Talking exclusively to William Cash, Viscount Linley recalls a life in furniture — and in the spotlight — as his business turns 25 and he faces 50
DAVID LINLEY MAY be a nephew of the Queen, an award-winning furniture designer and the heir to an earldom, but the last time I saw him, before our interview, he was dressed in a day-glo yellow cyclist’s jacket and was standing by the door at Christie’s, looking more like a security guard than the international auction house’s titled chairman. As guests arrived at Christie’s at a cocktail party for Mikhail Gorbachev’s 80th birthday, most simply waltzed straight past the nondescript figure holding a bicycle helmet.
Preferring the role of the observer or artist looking in, rather than the showman seeking the limelight, is typical David. ‘I don’t think my sister [Lady Sarah Chatto] and I were ever born to be on the stage,’ he says. ‘I’ve had to do quite a lot to push myself to be the person making the speech at the dinner, or to be the life and soul of the party.’
But when he does speak, as he did introducing the Spear’s Wealth Management Awards at Christie’s in 2009 in front of more than 500 guests, he invariably displays the insouciant wit that has long marked him out as being different from other members of the ‘firm’. ‘I won’t pontificate. I do what I’ve been asked to do with a sense of humour and get on with it, rather than bore people’s pants off because I like the sound of my voice.’
Viscount Linley turns 50 later this year, and he is also celebrating the 25th anniversary of his Linley furniture business. If there’s one thing that seems to mark both these major personal milestones, it is a re-ordered sense of life’s priorities. ‘I have come to realise my own mortality,’ he says, with a grim chuckle. ‘Being healthy is a very important aspect: what you eat, what you drink, what time you go to bed, things which I’d paid absolutely no regard to at all. I bicycle everywhere and I try to keep a little bit fit by running every now and then.’
His morning bike ride to the showroom is not wholly pleasurable: ‘Bloody cold, it’s just endless — the thing about being English is that we are not resilient to the cold.’ But while talking about the weather may be a peculiarly English — and Royal — way to begin a conversation, it only takes one sip of espresso before he gives an example of the disarming and self-deprecating humour that has always singled him out and made him difficult to place — and difficult not to like.
When I mentioned that the ‘bloody cold’ had given a horticultural serial-killer version of chilblains to a dozen bay trees I had recently planted in the country, Linley replied: ‘I spent a merry Christmas Day morning in Ireland with my children and various brooms, sweeping off the snow from all the bay trees in the garden. There were lots of them. And it wasn’t even my house!’
This anecdote also reveals how he has been trying to get the balance right between family and work. He has two children — Charles, eleven, and Margarita (named after David’s mother, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon), who will be a bridesmaid at the Royal wedding.
Ask David’s friends, and they will say that ever since he set up Linley 25 years ago — after establishing a furniture collective in Dorking with two other students from the Parnham House School for Craftsmen in Wood, and living in a one-bed flat above a fish-and-chip shop — he has always been work-obsessed. ‘My business life is my personal life,’ he says. ‘I don’t tend to do much apart from sleep,’ he says, half jokingly.
Has he got a wish list for a possible 50th-birthday present? ‘I like all sorts of mad things that people won’t particularly recognise. I don’t like anything that is terribly, overtly valuable, funnily enough. I’ve sort of been through all that, yearning for something that is valuable. Now I look for the subtleties of what the object is and what it stands for.’
Linley’s signature work has always incorporated an element of the neo-classical. As you walk into his showroom, you almost expect a Latin inscription such as Labor omnia vincit (Work conquers all) to be inlaid in the reception counter. One of his favourite pieces that his craftsmen made, over a decade ago, was the Septimius Severus Desk, which was modelled on the Triumphal Arch in Rome dedicated to achievements of that emperor and including seven original coins minted during his reign.
The piece was sold when a wealthy foreign visitor happened to be passing the window and stepped into Linley’s showroom to get out of the rain. Half an hour later he had bought the desk for £110,000. The Septimius desk is a typical example of the one-off pieces Linley has been making for 25 years and have become highly sought-after as collectable pieces.
Another recent one-off is the Monte Carlo Desk, a writing desk which features Monaco’s Casino as the architectural centrepiece, flanked on either side with stylised archways, again classically inspired. The detail is immaculate and unique: the desk was built from American walnut with inlays of Santos rosewood and sycamore, with the desk covered in dark red leather. Inside the desk are six secret pull-out drawers, each released by a unique and different mechanism.
Deco dining table in dark stained walnut and Macassar ebony with nickel and beading
SIR ROY STRONG, former director of the V&A, went on record a decade ago as saying that Linley’s furniture will be the ‘antiques of the future’. And Strong, always something of a design prophet, has been proved right. Last year, Linley had the enjoyable experience of seeing a Linley mirror made in 1993 (from a 1985 design) sell at Christie’s South Kensington for over £3,000, on a low estimate of £700.
