The meaning of furniture

Jewel coffer and secrétaire by Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806), veneered in grey-stained sycamore with marquetry of other woods on a carcase of oak, late 1770s. Victoria and Albert Museum, inv. no. 1106-1882, bequeathed by John Jones. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Jewel coffer and secrétaire by Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806), veneered in grey-stained sycamore with marquetry of other woods on a carcase of oak, late 1770s. Victoria and Albert Museum, inv. no. 1106-1882, bequeathed by John Jones. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Last Friday I attended an excellent seminar at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London entitled Furniture: Making and Meaning. This seminar was celebrating the new Dr Susan Weber Gallery of Furniture (which I posted about earlier) and to investigate issues around materials, making and design.

Japanese tiered box decorated with clam shells used in the shell matching game (kai awase) in high-relief lacquer (takamaki-e), 19th century. Victoria and Albert Museum, inv. no. 822:1-1869. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the exciting features of this seminar was a set of talks about the construction and the tactile and visual effects of a French 18th-century jewel cabinet and a Japanese 19th-century lacquer box. The objects had been brought to the auditorium to star as ‘live’ performers, with a camera on hand to project close-ups  on the screen for all to see.

Bone armchair by Joris Laarman (b. 1979), Carrara marble dust mixed with resin, designed with algorithms based on bone and tree growth, 2008. ©Joris Laarman Lab

Bone armchair by Joris Laarman (b. 1979), Carrara marble dust mixed with resin, designed with algorithms based on bone and tree growth, 2008. ©Joris Laarman Lab

The day also included talks on the ‘reception history’ of carving, plywood and shagreen, and a stimulating discussion with three contemporary designer-makers.

What I particularly took away from this event was a vivid awareness that furniture is never just furniture: it is simultaneously social attitude, consumption pattern, political ideology, technical development, personal taste and manufacturing process. And I was inspired by the fact that all those ways of looking at furniture are just as relevant to historical collections as they are to the latest creations.

8 Responses to “The meaning of furniture”

  1. columnist Says:

    I do like that Japanese tiered box. As is so often the case, it has a very modern appearance for its time of creation and one can understand its influence on the Art Nouveau.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed, and this is brought out really well in the Dr Susan Weber Gallery, where objects from different cultures and periods are brought together, highlighting correlations and influences.

  3. Gésbi Says:

    Furniture and dress have so much to say about us – naturally your theme drew me over. These are very beautiful illustrations.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks – yes the images above are just like fashion shots, aren’t they? :)

  5. deana Says:

    I have spoken to master carvers and furniture makers and so many of them speak of what they are working on in living terms. They say the material dictates what should be done with it. When they don’t listen, they are never as satisfied with the results. I thought it was thrilling lesson and took it to heart.

    I love that Laarman chair and the thought behind it –– reminds me of those fabulous horn chairs.

    It must have been a brilliant lecture. Too bad it’s not online for those of us who are far away!

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes this would be an ideal candidate for an online video record, wouldn’t it?

    Interestingly, all three of the designers/makers that took part in the round table talk (Joris Laarman, Julia Lohmann and Gareth Neal) said that the process was partly dictated by material or technical constraints and partly by their own ideas and sense of what works – a sort of tussle between object and subject.

  7. Suzo Says:

    Do you know if full notes from the symposium will be published ?

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Suzo, I’m afraid I don’t, but the people in the V&A’s furniture department may be able to tell you: furniture@vam.ac.uk

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