Audio Descriptions: Furniture Gallery Overview and Touch Objects
These audio descriptions are available for blind and partially sighted visitors to listen to online or download in advance of visiting the Furniture Gallery.
Further audio descriptions of the displays and interviews with curators and makers are available on the Furniture Designers page
Furniture Gallery overview
Themes of the Furniture Gallery
Welcome to this audio-descriptive guide to the V&A's first ever gallery dedicated to furniture. My name is Nick Humphrey and I am one of the Curators responsible for the gallery, which sits alongside other galleries devoted to specific materials and techniques such as Ceramics, Silver and Sculpture. The exhibits in the Furniture Gallery date from the Middle Ages to the present day, and almost all parts of Europe are represented. A number of additional pieces highlight the ancestry of specific techniques, such as East Asian lacquer, Islamic marquetry, or ancient Egyptian wood-turning.
This gallery shows domestic, moveable furniture – the types that serve the varied activities of our daily lives: sitting and sleeping, eating, working and playing, organising and storing. It includes seats, tables and storage pieces, but also mirrors, clocks, screens and even musical instruments.
Although the gallery displays 200 pieces, we could easily have chosen many more, so every one had to justify its place. Some exemplify a particular technique, others are outstanding examples of design, and yet others highlight the career of a particular designer or maker. As well as some really spectacular pieces, there are also examples of more day-to-day furniture in their original, unaltered condition. Many of the artefacts have not been exhibited in living memory.
The core subject of the gallery is the way western furniture has been constructed and decorated from about 1400 to the present day. It's organised into 16 sections that each address a particular technique. Each section – whether it’s Joinery, Gilding or Upholstery, to take three examples – juxtaposes pieces of furniture that are deliberately diverse, in form, date and place of origin. Some visitors will be surprised, even shocked, to find a Mexican mother-of-pearl bureau bookcase from around 1800 displayed alongside a 1930s chair by Marcel Breuer and a late 17th-century cabinet by André-Charles Boulle, but in all three, the use of veneers is fundamental to the design and visual impact.
Complementing this structure, running down the central ‘spine’ of the 60-metre-long gallery, we introduce the main forms of western furniture through 25 key pieces, arranged in chronological order. These run from a massive, late medieval German chest, through a mid 18th-century commode and Carlo Molino’s ‘Arabesque’ table of 1949, to the latest piece from 2012, a walnut drawer unit that can be reconfigured almost endlessly by the user, but that looks – at first sight – like a stack of wooden blocks.
In addition, a series of smaller displays focus on specific makers or designers, illuminating the human stories behind the processes of design, manufacture and marketing furniture. Some, like Thomas Chippendale or Frank Lloyd Wright, are very famous names; others, like George Brookshaw, or the Orkney chair-maker David Kirkness, will be unfamiliar to many.
In this gallery, the furniture is displayed on raised plinths, lifting it 40cm above floor level, where we're used to seeing it, and placing it closer to the height of a workbench, where it was made. Where possible, backs and sides are deliberately revealed to show more of their structure, as well as their decorative façades.
Furniture-making has always been inventive in design, construction and decoration. Some techniques were developed to make manufacture more efficient and affordable. Others simulate more expensive materials or processes: gilding instead of solid gold, veneer instead of solid wood. What begins as a practical feature often becomes more decorative – such as when a trunk, constantly hauled about, has its joints and corners reinforced. Gradually these same practical metal corners often became richly ornamented in their own right, embellishing a trunk that is now more likely to be a showpiece. As well as technical innovations, the pieces on display show great continuity. A joiner or gilder working today could walk into a 15th-century workshop and recognise a great many of the tools and processes in use.
I think that one thing the gallery does is reveal the dual life of furniture. Good furniture serves the body and the mind. On the one hand it's the anonymous servant of daily life, taken for granted, or as we say just ‘part of the furniture’. On the other, a piece of furniture is an autonomous piece of design, engineered to stand alone and please the eye. In this gallery, understanding how furniture is made complements our daily use of it, and our appreciation of its aesthetic qualities.
