evenly spaced within it are three painted oval medallions – two larger ones, on their side, facing a smaller upright oval in the centre depicting a white urn against pale blue. Each larger oval portrays a young woman – facing the central urn - wearing a white short-sleeved robe and red cloak in a landscape of soft blues and pinks. They’re classical nymphs. The one on the left kneels and reaches out to two swans. The nymph on the right sits with two sheep behind her, her shepherdess’s crook in her left arm. She’s carving her lover’s name on a tree-trunk.
Towards the outer edge of the table top, more bands of honeysuckle border a wider area of pale blue-grey where a realistic profusion of flowers and leaves hang in six fat swags from gold ribbons. In fact, Brookshaw later abandoned furniture-making to devote himself to botanical illustration.
In contrast to the table top the frieze is more subdued: two bands of white decoration on pale grey – like piped icing on a wedding cake – divided by a gilded lotus-leaf moulding. Along the very bottom are gilded laurel leaves.
The table’s legs are like fluted classical columns. At the top are acanthus leaves with beneath, a ring of little balls and a pinched-in neck. Vertical grooves narrow to the bottom and another ring of little balls – like a cheeky anklet – above a brass ball foot.
In this display are a corner cabinet and a side chair – what we nowadays think of as a dining chair. The corner cabinet was a special commission directly from the renowned cabinet-maker Thomas Chippendale, while the chair was made following one of his published designs. One of Chippendale’s great innovations was to produce a pattern book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, published in 1754, which was used by many other furniture makers.
The chair to the right was made by an unknown cabinet-maker using one of Chippendale's designs. The years have darkened its mahogany frame to a deep, dark brown, glowing richer red where the wood’s been repeatedly handled. The seat has been re-upholstered in charcoal grey horsehair. The chair is generously proportioned. The front edge of the seat bows out, the fabric fixed by two rows of upholstery nails, round heads touching, so it looks like continuous brass beading. The front legs are straight and square cut. The rear legs splay out slightly at the back. An H-shaped stretcher joins the four legs for stability.
The focus of Chippendale's ornamental design is the chair back. The back is wider but flatter towards the top. The front surface is ribbed, edges rounded, creating a sense of graceful movement away from the solidity of the base. The top of the chair back – the cresting rail – is carved in a series of shallow waves, punctuated by bell-like flowers and leaves. A low rise in the centre, behind the sitter’s head, is pierced by a hole – formed by two large letter Cs cupped towards each other – surrounded by a carved sunburst of licking flames. Joining the rail to the seat, a vertical panel known as a ’splat‘ is shaped like a tall, slim vase, finely carved with elaborate sweeping curves and overlapping scrolls.
The corner cabinet to the left was commissioned from Chippendale by the famous 18th-century actor David Garrick as part of a suite of bedroom furniture. It's strikingly painted to imitate Chinese wallpaper – leaf green decoration on a white background. Nearly a metre high, the cupboard is three sided. Its bowed front is mostly taken up by the door, whose bottom edge forms a curve between the two tapered front legs.
Over the years the white base paint has yellowed, and many of the green motifs – especially on the cupboard top – have been scraped and smudged as to be almost unrecognisable. Those on the bowed front have fared better. Here trees cluster on a hill; a small hut sits by a stream; a pagoda stands behind a bamboo fence. To the right, two groups of robed figures seem to be walking uphill towards a summer house with a chequered floor, where a woman is sitting. In the spaces between these vignettes, birds soar.
These images are framed by a narrow border of twining leaves. Either side, a vertical floral design features a flower with narrow radiating petals, and a line of delicate bell-shaped flowers beneath. From top to bottom, each is a little smaller, as though dropping from the centre of the flower above. Although the cabinet is made of softwood and various splits are visible, the original decoration is still light and elegant.
In this display is an armchair designed by Eileen Gray. It's a long lounger positioned sideways in front of reproductions of various sketches from Eileen Gray's notebooks enlarged on the wall behind.
This elegant chair, designed in the late 1920s, combines luxury with functionality in a way that’s reminiscent of the deckchairs on transatlantic liners – so it’s come to be known as the ‘Transat‘ chair – one to lie back in and relax. Its overall shape is a long, low rectangle, the frame constructed from slim, square-cut lengths of sycamore, whose shiny surface has mellowed to a golden honey colour. Slender front and rear legs are joined at the top by a long horizontal arm. The corners where legs and arm meet are rounded off.
Slung from front to back, like the canvas on a deckchair, is a yellowy-brown seat divided into ten thick padded slat-like sections. At the front, the padding is wrapped over the edge, cushioning under the knees. The curvaceous form of the seat contrasts strongly with the straight lines of the wooden frame. A separate headrest is held in position by gently arched chrome joints, allowing it to swivel. The chrome detailing on the joints is a feature elsewhere on the chair, emphasising its construction.