‘It was a limited edition so we know what number it is and who originally bought it. And again, while we didn’t purchase it, it’s nice to know that when they go through the rooms they have the opportunity to come here and check its provenance, and that’s quite fun.’
With the Linley provenance now increasingly collectable, it’s little surprise that he is now following the example of the world’s most iconic jewellery, design and luxury firms and going to bed with obscure auction catalogues by his bed. ‘I’ve started buying things back, which I call vintage, because I think there is a growing market for the next generation to buy things made by us twenty years ago. They are still as good as they were, and if they’re not they come in and get refurbished.’
While this year’s anniversary may not be including a retrospective of the Linley oeuvre at the V&A (one suspects it won’t be too long before there is a such a museum show), he does have plans to exhibit some of his favourite items of early furniture in his Pimlico Road showroom alongside the current range, which includes models of famous wine châteaux (made for the Antique Wine Company), jewellery boxes, humidors, fitted libraries, bespoke marquetry panelling (such as inside the private dining room at Hoare’s) and such Linley classics as his leather backgammon sets.
As we talk, I notice that a bespoke Scrabble set has been set out in front of us with the word ‘LINLEY’ spelt out on the luxuriously detailed board. The only good thing, I once grimly reflected, about being divorced twice is that one generous friend has actually bought me a pair of Linley book-ends each time round. I now have a pair of pairs.
The Linley showroom is nothing but eclectic, reflecting the quirky and often unexpected side of Linley himself, who is very rarely predictable or stuffy. As David takes me around the showroom, I browse through the books in a breakfront bookcase at the rear of the showroom, and see a copy of Venice: The Rough Guide. Pure David.
When I ask what is more important to him today — making Linley commercially successful as a global luxury name or continuing to create unique ‘one-off’ works of art that have provenance — he replies that he is now at a stage with his business where he needs to get the balance right. ‘The trick now, from a business perspective, is to gather the group together and say, “You’ve done this, well done guys, but where can we go from here? How can we grow? What can we do?”’
In the first two decades there was a lot of travelling to New York and being fêted by society there in order to promote the Linley brand. He’d be taken out for a cheeseburger with society writer William Norwich and have a chic little soirée thrown for him by the likes of socialite Nan Kempner at her salon apartment, but not all this social fawning over the Queen’s nephew necessarily translated into mainstream bucks and commercial success. Today, an exclusive selection of humidors is available through Nat Sherman in New York.
But selling a few cigar accessories won’t pay the bills. These days he is more inclined to travel to Russia (part of the Linley business is owned by the Russian oligarch Sergei Pugachev, worth an estimated £3.5 billion and known to have close ties with Vladimir Putin), where his interior design team is currently working on a super high-end development in Moscow.
And then there is China and the Middle East. In particular Linley is forging bonds with super-wealthy Qatar, whose Royal family has recently bought Harrods (sponsor of the inaugural Spear’s Design for Living Awards, to be held at Jack Barclay in Barclay Square on 18 May). Linley’s team are already working on an exclusive deal with Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art, involving a commission to create complex and intricate architectural models of the renowned museum to be given as VVIP gifts to foreign heads of state.
Linley opened its first concession at Harrods before Christmas, the first step of expansion of the Linley gifts and accessories range. Although he talks about the current Linley operation being run on a ‘shoestring’ budget, he is clearly ambitious for Linley to join the global ranks of such brands as Loro Piana, a brand he singles out — not least as David is a good customer himself.
‘I understand the concept of their store and why they chose the beige and the oak interior,’ he says. ‘It’s such a brilliant concept and a lifestyle that works. They all wear beige but I’d like them all not to wear those clickety-clack shoes, which drive me nuts. And when you go in there, there’s a woman called Philippa who looks after me, and she says, “Have you lost weight?” and immediately you feel, “I like this person.”’
Loro Piana is clearly an inspiration. ‘I always like to compare myself with Piana, whom I greatly admire, and Hermès. When Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermès [who took the brand global in the Eighties] was alive he was just the exemplification of luxury inventiveness. He drew everything and always had a notepad with him; he was always noticing and observant, which is something I try to teach my children to be. I suppose the culture when I was brought up, with both parents taking me to see how things were made, or in my mother’s case going round and opening things, always interested me. So from that perspective it’s always trying to achieve the highest level and saying, “Is it the best of its type?” This can be quite annoying for other people, but I think it’s important.’
Linley gives the example of a problem he once had with some clocks that didn’t work properly. ‘We didn’t make them so we had no control over them. I had to put my reputation on the line and I failed. I chose the wrong product, and it can be incredibly frustrating because I learnt that you can’t actually get a manually wound, British-made clock movement — something I’d like to see’.
This is ironic, as Linley has quite a serious personal watch collection; watches are something he very much enjoys talking about. He shows me the watch he is wearing, a gift from his father. It looks nothing special but then he casually drops into the conversation that it is the same model that Neil Armstrong wore when he landed on the moon.
