‘I love Sur­pris­ing People’

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David Lin­ley, the aris­to­cratic fur­ni­ture­maker, on cre­at­ing oneof-a-kind pieces that de­light and as­ton­ish

Royal con­nec­tions aside, David Lin­ley is a crafts­man at heart. Selina Den­man chats with the chair­man of Christie’s UK, who was in Dubai re­cently, about his pas­sion for wood­work and be­spoke in­te­ri­ors, as well as his need to con­stantly in­no­vate and as­ton­ish, all qual­i­ties that have con­trib­uted to the suc­cess of his own lux­ury fur­ni­ture brand, Lin­ley

Ham told in ad­vance that Vis­count Lin­ley will not an­swer any ques­tions about his royal her­itage. He may be Queen El­iz­a­beth’s nephew and 17th in line to the Bri­tish throne,

but he is in Dubai in his ca­pac­ity as the chair­man of Christie’s UK, thank you very much.

If I am hop­ing that I will be able to whee­dle out the odd anec­dote – mem­o­ries from his early years be­ing schooled at Buck­ing­ham Palace, per­haps, or his fa­mous aunt’s re­ac­tion when he de­cided to pur­sue a ca­reer in fur­ni­ture-mak­ing – I am to be dis­ap­pointed. Lin­ley is a charm­ing in­ter­vie­wee – re­laxed, en­gag­ing, gen­er­ous with his time and as in­ter­ested in ask­ing ques­tions as he is in an­swer­ing them – but he is also a sea­soned one; he gives away ex­actly what he wants to, and noth­ing more.

What he will talk about, how­ever, is his Fiat 500. Lin­ley made head­lines last year when he turned up at Buck­ing­ham Palace for the Queen’s pre-Christ­mas lunch in a tiny, blue Fiat 500 – com­plete with a pair of dice dan­gling from the rear-view mir­ror. This is his main Lon­don car, he ex­plains, al­though he is just as likely to be found travers­ing the streets of the cap­i­tal on a bi­cy­cle.

It seems an odd choice for a man who made his name pro­duc­ing in­tri­cately cra ed, high-qual­ity fur­ni­ture for a well-heeled client base. So how does this mi­nus­cule au­to­mo­bile tie in with what Lin­ley de­fines as good de­sign?

“I like beau­ti­ful lit­tle pieces of en­gi­neer­ing like that. It’s very 1970s – it’s the car that saved Italy and it’s the size of this ta­ble. It’s so sim­ple; there’s no ra­dio, so I make the chil­dren sing; there’s noth­ing in it that’s ex­tra­ne­ous. It’s got a clock, a speedome­ter and an ash­tray, and that’s about it. You drive around Lon­don in it and ev­ery­one is in their very large 4x4s and you come to half­way up their wheel. And it makes people smile.”

Lin­ley is a fan of things that make people smile, it seems. On the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of the epony­mous fur­ni­ture brand that he set up in the 1980s, he says: “Ex­cel­lence and en­gi­neer­ing, in­no­va­tion, some­thing un­ex­pected; it’s about mak­ing you smile, hav­ing a slight el­e­ment of wit, and build­ing things to last.”

And on whether or not the chair­man of Christie’s is a col­lec­tor him­self: “I’m a fer­reter. I quite like old books. Not par­tic­u­larly valu­able books but things that are lovely to col­lect. I bought a book for my wife’s birth­day re­cently that was from the 1940s and about horses – she loves horses. It’s al­ways about find­ing some­thing that will put a smile on your face.”

We are tucked away in a cor­ner of the Godol­phin Ball­room in Jumeirah Emi­rates Tow­ers, Dubai, sur­rounded by the pieces that will fea­ture in Christie’s Auc­tion of Mod­ern and Con­tem­po­rary Arab, Ira­nian and Turk­ish Art (in­ci­den­tally, the day a er we speak, the 140 art works on show will sell for a to­tal of Dh39,111,022). We are drink­ing tea – nat­u­rally – and there is some dis­cus­sion about it be­ing too weak; the cap­puc­ci­nos in these parts are also, I learn, slightly lack­ing in punch.

Lin­ley joined Christie’s in 2006. He re­mem­bers driv­ing down King’s Street to the com­pany’s

head­quar­ters on his first day and hav­ing heart pal­pi­ta­tions. “It was the great­est hon­our to be asked. But it was also a great re­spon­si­bil­ity; the ex­cite­ment was see­ing what I could con­trib­ute.”

