Making furniture for David Linley at the Mark Asplin Whiteley workshop in Whitby.
Having spent the last 10 years in Cornwall working mostly alone on my own designs, I’ve been thinking back and remembering what it was like being part of one of the biggest luxury furniture workshops in Britain and what I learned working alongside an international team of craftsmen and woman from all over the world… Australia, Japan, South Africa, Norway, Austria, etc, all under 30 and keen to work toward excellence. It even had it’s own canteen with a chef and manned tool store with access to whatever you wanted.
At the time I didn’t quite realise how professional and unique the set up was. You would be pushed and challenged all the time by making pieces which reached beyond your capabilities, you were forced to learn as you went along and very much thrown in at the deep end and had to work to a constrained deadline. I’ve always enjoyed being out of my depth as it forces you to think on your feet and pushes you to excel. You don’t know if you can do anything unless you are pushed and forced to try, having those high stakes, where it’s both costly and potentially embarrassing if you fail makes you try much harder than you otherwise would. It was also a huge risk on Marks part to trust novice makers in this way and I’m grateful for the experience, and the belief and self confidence this approach cultivated.
In his own words;
‘Craft requires a state of mind that is fully attentive; it requires, so to speak, being ‘in the flow’. If you have ever watched a craftsperson, there is a certain peace about them: a total psychological unity with their work. Being reactive and responsive to the material, while also having thought through the construction, based on previous experience, is what craft is all about. It requires continuous and considered sensing of the form and of the design.’
‘For a craftsperson to thrive, the culture in the workshop must support the maker to achieve his or her potential. When one has twenty to thirty makers, each with different levels of experience and ability doing bespoke unique pieces, the style of management must fit this mix. The culture of the workshop is about creating an environment that celebrates quality through creativity’ M.A. Whiteley
The very first drawings we received, working with other makers straight from Leeds College of Art and Design, was for making outdoor furniture with lots of dovetails in oak, commissioned by Country Life magazine for the Chelsea Flower show. This was when the workshop was still in Cirencester. I think I’m correct in remembering that the oak trees we used were from Windsor great park which came down in the 1987 storms. On completion, the magazine ran a feature with photos of the Queen and extended royal family sat on what we had just made, which I still have a cutting of somewhere. This was typical of all the work carried out for Viscount Linley as clients were always high profile, royal or celebrity. Elton John was a huge client and much fun could be had walking around and looking at the names on the drawings to see who each piece was for. In the days before the internet you’d have to speculate or ask someone who they were, though it was usually someone you’d heard of. Most of the conversations, were about making or techniques and clients and tools. Once a month we’d all book a huge upstairs table and eat together in a local restaurant in Whitby, in the days when you still smoke cigars inside and order brandy after dinner, the bill would be split evenly every time. This was back in the day when people used to go out. During this period, I met Linley about 4 times, an entourage of black range rovers and long black coats would turn up, usually with cameras for publicity work, and he would try and get round and talk to makers and ask what you were working on, he always seemed quite down to earth, approachable and interested.
The drawings were usually not really detailed and the construction would have to be worked out and a cutting list put together and an order for materials and cutters in some cases. A standard desk with two drawers would take around a month to make and you would usually work on several pieces at a time, sometimes teaming up with makers on larger jobs like the big table for the G8 summit. Once everything was sanded, it was sent into a spray booth and lacquered and had to pass a strict quality control. All the machinery was taken for granted, you assume that every workshop is set up this way, it’s only later you realise that you will never experience the like again.
I was never an excellent furniture maker, though in the end I became very good at marquetry and could make a reasonable dovetailed drawer. The discipline, skill, knowledge and complexity of the work takes years to learn and to get right every time, and then you become good at making a particular type of furniture a certain way. This has stood me in good stead but after 2 years felt I had learned enough about ‘engineering in wood’ as we called it and wanted to travel. Although there was an international team going out to fit in places like Hong Kong and New York, which always seemed more adventurous than being stuck at the bench, you needed to be experienced and get in with the right people. Going to work on the super yachts in Holland seemed more appealing and so I started the next 10 years working on yachts and wooden boats and other high quality work which turned out to be even more challenging due to all the curves and compound angles. I remembered learning how to ‘see’ for the first time as you’d have to sight through a fair line over distance and look at things from changing perspectives, something which is only marginally important on furniture as the pieces are relatively small.
Throughout my 20’s and 30’s I was lucky enough to work on some great projects and learn from great craftsmen and get to look around and work inside some of the most prestigious private addresses in Britain. It’s good to know how things are made at the highest level and the quality looked for in finish and materials. Often what the very wealthy pay for lacks in warmth and taste with few exceptions, with houses looking like hotels, but it’s great to have an insight into how other people live and the kind of things they collect.
Working this way on high quality, challenging jobs where if you make a mistake it’s both expensive and embarrassing as there are lots of other makers watching, this pressure forces you to give your best and to confess early if something has gone wrong, or ask if you don’t know, as there is no hiding from cut corners or bad procedure in furniture making, it always shows up down the line and often looms larger than the original problem.
For me there was always something missing, working on bespoke furniture or yachts or wooden boats. Things have to be done a certain way and that’s it, you don’t get to have a say in how things are made or to express yourself freely like you can designing for yourself and direct carving in wood. I think it’s being able to express yourself through your own ideas which is the most important thing if you are a creative person. This is what I have come to value the most, though thinking about it now, at root is the desire to challenge yourself and feel out of your depth and to engage with the unknown, everything else vanishes and the mind becomes engaged with the object before you. This is what carving 3d objects is for me, working between art, craft and design, it’s an exhilarating space to be in, and the only place to be, once you’ve tried everything else. On carving a large piece of wood there is no going back once committed or any room for error. Probably it’s what I was striving towards all along, even though at the time, you don’t realise it, being unaware of all the options or feeling like you lack the skill, experience and confidence to follow your own path. Anyway, this is where I find myself now, age 46 and feeling like I have only just started the fun stuff.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!