Layout of the Furniture Gallery
Welcome to this audio-descriptive guide to the V&A's first ever gallery dedicated to furniture. My name is Leela Meinertas and I am one of the Curators responsible for the gallery, which is located on level 6 of the Museum. This guide to the layout of the gallery starts at the entrance at the top of Staircase G, which is the closest entry point to Exhibition Road and the Tunnel entrance from the Underground. There is also lift access close to this end of the gallery via Lift F.
The Furniture gallery is a long rectangular room, some 60 metres long and 12 metres wide. It is an elegant and lofty, black and white space. The high ceiling is barrel-vaulted with skylights, which are fitted with white shutters. These are controlled automatically to regulate the amount of light falling on to the displays – you may hear the mechanical sound of them adjusting. Looking down the gallery, the furniture is arranged on a series of 40cm high plinths edged with black, ribbed oak, which create a spine down the centre of the room. Each plinth is two and a half metres wide and about six metres long. More plinths line the side walls of the gallery. The same ribbed black wood frames the displays to either side, contrasting with the white walls, and allowing the furniture to stand out.
The central plinth nearest the stairs displays 20th- and 21st-century furniture. The subsequent central plinths go back in time to the 15th century. There’s a large padded bench that you can sit on between the first two plinths and another between the last two.
The two side walls are divided into displays on different furniture-making techniques. Moving clockwise around the gallery from the stairs, the techniques shown along the left wall are: Turning; Upholstery; Cane and Rush; Gilding and Silvering; Digital Manufacture; Cladding and Mounting; Lacquer; Japanning; and Painted and Graphic Decoration.
Coming back down the other side of the gallery we find: Joinery and Cabinet-making; Cutting from Sheet; Casting and Moulding; Stone Decoration; Veneering, Marquetry and Inlay; and Carving.
Each technique is illustrated by pieces of furniture that are deliberately diverse in form, date and place of origin. Digital labels are positioned on pedestals at the front of each bay at waist height. They slope back at 45 degrees, and information can be accessed by swiping a finger across the screen, or touching a particular image. Please note that there is no audio on these labels but the font size can be increased if desired by touching the screen, and there are large-print label books in holders at each end of the gallery.
Four of the displays on techniques also have associated touch objects positioned on a sloping plinth alongside the digital labels. Full descriptions of these touch objects can be downloaded as separate tracks from the V&A website. There are a number of historic carved objects that you can touch, as well as a panel that shows the different stages in the carving process. Touch objects also demonstrate the techniques of casting and wood-turning.
The large technique displays alternate with seven smaller sections that address the careers of individual designers and makers. These are integrated so that the makers are close to the particular technique for which they were known. Each of these displays has an audio point, located on the left. They're a little higher than waist height and have a vertically-mounted telephone handset on the right. To the left of the handset, a touch screen gives you three choices of audio track. The top is a curator's view, the second one down, a maker's perspective, and the third, an audio description. These audio tracks can also be downloaded individually from the website. Moving clockwise around the gallery, the makers and designers are: David Kirkness; Eileen Gray; George Brookshaw; Frank Lloyd Wright; the Thonet brothers; David and Abraham Roentgen; and Thomas Chippendale.
At the right-hand side, in front of the only external window in the gallery, is a specially-commissioned piece of furniture called the Chair Bench, by Gitta Gschwendtner, which you can sit on. This semi-circular bench seat has reproductions of the backs of six different chairs – all of which are to be found in the gallery. Underneath the bench, are the chair legs, but these have been swapped around, like a children's puzzle, so that the legs of one famous chair are beneath the back of another. From left to right, the chair backs are: an ornately carved 16th-century Italian Sgabello chair; a contemporary Italian chair, which was made using a combination of robots and machine tools; a tall chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; a Thonet bentwood chair; an 18th-century ‘bended-back’ chair; and finally a Windsor chair. Try to work out which legs belong to which.
In the centre of the gallery, in front of the Chair Bench, are two waist-high interactive tables, which explain the materials used in furniture-making. Positioned around the edge of each table are samples of the materials that you can touch – 31 in total. There are hard and soft woods, metals, cane and rush, and animal products such as leather, ivory and mother-of-pearl. When you place your hand over a sample, an image appears on screen to tell you more about it. Please note, though, that there is no audio on this display.
When you have finished, exit at the far end of the gallery to explore Ceramics, or go back to where you started to return to the ground floor by the stairs or the lift.