With its clean straight lines, pale wood, chrome joints and curvaceous upholstery, the chair has a sense of poise and balance – formally constructed without being brutal, functional without compromising on comfort.
This display shows two versions of the straw backed chair, known as an ‘Orkney’ chair, made popular by David Kirkness. Kirkness began exporting them after a successful launch at the fifth Scottish International Exposition in Edinburgh in 1890. On the left is a chair that was probably made in the Kirkness workshop. On the right is a more recent chair made using traditional techniques by Reynold Eunson, who took over Kirkness's workshop in 1956.
Kirkness advertised four versions of the Orkney chair that share the same basic construction: the standard armchair for men, two smaller versions for women and children, and a tall hooded version.
On the left is an example of the hooded version of the chair. Made around 1910, it belonged to the artist Augustus John. Its softwood frame is almost black – scuffed, battered and water-marked – the straw back is a deep honey-brown. The hood that arches over the sitter’s head makes it half a metre or so taller than the chair to the right. Panels of softwood fill in the gap directly under the chair arms, so it's less prone to drafts. And under the seat is a single box drawer, with a metal handle in the shape of a lion's face.
The bottom of the chair is solid-looking, with thick square tapered legs. The seat is quite low. Two angled struts at each side support the armrests, which curve around the sides of the sitter, ending in a delicate scroll.
To make the chair back, oat straw is tied with sea grass to form a continuous rope. The first row of rope is nailed to the base of the seat, fastened to the upright on one side, then bent back on itself to create the next row. Each row is stitched to the one below, the top edge finished with a row of tight stitching. At the start of a chair's life, the straw is quite stiff, following the square contours of the seat. Years of use, though, cause the straw to soften and mould to the contours of the sitter’s back.
The chair to the right was made by Reynold Eunson in 1971. It has a Japanese oak frame. This, coupled with the fact that the chair was acquired by the Museum when it was new and therefore never used, means that both wood and straw are quite light in colour.
The chairs strike an interesting balance between the homespun and the refined. The materials, wood and straw, are natural, vernacular. The joints where arms and back meet the seat are left visible. But other design details, such as the tapering arm and back supports, create a sense of grace and elegance.
Abraham and David Roentgen
This display contains two tables. The one on the left is large and made of a red-brown cherry wood. On the right is a smaller, dainty table with an oval top. Both were made in Germany in the 18th century – the larger by Abraham Roentgen and the other by his son David.
The larger table has a mechanism that allows it to be configured as a side-table, a card-table or a writing desk. It’s exhibited sideways-on – facing to the right – and as if part-way through being opened up. When shut, the table is a metre wide and half a metre front to back. It looks much like any other side-table, except the top – with curving sides and front edge – is deeper than most. That’s because the fixed table top is covered by two flaps – each identical to it in size and shape – lying one on top of the other. These flaps hinge along the table’s back edge, and one, or both, can pivot up and over, through 180 degrees to double the table in size making it into a square card or writing table. Here they’re displayed in a nearly vertical position as if they’ve been stopped halfway through the opening action. Occupying most of the fixed tabletop is a box – a storage unit – that has popped up from where it’s usually concealed.
The table has four S-shaped cabriole legs carved with a mask-like face at each foot and a swirling leaf design growing up and around the lower edge of the table. The back leg at this nearest side has been partly swung out to the left. It’s sprung – released by a button – and when it’s moved all the way to the back the flaps can be pivoted over to rest on it. To configure the table for cards only the first flap is used. Its underside is green baize – as is the top of the second flap – so when it is folded out, the result is a big square card-table. The baize is edged with veneer, expanding in each corner to a circular disc for a candlestick, and a shallow oval dish, shiny with use, for game counters. The table becomes a desk with a green leather writing surface when the second flap is swung over to rest on the first. When another catch is pressed the box unit comes up out of the fixed table top, providing drawers, cubbyholes and a central book-rest. The table is crafted so precisely that a series of holes has been made in the base of the unit to allow air to escape when the box is pushed back down.
The other table – its oval top resting on narrow square legs tapering to casters – has a pale, glowing wood veneer and gilded brass details, giving it a classical feel. This table is striking for the marquetry on its curved front and sides and covering the top – designs made from slivers of wood so tiny and intricate it’s hard to believe they’re not sketched and painted. The original bright colours have faded to muted shades of green and brown. The frieze is formed by the front and two side panels that each depict a heap of spears and swords. And on the table top is an astonishingly detailed scene from Virgil’s Aeneid that shows Aeneas escaping from burning Troy with his father and son. David Roentgen’s technique here was brand new. Rather than assembling an image like a jigsaw-puzzle, he cut shapes into a single sheet of veneer and then inlaid the corresponding pieces of contrasting woods into the recesses.
