On a recent work trip to London, I played hooky and escaped to one of the greatest meccas for interior designers, the V&A, a/k/a the Victoria and Albert Museum. Located in the heart of South Kensington, this impressive stone and brick edifice is one of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the world and stretches as far as the eye’s peripheral vision can behold, looming majestically over Cromwell and Exhibition roads. It officially opened in 1857, at a time when fine craftsmanship and great art had never been made accessible to the common man, but lay cloistered away in the palaces, great manor homes and grand townhouses. The museum’s original director, Henry Cole, described the Victoria and Albert as “a museum that should be a school room for everyone.”The ever-enterprising Brits, with their Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, were determined not only to educate the working class in fine craftsmanship, but also to inspire designers and manufacturers to improve their products and skills. The public display of these examples of excellence raised the standards of English artisans, creating an international demand for British goods, which brought wealth back into the coffers of Great Britain. It was not simply cultural artistic achievement and national pride that the founders of this museum strove for, it just made good economic sense.
Upon entering the V&A, I was not fundamentally aware of this mission statement, but within a very short span of time, recognized that I was in a vast, fascinating schoolroom designed to astonish and amaze. It immediately gripped my attention and never let go.
Since I was currently laboring over a gate design, struggling for ideas for clasps and locks, I visited the “Materials and Techniques Room.”
“Room” is an understatement. The ironwork gallery alone, packed with examples dating from the early Vikings through the Spanish Renaissance, through Hector Guimard’s fabulous Metro designs up to the gates designed by the Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, stretched the length of a football stadium (not just the field). I indeed returned with truly inspired ideas! A lover of blue and white china, I was overwhelmed by the cases upon cases of every culture’s interpretation of the blue and white theme—whether it be Chinese Ming, Dutch Delft, French Sèvres, Portuguese pottery, Mayan shards or Japanese Raku—proof to me that my love of blue and white crockery wasn’t something mildly trendy, old-fashioned or a personal obsession. I saw through their enormous exhibition that all cultures have engaged in a similar ongoing and historical passion for this particular combination.
Turning the ceramics corner into the porcelains galleries, I stumbled into what seemed like throngs of figurines, stunning 18th- and 19th-century examples of Meissen and Dresden porcelain sculpture at its most graceful lyrical apogee. I even discovered examples of pieces my grandmother owned and my mother blithely placed in our garage sale—sniffling that “they were just too silly looking.”
The most elaborate Majolica stove, be-swagged and be-ribboned in gleaming mustard stoneware, dominated one of the entrances to the Architectural Ceramics Gallery. Farther on, thousands of examples of ceramics spanning every decade of the 20th century crowded the cases alongside examples of architectural terra-cotta, which were used so lavishly throughout London, and for that matter, New York, as well.
A celebration of English silver, arguably the finest in the world, spread forth before me in both the sacred silver rooms and the enormous silver galleries—so glittery my eyes glossed over. One might find it difficult to conceive of the enormity of some of the sky-lit architectural galleries where medieval staircases and Renaissance window and balcony facades are showcased. Gigantic columns, gothic overdoors and gracefully carved effigies of monarchs line these sun-filled caverns.
Of course, one must visit the Great Bed of Ware—the first four-poster ever. (And yes—the entire family slept in it at once!) Canova’s “Three Graces” will make you melt. The Robert Adams galleries will prove once again why his neoclassic designs have never gone out of style. To see some of Thomas Chippendale’s greatest designs will expose you to the fluid comfort and perfect proportions of his Rococo influence. And James Cox’s perpetual motion clock, barometrically fueled by mercury, is both an achievement of scientific excellence and master cabinetry.
Although I couldn’t possibly run the seven miles of hallway exhibitions that the Victoria and Albert are host to, I could sup in the most exquisite tile room, a confection of embossed and sculptured terra-cotta so imaginative I could hardly finish my roasted duckling a l’orange, which was excellent, I might add.
Although I witnessed the inner garden courtyard on a hot London afternoon with small children splashing about in the shallow oval pool and sun-worshiping Londoners relishing the rays, the V&A is a perfect day spent out of the usual London drizzle and a must-see for anyone with an inkling of interest in design, architecture, crafts and the home. Don’t go for the V&A’s fashion exhibits (I saw a dreary one on the history of the wedding dress), because the Met has them beat hands down. However, for ceramics, glass, textiles, silver, ironwork, sculpture, furniture and broad views of objects from China, Korea and the Islamic world, this is the place.
An entire wing is also dedicated to art, craft, architecture and dress, assembled by time periods, so that one can see the progression and observe how each historical period’s point of view expressed itself in every medium. These are not simply period rooms, but they are period experiences and I can’t recommend this museum enough.