Carving display touch object: carved panel
This touch object – a square panel of carved pale walnut – is a replica of part of a much bigger panel from the folio stand displayed on the right. Made from dark walnut, the stand is displayed closed, its carved front panel facing the viewer. When in use, the front face of the panel dropped forward 90 degrees on hinges. Once open like this, the stand would have served to support a large volume or a portfolio of prints. It is 133 cm high and just over a metre wide and looks as fresh today as when it was made in 1873.
The success of a carving depends on the skill of the carver and their ability to choose a wood with qualities best suited to the type of carving. Walnut has a fine, straight grain and can be used for detailed work. The touch panel demonstrates the different stages in the process. The carver has cut away the wood with chisels – pushing them or tapping them with a mallet – leaving a part-worked design in high relief. Although this panel was made recently the techniques have hardly changed for centuries.
At the bottom right corner is part of the original flat surface of the block. On it, drawn in black ink, are the shoulders and head of a cherub holding a part-carved tambourine above his head. Next to the tambourine are grooves where the carver has roughed out the design using a gouge – a type of chisel with a blade that’s curved in cross-section.
Top right is another flat surface, slightly lower than the first. Drawn here is the head of a bird flying towards us, wings outstretched. Further in from the edge, much of the bird’s breast and one wing have been carved. In the top left corner is a partly carved flower, and down the left side swirling leaves and tendrils have been sketched on a flat surface that’s lower still. Each time the carver cuts away a level, the design has to be re-drawn.
Almost bisecting the panel, bottom left to top right, is a curved band like part of a wheel-rim. Along its centre, intricately carved, are little discs, like a necklace of coins, known as coin-moulding. To their left, a series of tiny dents has been made with a punch – a tool with a sharp point. The punch is tapped with a mallet, creating a stippled effect that adds texture and disguises chisel marks.
Just inside the band of coin-moulding is a chubby cherub blowing a trumpet angled up to the right. Around him the wood has been levelled with a flat-bladed chisel, leaving barely-perceptible marks that subtly catch the light. Creating a smooth background when carving in the solid is a challenge, but it can be achieved by a skilled carver – as demonstrated here.
Carving display touch objects: drawer front, framing piece and bedpost
The touch objects assembled here are all original artefacts from the V&A’s collection and include two carved pieces of wood and a bedpost. The two small, carved pieces are displayed one behind the other. They were both made in France. The nearest is a drawer front with a central keyhole, made between 1600 and 1650, carved from rich brown-red walnut – a wood with a tight, straight grain that can be carved finely and polished easily to a smooth finish. The other is probably part of the oak frame of a cupboard front. It’s slightly rougher and was made earlier – between 1520 and1550.
The drawer front, 40 cm long, is carved in low relief. A plain border along the top, bottom and right side frames a tumultuous scene of five writhing, open-mouthed horses and two bare-chested men, all up to their waists in churning water. The horses are mythological seahorses, and the men sea-gods – mermen known as Tritons.
The horses are in two groups – each with a merman amongst them – surging towards each other from opposite sides. The merman on the left carries a curved horn at his side and grips the neck of one of his horses. The merman on the right holds a shell-like horn in one hand and brandishes what might be a large jaw-bone in the other. The legs of the two horses in front tangle beneath the keyhole as the groups collide. Immediately to the right of the keyhole the carving is particularly delicate. The horse here – with a mane like squirming snakes, neck sinews taut – whips its head round as the horse behind clambers up onto its serpent-like haunches.
The second touch object is slightly smaller. It’s made of oak, the wood darkened with age, and the carving – a festoon of leaves and flower buds – less refined. Oak is strong like walnut, but its wider, more open grain makes it less suitable for detailed work. This is an upright framing piece, probably from a cupboard front. It has tongues, known as tenons, top and bottom, with holes for fixing pegs.
Standing on the floor, to the right of the panels, is a third touch object, made in England around 1760. It’s a bedpost two and a half metres tall, carved from mahogany and polished to a deep brown lustre. Mahogany is a tropical hardwood particularly suited to carving as it has a tight grain, fine-to-medium texture and is easily worked and polished. There’s a real contrast here between smooth surfaces and sharp details. The base of the bedpost is rectangular, with a channel into which other parts of the bed frame would have slotted. Above, a vase-shaped baluster with upwards-spiralling leaves is topped by a circular capital – turned on a lathe before the baluster was carved. The upper two-thirds of the post resemble a bunch of rods bound by a spiralling ribbon – with another capital and a cube-like block at the top.
