A short history of furniture from the V&A

Simon Swynfen Jervis selects his highlights from the V&A, spanning five centuries


Henry VIII writing desk

English, 16th century

This was made in the court workshops of Henry VIII, probably around 1520-27. The exterior is covered with shagreen, with gilt metal handles and feet added in the 18th century. It is lined with leather, painted with the heraldic badges of Henry and his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, and the royal coat of arms. The decoration includes portraits in the style of miniatures, which became popular after 1520. The compartments are lined with red silk velvet, most likely a 19th-century addition.

Pierre Gole cabinet

French, 17th century

Veneered with floral marquetry in ivory, tortoiseshell, bone and various woods, this is a delicate version of the type of luxury furniture popular in Europe at the time. Larger versions survive, but only two of these miniature versions are known. The use of ivory as a veneer developed in the 1620s, but Pierre Gole (1615-84), the royal cabinet maker in Paris, was unique in using it as a ground for marquetry in brightly coloured woods. Almost certainly made between 1661 and 1665 for the household of the Duc d’Orléans, brother of Louis XIV.

Piffetti casket

Italian, 18th century

By the 1740s, the most luxurious Italian furniture was being produced in Turin, in the workshop of Piero Piffetti (1700-77). His works are characterised by the abundant use of inlays of exotic woods, ivory and mother-of-pearl, lavished on objects and complete interiors. This mother-of-pearl casket and stand is pure Rococo style, using watery themes for decoration: the casket is in the form of a conch, the overlapping mother-of-pearl panels resemble fish scales, the mount incorporates sea creatures and rocaille elements as used in fountains and grottoes.

Burges Yatman cabinet

English, 19th century

Commissioned in 1858 in Gothic Revival style by Herbert Yatman, possibly for his London home, this cabinet transforms into a desk, with a concealed writing flap, and the dormer windows containing a calendar. William Burges (1827-81) based his design on two Medieval armoires, at Bayeux and Noyon. The decoration, by Sir Edward John Poynter, relates to themes of writing and printing: the story of Cadmus, who is believed to have introduced the alphabet to the ancient Greeks; the cutting of cuneiform letters; the poet Dante Alighieri and the printer William Caxton.

Eames storage unit

American, 20th century

Designed by Charles (1907-78) and Ray (1912-88) Eames, and manufactured by Herman Miller from 1950 to 1952, the Eames Storage Unit was marketed as a modestly priced system for the modern interior. Users could design their own storage through an arrangement of panels, drawers, materials, colours and finishes. The design, inspired by German modular storage systems developed in the 1920s and early 20th-century American metal office furniture, it also references the famous Eames House in Los Angeles, which uses a steel framework inlaid with coloured panels.