Linley might have built up a highly successful and very English luxury design brand that makes some of the most exquisite and quirky bespoke cabinets, desks (hidden drawers being a speciality), dining room tables and inlaid humidors, but he resolutely refuses to fit in any sort of box himself. While his team of craftsmen only use the most precise methods of hand-planing to bring out the very best texture of his specially chosen woods — ranging from inlaid walnut, rosewood and sycamore to exotic Macassar ebony — there has always been something about Linley himself that has remained very much against the grain.
The Finsbury desk in walnut and cedar wood
PART OF HIS obsession with making only the very best comes from the brilliant theatrical set designer Oliver Messel, Linley’s great-uncle and a close friend of Princess Margaret. Messel (the subject of a forthcoming book by Country Life architectural writer Jeremy Musson) built many of the early houses in Mustique, including the Guinness houses and Les Jolies Eaux, his mother’s old villa (given to her by the late Colin Tennant), which he was given by his mother and owned for seven years in order to avoid inheritance tax.
David clearly learnt from Messel’s discriminating eye. ‘What Oliver created in Mustique, which was absolutely right, was a building that was appropriate to the size of the island, in a beautiful way. Today’s new rich won’t put up with such designs, they’re too small and they’re too simple.’
Does he feel that he has done enough? Or does he subscribe to the Graham Greene view that ‘no man is ever a success to himself’? Linley is always quite hard on himself and it comes as no surprise that he puts himself firmly in the Greene school of self-assessment. ‘I have two worlds of work, and then I have my family, and they all take “time in one’s head” and as I have got older, it’s increasingly about trying to make sure that you give everyone a fair amount.’
Work usually wins, one senses. Whether it was starting out as a teenage photographer, or forever travelling as he built up his furniture basis, work has partly been his chosen way of escape from his uniquely privileged background, which seems to have been part prison, part palace of golden doors (he was born at Clarence House and was brought up in Kensington Palace). Part of his ongoing ambition has been to do with the need to prove something; whether it’s to himself, his father (who turned 81 recently) or to the rest of the world, I’m not even sure that Linley knows himself.
‘My dad always brought me up with this work ethic,’ he says. ‘When the Aston Martin broke down, he’d always put it together again and made it work, so it proves that you can make it work.’ Linley’s relationship with his mother was complex yet close. He has his mother’s gift for sizing people up and for sharp observation: I was warned that he can spot a pair of non-matching cufflinks at a dozen yards. One guesses that he also has his mother’s talent for froideur, if provoked.
‘She was very clever, very bright, and did the Times crossword very quickly in the morning. She got it, and was witty and didn’t suffer fools. The parties that she had in my youth were very glamorous [he apparently used to get the likes of Frank Sinatra and Mick Jagger to sign the wallpaper in his bedroom]. We’d go to a Royal Ballet rehearsal and would meet with Freddie Ashton, there was always an elegance and sophistication.’
JUST AS LINLEY admits to having got his acquisitive streak out of his system, I wondered if this early exposure to celebrity had inured him from ever being star-struck? ‘If the most famous woman in the world was in here in my shop, I’d sort of say to myself, “Right, quite scary. But it’s my shop.” And then I’d think, “No you can’t think that.” So I’m usually very reverential and I’m always quite scared of meeting people for the first time.
‘I’m not star-struck. Let’s say it’s someone that I’ve listened to musically, a singer, there’s a moment when I think, “Well, what are they going to think of me?” Suddenly you’re talking to somebody you’ve had on your wall at school, and it’s kind of weird. But you carry on, and realise they’re coming to the shop for a reason.’
I mention that before our interview, I had popped into the Daylesford Café next door and bumped into Roman Abramovich at the cheese counter. Abramovich could buy out Linley’s entire stock just to fill one of his yachts.
‘It’s interesting because that’s not normally the case,’ says Linley. ‘You read about all these people and their wealth, but I tell people in the shop, “You just have to treat everyone exactly the same. Even if it’s somebody coming in to buy a doorstop, they have to have the Rolls-Royce Linley treatment. You can’t make assumptions about people.”’
David gives the example of a ‘nice elderly lady’ who came into the shop and a staff member gave her a cup of tea and sat her down. ‘And as she left, he said, “Can I help you with anything?” and she said, “No, I don’t think so,” but he felt he must give her something. So he gave her a packet of pencils. She came back the next day and bought a dining room table, twelve chairs, a sideboard, a mirror.’
These days, Linley is possibly at his happiest at his home in Luberon, in the South of France. He calls it a ‘haven of peace’ and it is the only place that he has a garden, woods and workshop, all together. His wife Serena also has her own factory, where she conjures up new smells for her range of scented Provençal products that she sells at her new shop in Walton Street.
Just don’t ever refer to the French house as their holiday home: ‘I was brought up to always work, so the idea of calling it a holiday house would just kill me.’
Photo of David Linley by Andy Paradise