Turning display touch object: turned spindle
This touch object is a replica that shows the process of turning a spindle of wood. On display behind is an armchair, made around 1600. Other than its triangular oak seat, the chair is made entirely from ash spindles: rounded pieces of wood turned on a lathe. The touch object is a replica of one of these large wooden spindles. It is based on the upper part of one of the chair’s front legs and shows the different stages of the wood-turning process.
It’s a single length of wood, mounted horizontally on steel pins, and can be spun around, as it would on a lathe. The lathe rotates the wood, so it can be worked smoothly by a chisel held against it. The chisel blade gradually cuts away the wood, shaping the spindle and creating decorative elements. Here the making process is recreated stage by stage, from left to right.
Before being mounted on the lathe, the wood has been cut to the desired length and split lengthwise using an axe and wedges that are hammered in to divide it into four or more smaller pieces. With the wood held firmly on a bench, a two-handled blade – known as a draw knife because it’s drawn towards the user – has been pulled along it to remove the corners. The wood is turned and cut repeatedly with the draw knife to create the more rounded profile. If you pass your hand along the spindle from left to right, you can feel the marks where the blade has been pulled along it.
The next stage takes place once the roughly rounded wood has been mounted on the lathe. It’s shaped into a cylinder by cutting into the wood with a roughing-out gouge as it spins towards the turner. If you turn the spindle you can feel the gouge cut, like a shallow indentation.
Towards the right hand end, a planing chisel has been used to smooth the surface of the spindle. Bulges, valleys and gentle curves have been added using smaller chisels and gouges. In the final section, at the far right hand end, the spindle matches the top of the chair leg.
Casting and Moulding display touch objects: moulds of ornamentation for furniture with casts
This group of touch objects relates to the associated display about the art of casting as applied to furniture. Furniture and interior fixtures and fittings – such as the large candelabrum on display in the centre of the gallery – are often decorated with carved ornamentation, but carving each detail individually is expensive. A cheaper option is to carve a mould and take casts from it. The casts are made from a material known as ‘composition’ or ‘compo’ consisting of whiting (powdered and washed white chalk), glue, rosin (a resin obtained from pines and other plants) and oil. The ‘compo’ is mixed to a dough and pressed into the mould. The cast is removed, and when dry and rigid, can be gilded or painted, ready to be attached to a piece of furniture.
Here are three wooden moulds that can be touched – two are made of boxwood and the third is fruitwood. They’re mounted vertically, and beside each mould is a cast taken from it – so you can feel both the finished moulding and the reverse design carved out of the wood. On the far left is a photograph of one of the casts being removed from its mould.
The first mould stands about 35 cm high and 9 cm wide. Carved into its face are two ’guilloche‘ bands. A guilloche is an ornamental border formed by two wavy lines crossing over – like a figure of 8 – but continuing to create a row of small, linked circles. Within each circle is a design. Here, two separate guilloche bands are carved quite close together down the centre of the mould. The band on the right has small dots in the centre of the circles, the one on the left, tiny crosses. To the right of the mould, a single cast includes both bands. You can feel the wavy lines of the guilloche pattern crossing over each other. The crosses and dots, which are carved into the centre of each circle on the mould, now stand proud on the cast. The compo is unpainted and is a yellowy-brown colour.
The second mould is a little shorter and narrower. Carved into its length is a motif of eight cupped flowers. Starting at the top, the first slim flower hangs down from a stem, its three petals forming the shape of a tiny bell. Another slightly larger flower hangs below, and so on down to the bottom. The tip of the petals of the top flower overlap the base of the next, so one flower seems to grow out of the other – all eight appear to be joined by one invisible stem.
The third mould is the smallest – a thin rectangle of wood about 15 cm long and just over 6 cm wide. Carved in its centre is a classical urn. From a pedestal base, the urn curves up and out to create a shield shape. The carving is deeper here and the surface of the shield is fluted. At the top of the shield, the urn closes down to a short funnel from which spouts a flame. On the cast to the right you can feel how the urn bows out from its pedestal base then flattens at the top for the flame detail.