Of course, the small mat­ter of a global fi­nan­cial melt­down meant that it wasn’t quite smooth sail­ing from there. “It was a bap­tism of fire. 2008 came along and we had to learn a lot of lessons very quickly. The busi­ness rad­i­cally changed. It al­ways shakes one to the core be­cause you are look­ing into the abyss, but op­por­tu­ni­ties come out of it. A lot of in­vest­ment has gone into the com­pany and there have been huge struc­tural changes in terms of how the busi­ness op­er­ates.

“When I started, people ba­si­cally got a cat­a­logue in the mail and the key thing was mak­ing sure that you got the right ad­dress to send it to. Now, most people will say, ‘It’s fine, I’ve al­ready looked at it on­line.’ There’s been a huge shi in people’s needs.”

Born in 1961, the son of Princess Mar­garet, sis­ter to the Queen, and the ac­claimed pho­tog­ra­pher Anthony Arm­strong- Jones, 1st Earl of Snow­don, David Al­bert Charles Arm­strong- Jones, who is known pro­fes­sion­ally as David Lin­ley, at­tended Bedales School in Hamp­shire from the age of 13. It was here that he first de­vel­oped an in­ter­est in wood­work­ing. He went on to study at the Parn­ham Col­lege for Cra smen in Wood, un­der the famed Bri­tish fur­ni­ture de­signer and maker John Make­peace, and set up his own busi­ness, David Lin­ley Fur­ni­ture, straight a er. The com­pany has since been re­branded as Lin­ley.

“I don’t want to make it sound like Hansel and Gre­tel but it was a lit­tle work­shop in the woods and it was very small and just me, and I made a piece a month so it was in­cred­i­bly slow. I was pri­mar­ily a cra sman with an in­ter­est in de­sign but I quickly be­came a cra sman who worked with de­sign­ers. So I’ve al­ways utilised de­sign­ers to make things hap­pen.”

And how did those around him re­spond to his de­ci­sion to pur­sue a ca­reer in cab­i­net-mak­ing? “Both my mother and my grand­mother thought it was fan­tas­tic. It wasn’t greeted with a uni­ver­sal ‘Oh, how mar­vel­lous’, but it was by my mother and fa­ther and grand­mother and the people I lis­tened to. So, I was the mas­ter of my own uni­verse from the age of 18. I didn’t go to univer­sity, which was a bit of a shame – but I sup­pose I went to the univer­sity of life, in­stead.”

To­day, Lin­ley op­er­ates stores in Bel­gravia and May­fair, and in Har­rods and the Burling­ton Ar­cade in Pic­cadilly. The found­ing prin­ci­ples of the brand – a com­mit­ment to cra sman­ship, in­no­va­tive de­sign and pre­ci­sion en­gi­neer­ing – re­main the same, and man­i­fest them­selves in exquisitely put-to­gether fur­ni­ture and be­spoke ac­ces­sories for both res­i­dences and yachts, rang­ing from in­tri­cate cab­i­nets fit­ted with se­cret draw­ers to beau­ti­ful bu­reaus and grand din­ing ta­bles.

Al­though Lin­ley in­sists that he is as in­flu­enced by “go­ing for a walk in Provence as I am by go­ing trav­el­ling on a mo­tor­bike in Amer­ica or go­ing to the mid­dle of the rain­for­est”, Lin­ley re­mains, in essence, a Bri­tish brand, in that ev­ery­thing is still made in Eng­land and there are no plans to open stores out­side of the United King­dom.

And a re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion at the brand’s flag­ship Pim­lico Road store re­it­er­ated Lin­ley’s com­mit­ment to Bri­tish cra sman­ship. A Cel­e­bra­tion of Bri­tish De­sign,

Crafts­man­ship, En­gi­neer­ing and In­no­va­tion (“It’s a catchy ti­tle; we cut it down from the orig­i­nal,” Lin­ley laughs as I stum­ble over the words), was con­ceived dur­ing a leisurely bi­cy­cle ride with a friend, the Bri­tish watch­maker Ge­orge Bam­ford. The ex­hi­bi­tion was de­signed to high­light the idea of “mak­ing” and fea­tured ev­ery­thing from mo­tor­bike pro­duc­ers and cuff­link de­sign­ers to be­spoke milliners and spec­ta­cle spe­cial­ists.

