We meet David Linley, as passionate as ever about craftsmanship and creativity as the Linley brand celebrates its 30th birthday
We meet the man behind the iconic furniture brand.
In the age of mass manufacture and instant consumption, craftsmanship is under pressure. We can appreciate the skilled workmanship that goes into making a Patek Philippe watch, a Purdey shotgun, a Savile Row suit and a pair of John Lobb shoes because we view them as long-term investments, but there is always the pressure on the very top brands to locate and train people who want to produce to such high standards. It can take ten years to train a gem-setter in the ateliers of the Place Vendôme or a master tailor, and in the modern world few are willing or patient enough to devote that time and dedication to learn a craft.
So David Linley, who trained at Parnham House School in Dorset with the great furniture-maker John Makepeace, has worked hard to find not only British cabinetmakers who can craft his beautifully stylish furniture, but also marquetarians, carvers, gilders and all the other specialist skills that go into making his modern heirlooms. Some of these ancient skills like marquetry might have died out by now if it weren’t for the support and nurture of designers like Linley.
“Clients have always come to Linley because they appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into every piece,” explains David Linley. “That said, in recent years there has definitely been a resurgence in demand for things that are handcrafted, especially in the UK.”
This year marks 30 years since David Linley, the Queen’s nephew, flouted aristocratic convention and launched his first collection at the Victoria and Albert in 1985. The anniversary is, in part, to be celebrated with a special summer school to be held in Wiltshire to give ten exceptional design students hands-on practical experience with master craftsmen, which he hopes will inspire more to consider cabinetmaking as a career, much as John Makepeace inspired him.
Linley’s design team works with nine workshops and well over 200 different craftsmen, who are constantly challenging traditional techniques, coming up with imaginative, individual and innovative ideas to amaze and seduce his clientele. At the heart of Linley is a passion for wood and he has built a reputation on his imaginative use of it that over the years has become a common theme to each bespoke commission. “In the early days everyone was using brown veneers, but I wanted to use swathes of colour,” he says.
A foray around the Linley showroom in Belgravia illustrates that with eye-catching effect. There is a display of his Triangle collection of home and gift items (mirrors, boxes and lamps) constructed with colourful geometric patterns in softly toned hand-dyed wood veneer marquetry. It is a very versatile skill: geometric and graphic patterns are a signature of the Linley look, but also there is the artistry of the city skylines recreated in delicate, blue and grey-tone marquetry for the lid of his
Landmark boxes. Eucalyptus, sycamore, birch and bolivar are just a few of the wood veneers used, all of them sustainably sourced. Oak and walnut are sourced for furniture and he tries to use as much British wood as possible.
Innovating traditional crafts skills is at the core of David Linley’s philosophy. “This has been my aim since I began Skyfall making furniture as a teenager and started the business 30 years ago,” he points out, having learned to make his own toys in the Kensington Palace workshop as a child. “In fact, I still sit at the desk that I made for myself aged 14, which says something about its construction!” Observation, an eye for detail and finding solutions for design problems are characteristics that he learnt from his father, the renowned photographer Anthony Armstrong-jones, Lord Snowdon.
Desks are a success story for Linley’s brand with the bespoke Riviera desk, inspired by the lines of a wooden yacht, proving to be his bestseller over the years. Bespoke is the core of the business – some 35-40 per cent of turnover this year is with private clients. Desks, dining tables, intricate marquetry screens and fitted cabinetry dominate the order books, but the remarkable wood-lined wine room, created in collaboration with Penfolds, in the Belgravia showroom may inspire future commissions.
Superyacht owners have been drawn to his designs with regular commissions for bespoke furniture for yachts, such as the desks and the dining suites. “They are usually the stand-out pieces on a superyacht, from the owner’s desk riddled with secret drawers or a magnificent fitted bar, to integrated marquetry artwork panels,” recalls Linley, who will not confirm where they were destined. However, he has collaborated a number of times with Bannenberg & Rowell and is known to have contributed a few pieces to the 75-metre sailing yacht Mirabella V (now M5), built at VT Shipbuilding in 2003, and the 72.8-metre Feadship Predator. Commissions can come from the yacht designers as well as the owner. Linley is also the destination for smaller, finishing touches such as photograph frames or hand-blown lead crystal.
The designer introduced the smaller home accessories to his furniture range in 1993 when he moved from his first showroom in the New King’s Road to his present premises on the Pimlico Road, and he has cherry-picked eight of his iconic classic designs as re-editions to celebrate his milestone anniversary. There is, for instance, the Crescent fruit bowl based on the walnut fruit bowl he designed in 1985 but now
“Clients come to us because they APPRECIATE the CRAFTSMANSHIP in every piece”
more streamlined. There is also the cheese doorstop, now being attacked by a little pewter mouse. Linley is a fan of things that make people smile.
“Just because an object is functional, doesn’t mean it has to be dull. There is something very British about the Linley sense of humour – it’s fun, clever and charming.” The Great Fire matchbox sleeve is an amusing example, with motifs of flames, St Paul’s Cathedral, and a chef’s hat (a reference to Pudding Lane where the Great Fire started in 1666) depicted in marquetry, and the gentleman’s cufflink box with inlaid bowler hat and bow tie motifs.
“Wit and charm are qualities I’m always encouraging our designers to use in their work,” he says. It is true that a few small details can give an inanimate object character and soul, especially if it is something that is unexpected. He recalls how as a child his grandmother challenged him to locate a letter that was hidden in a bureau and ever since then he has enjoyed concealing drawers and compartments in his cabinetry. “There’s nothing I love more than seeing the look of amazement when someone finds a secret drawer within a desk or cabinet – their perception of design, craftsmanship and engineering changes in an instant,” he says.
“Getting things brilliantly made in Britain by hand,” he adds, “Along with inquisitiveness, and having a sense of humour about what you are making, were all things that were very much encouraged by my parents”.
As one of Britain’s most influential furniture designers, he regrets that he has little time to be involved in the design process himself these days as he couples his role at Linley with honorary chairmanship of Christie’s, which necessitates a great deal of travel. “I miss it,” he tells us. Meanwhile, however, he is constantly snapping ideas on his camera from his travels to send back to his team. He came across “a magical piece of mosaic” that he saw in Doha last year that has inspired the Girih Treasure Chest, a masterpiece that will be launched shortly.
He admits that what he enjoyed most at school (Bedales) was carpentry – designing, making, restoring and repairing – and he regrets not having the time nowadays to spend with the artisans in the workshops. However, he says: “We have such incredible talent in the design studio and workshops that I am content with only picking up a chisel or planer when I’m tinkering in my workshop at home.” SYW
“Wit and charm are QUALITIES i’m always Encouraging our designers to use in their work”