‘I love Surprising People’
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.
PROMOTING THE ARTS
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.