If you have visited our Home Gallery recently you may have noticed a change to some of our gallery cases. Unexpected shapes in vivid colours feature alongside more traditional forms of seating, in a display of beautifully designed furniture.
We wanted to explore ways in which furniture can be designed to offer a child more than just somewhere to sit. Could it have other functions? What else could it be? What makes it remarkable?
Below the magnificent mosaic floor of the V&A Museum of Childhood sit our stores, where we keep and care for 25,000 objects. It was here we began our hunt for furniture that would bring to life the three themes of our display – ‘Let’s Play!’, ‘Designing Chairs for Children’ and ‘Bringing the Outdoors In’.
These ‘Junior’ chairs are one of my favourite pieces of furniture in the collection. They are a great example of how 1970s designers embraced the relatively new, flexible material of plastic, producing innovative designs in vibrant colours. The interchangeable, lightweight components of the ‘Junior’ chairs encourage play and experimentation, making the child-builder the master of their own creative construction. This is the first time these chairs have been on display in the Museum, so we got creative ourselves and built an impressive tower that filled the case.
We take this kind of multi-functional design – chair and plaything – for granted now, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that the practical and emotional needs of a child began to be central to the design process. Up until this point children’s chairs were scaled down versions of adult chairs. This skilfully crafted high chair features a new addition for the time which shows the shift towards child-oriented design thinking. Any idea what it is?
Yes, you guessed it, the table-tray. The modification was a useful feature for both children and parents as it provided somewhere for children to eat their food and play with their toys, as well as keeping the more wriggly ones safely seated. We put this multi-functional chair in the ‘Lets Play!’ display because of another brilliant design feature – turn a small handle underneath the seat and it neatly switches between high chair and rocker.
Designing Chairs for Children
In the ‘Designing Chairs for Children’ section of our display we feature a radically different high chair by furniture designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld. The simplicity of the design has produced a really striking chair that moves away from the comfort and safety of the earlier high chair. Gerrit Rietveld designed his iconic chair during his association with the Dutch art movement De Stijl (the Style) in the 1920s and it subscribes to De Stijl’s philosophy of reducing objects and artworks to the bare essentials of horizontal and vertical lines, and primary colours.
‘Lilla m’ is one of our more recent acquisitions – an elegant chair made by Caroline Schlyter, a designer who puts children at the heart of her design process. Her method of working is one we wholeheartedly champion at the V&A Museum of Childhood.
When Caroline Schlyter designed and made her first set of ‘Lilla m’ chairs in the 1990s she invited children to try out the prototypes. And the result? Probably a lot of chaos, but also ideal ergonomics for a young child and a wonderfully playful shape moulded from plywood. This single piece of painted ply can be turned upside down, or on its side, revealing spaces in which to play. ‘Lilla m’ translates as ‘little m’ and if you trace the curved line of the profile you will find that you’re writing the letter.
Bringing the Outdoors In
It’s clear from the V&A Museum of Childhood’s collection that the natural world influences all manner of child-oriented designs, and furniture is no exception. We chose this pair of giant toadstools to explore the theme ‘Bringing the Outdoors In’ – a table and chair set moulded from a single piece of plastic. The hollow construction makes it light enough for a child to move around yet sturdy enough to clamber on.
The little yellow bird in the image below has springs for legs and small beads inside, so a gentle rock of its cage makes the lampshade ‘sing’. It was made in post-war England when manufacturing tapped into the increase in consumerism by producing ranges of fun, plastic furnishings. As with so much of our collection, this was a cherished item donated to us along with vivid childhood memories. The donor revealed that the lampshade hung in a bedroom at his grandparents house and his grandmother always performed the same nightly ritual at lights-out: tapping the cage to hear the bird sing then blowing towards it at the exact same time as turning off the light switch. Between the generations this lampshade was a source of enormous fun, and a little bit of magic.
Now it’s time to call lights-out on this post. I have only had space to highlight a few objects so come and see our new permanent ‘Furniture in the Home’ on display in our Home Gallery at the V&A Museum of Childhood.