“It was about things that were beau­ti­fully made,” Lin­ley ex­plains. “There was a McLaren car in the win­dow. I love sur­pris­ing people – and the sur­prise was, ‘How the hell did you get that in here?’, be­cause it’s a very small shop and a very big car. We ba­si­cally had to take most of the shop down, which is a story in it­self.”

So what kinds of things does he like to sur­round him­self with in his own home? “Well,” he says, “a sofa has to be bouncy, for chil­dren to use as a launch pad.” Not quite the an­swer I was ex­pect­ing. “I also like to have some of our own pieces, com­bined with an 18th-century din­ing ta­ble, com­bined with lots of books, com­bined per­haps with a bi­cy­cle on the wall. It’s about al­ways mix­ing up one’s ex­pec­ta­tions of what they are go­ing to see. I have works of art by my sis­ter and my chil­dren, and things that I’ve found around the world. I like to have things by people I’ve known and artists I’ve met – so that when you are look­ing at some­thing, you re­mem­ber all kinds of dif­fer­ent things.”

For all his love of cra sman­ship and qual­ity, this is clearly no de­sign snob – as the Fiat 500 and bouncy sofa per­haps tes­tify.

“Bad de­sign is some­thing that is un­re­solved, so good de­sign is prob­a­bly some­thing that has been thor­oughly thought through to a point of res­o­lu­tion. But it is so open to con­jec­ture be­cause it is so per­sonal, so what you might like, I might not like. It’s al­most like ask­ing some­one what lux­ury is.” Er, so now I feel com­pelled to ask: “What does lux­ury mean to you?” “I think lux­ury is time. It means so many dif­fer­ent things to so many dif­fer­ent people. The word lux­ury in terms of lux­ury prod­ucts used to be a loosely termed word for mass-pro­duced, commercial goods. And I don’t think that’s re­ally the case any­more. People have gone up a step. We’ve all got the hand­bag or the wal­let or what­ever it is, but why don’t we get some­thing that’s be­spoke in­stead of off the peg? Why don’t we get a hand­made pair of shoes that lasts six times as long and you know the man who’s made them, so there’s a di­a­logue be­tween the maker and the mar­ket? “What do we mean by a lux­ury hol­i­day? You go to a lux­ury ho­tel and it’s all about spend­ing lots of money when ac­tu­ally if you rented a cot­tage in the English coun­try­side and you got up in the morn­ing and you went and found some de­li­cious bread in a bak­ery and some cof­fee and a melon and the pa­pers, that to my mind would be my idea of lux­ury. But it might not be ev­ery­body’s.”

As the in­ter­view draws to a close, we in­ex­pli­ca­bly find our­selves talk­ing about the di­nosaur cur­rently on show in The Dubai Mall and the com­pe­ti­tion to find an ap­pro­pri­ate name for this new UAE res­i­dent.

“Diana?” Lin­ley ven­tures. I pause. Is this the royal “in” I’ve been wait­ing for? “Diana-saurus,” he continues, with a faint smile and roll of his eyes. Ah, yes. I see. A er over an hour in his com­pany, Vis­count Lin­ley is still some­thing of an enigma. And as pleas­ant and pa­tient as he has been, I’m pretty sure that he is re­lieved when our in­ter­view is over – I sus­pect that his in­ter­ac­tions with the press have not al­ways been en­joy­able. And yet, as we part ways, he sur­prises me one last time, with a “Do look us up the next time you are in Lon­don”. Be­cause I think he might even mean it.


David Lin­ley took over as the chair­man of Christie’s UK in 2006, al­though his Lin­ley la­bel had col­lab­o­rated with the auc­tion house many times prior to that.

ONE WITH THE CRAFTS Lin­ley got into the be­spoke fur­ni­ture busi­ness in the 1980s, right a er his stint at the Parham Col­lege for Cra smen in Wood, based in Dorset.

STUDY IN CON­TRASTS Princess Mar­garet, le , hold­ing Lin­ley as a baby, his fa­ther, Anthony Arm­strong- Jones, and the Queen Mother, right, at Clarence House. Above, the Fiat 500 in which Lin­ley and his daugh­ter, Mar­garita, drove to the Queen’s pre-Christ­mas lunch last year.

DE­SIGNER SEN­SI­BIL­I­TIES An out­door teak collection by Lin­ley. Be­low, clock­wise from le , the Rolls-Royce Aero­space Fan Blade; a cra sman at work; Deakin and Fran­cis cufflinks, all show­cased at a de­sign and in­no­va­tion ex­hi­bi­tion held re­cently at Lin­ley’s flag­ship store in Lon­don.

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