This table is also mechanical. The three panels of the frieze are in fact drawers. The front drawer is released by a button to reveal a leather writing surface. Pulling it all the way forward releases the two side drawers – in an unexpected way. Each pivots on a hinge at its far side, swinging back like outstretched wings.
Thonet and Sons
This display contains two European-café-style chairs, simply made from smooth, bentwood rods stained dark brown and with straw-coloured cane seats. Above them on the wall are the component pieces of a third chair. Designed in the 1850s by Thonet Brothers in Vienna, the chairs were revolutionary – mass-produced from bent solid wood as well as the more pliable laminated wood.
The chair on the right is known as Armchair No. 1 – a reference to its number in Thonet’s marketing catalogue. It’s slightly larger than its companion. Its back legs and the frame of its backrest are formed from a single solid rod, bent into a hoop like a wide balloon. It curves gently forwards – from the feet to the back of the seat and then out again to the top of the backrest. At each shoulder is a fork where the rod seems to split, these branches curving down in an S-shape for the sitter to lean against. The S-shapes are back-to-back and join in a loop above the seat. They’re made of laminate – and the frame of solid wood – although it’s impossible to tell the difference because the joins are so smooth. Each arm is also S-shaped – ending in an elegant spiral. Sitters’ hands have worn the front of the arms paler. The seat itself is formed from strips of cane interlaced over a rounded rectangular frame. The seat has only two visible fixings: behind the two points where it meets the back hoop is a single, domed-brass screw-head. The chair’s front legs, topped by a capital, splay out slightly towards the floor.
The chair on the left – chair No. 14 in Thonet’s catalogue – has a circular seat and no arms. Compared with the first chair, it’s a relatively plain design and the back hoop is tighter. Tucked just inside it is a thinner arch with a flatter curve. The front legs are a similar shape, but completely plain.
The dismembered pieces displayed on the wall make up a later version of No. 14. On the left is the chair-back. Tucked inside is an inner arch that forms part of the back, with beneath, side by side, the two front legs. On the right is the circular seat frame. Above that is a slightly smaller and thinner ring – a rail to go round the legs, a later design feature. The rail encircles a horizontal line of small screws with beneath, two larger screws, two washers and two wooden pegs. Thonet chairs were transported in pieces – packed up in crates and ready for assembly by the distributor or retailer.
Frank Lloyd Wright
In this display are three early 20th-century chairs – on the left a tall, straight-backed dining chair in oak, stained to a rich red-brown, and on the right, one above the other, two smaller metal office chairs on casters. These chairs are all so different it’s hard to believe they were designed by one man – the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He regarded a building and its furniture as a single entity. So each chair reflects the characteristics of the building it was intended for.
The tall wooden chair, designed for a house influenced by Japanese aesthetics, is solid, almost severe. It has a shallow flat seat pad in brown leather, and four legs joined low down by an H-shaped stretcher. The back legs continue upwards one and a half metres to form the frame of the high chair-back. Squeezed between them are eleven vertical slats reminiscent of a Japanese screen – the gaps between just wide enough to counteract the chair’s heavy appearance. The starkness is softened further by the way the two uprights taper almost imperceptibly – and because their feet flick out and back slightly and their tops bend backwards like little ears.
On the right is an office chair in scuffed brown metal – steel painted to look like copper – and with a seat pad of dark leather. The chair has three legs – two at the front, and one at the back. It looks like a robot constructed from bits of filing cabinet and oversized Meccano, the screws proud of the surface. The robot’s ‘head’ is the backrest – a rectangle, almost as wide as the chair, on a central upright, that continues down to make the back leg. The ‘eyes’ are two decorative grids perforating the backrest with little square holes. Below the backrest, a horizontal bar curves round widening into rectangular slabs that form the arms. A vertical bar supports each arm and continues down to make the front legs. All three legs end in a rubber-wheeled caster.
The third chair, displayed above, is also three-wheeled but arranged like a tricycle, with one at the front and two at the back giving it a mischievous hint of instability. The chair seems fluid and dynamic – made of curved lengths of tubular steel, widely spaced with smoothly welded joints. It has a circular upholstered seat and backrest. Metal and fabric are pinky-red. The backrest pivots between two uprights that form the back legs. The seat rests on a semi-circular bar that curves forwards from the uprights and another semi-circular bar below forms a footrest. Between these bars, on each side, are three short curved rungs like a ladder. The front of the seat is supported on a third upright. The arms are long rectangles of pale laminated wood supported by a bar curving up to meet them – so the whole chair resembles a waiter balancing two trays.