The V&A's new furniture gallery

Philippa Stockley has a sneak preview of the fabulous furniture that will star in a new gallery at the V&A from December
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A steel and copper chair from Russia
For those who appreciate a well-turned leg, here is one to admire: it is a wooden chair leg, sitting in a case and its foot is a slim lioness paw, its top a tenon for a mortise-and-tenon joint.

Is it Victorian? No, it's Egyptian and once a pharaoh sat on it. Further down is a lidded box, made rather like a Shaker box. But on its outside, roundels hold leopards formed from carved gesso built over armatures of tiny twigs, then gilded and painted. It's a 500-year-old betrothal box from Tuscany, and it once carried a gift, gloves perhaps, from a rich groom to his bride.

These are two of 200 fascinating pieces of furniture in the new top-floor gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. All but 12 items come from the V&A's own collection and each has a story to tell.

Furniture is made for real people, whether in houses or palaces. From pharaohs to potentates, from tsars to Sixties children who were given a flat-pack spotty cardboard tub chair (designed by Peter Murdoch) stamped from a piece of laminated card to make up and love. All the pieces have played a part in real lives.

tub chair
Cardboard tub chairs were loved by children of the Sixties
The long room, with its glazed ceiling, is like a hall at Versailles, while its rare contents explain furniture-making up until now, using the latest screen technology to give information, plus some films.

Some things could be for sale in a very grand Ikea, such as a folding walnut picnic table from about 1500, inlaid with boxwood, ivory and bone; or a simple Surrealist 1939 wardrobe by Eugene Berman, with a powerful trompe l'oeil of a stone archway.

From Imperial Russia there's an ornate steel and silvered-copper "Tula" chair with a slung leather seat. The steel is Damascened, like old armour, which is no surprise as Tula, south of Moscow, made the armour and weapons of the tsars. When replacing its seat, the V&A tracked down a hide from the cargo of a sunken 18th-century ship, in a tiny shop in Falmouth.

A great story is the bentwood French café chair made by the Thonet family business that, in 1855, worked out how to bend solid wood. Before that, curved wood was usually laminated, as in the sumptuously vulgar American sofa by John Henry Belter in 1856 (a belter, with red velvet upholstery and opulent rosewood cresting).

Fractal Table
Platform's Fractal Table II is a modern classic
Thonet's order book exploded with exports across Europe, selling 1.8 million chairs in 1913. Fifty million Thonet No. 14 chairs have been made.

The strength of this new gallery, glittering with gold, mother of pearl, shining wood, mirrors and lacquer, in chairs, tables, trunks, coffers, candelabra and cupboards, is that it also has sections explaining techniques, such as carpentry and joinery, gilding, lacquering, casting and 3D-printing. Actual examples sit next to demonstration pieces.

In one display, a worn green velvet-upholstered 1730 chair from Houghton Hall sits next to an exact replica, from which a quarter has been surgically excised. You can see just how the horsehair padding, webbing and internal structure look and work. It is engrossing.

Panton chair
Verner Panton's classic stacking chair
There are also booths looking at eight designers including Frank Lloyd Wright, and Eileen Gray, the aristocratic Twenties designer who learned traditional lacquering from a Japanese master in Paris.

The techniques of modern design are well represented, including chairs cast from liquid, such as the Verner Panton classic stacking chair. Joe Colombo's sexy orange-red 4801 armchair, for Kartell in 1963, was made of plywood then spray-painted to look like plastic. To show how 3D-printed furniture is made, a film plays alongside the Fractal Table II (3D design, 2007, by Platform).

Wooden Heap
Boris Dennler's Wooden Heap is the gallery's newest piece
The table is based on the form of a dragon tree, the shape of which is turned into 3D algorithms by computer. Next, 0.1mm layers of resin are laid down by computer and laser. The laser sets the resin. The whole process produces a perfect replica.

At one end of the gallery is the newest piece, designed this year in an edition of eight, by Boris Dennler. A reflection on the other priceless items on show, Wooden Heap looks like a pile of wood but is in fact a chest of drawers.

The Dr Susan Weber Gallery, the V&A's permanent gallery for furniture, opens December 1 (

All pictures are copyright Victoria & Albert Museum

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