The Linley look

Nephew of the Queen, son of Princess Margaret and bespoke furniture designer to the stars – David, Viscount Linley designs with pride.

Today, there are two Linley shops: in London’s Pimlico Road and Albemarle Street, with discerning clients – collectors include Oprah Winfrey, Carolina Herrera, Jo Malone and top interior designers such as Nina Campbell.

David Linley in his workshop
David Linley in his workshop

After studying furniture-making under John Makepeace at the prestigious Parnham House School for Craftsmen in Wood and having his own “freezing” workshop in Surrey (“it was so cold wood would split during the night”), David, Viscount Linley and his then business partner artist Matthew Rice rented a shop. At its opening, Sir Roy Strong, then Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum declared, “David Linley’s furniture will become the antiques of the future.”

“It’s difficult to make yourself known at first. You’ve got to have a ‘look’.” Then David found a lot of sycamore – known as the weed of the forest – in a local timberyard and created an interest in blond furniture. Fascinated by engineering and joinery, he also began to update 17th-century Dutch ideas by making intricate designs in marquetry and creating pieces with his favourite secret drawers: “dolls’ houses for boys”.

Linley 'Art Deco' Suite at Claridge's
Linley ‘Art Deco’ Suite at Claridge’s

A Linley best-seller today is the Tricks Box, a tiny square which can only be opened by moving its sides in series to reveal two small dice. I still haven’t quite mastered it. Finding a supply of mahogany and walnut in an East End timberyard first gave him the idea “to paint in wood”. He and Rice copied in marquetry a beautiful Venetian watercolour the artist had done on to a folding screen. It was the first piece in his Venetian Collection and, although the Royal College of Art sniffily dismissed it as “a pastiche”, one later sold in New York for around £10,000.

Despite his abiding interest in furniture history, there is nothing repro about his work. “I encourage my design team to study it in the V&A and the Soane Museum, but to be inspired by the past, not copy it. I see classical architecture as an inspiration because of its proportions and imagination, but I’m also attracted to exuberant modern design and especially minimalist furniture by the late Danish cabinet maker Paul Kjaerholm.”

He also tries to follow John Makepeace’s advice after he’d been proud of making a box with intricate hidden dovetail joins. “John said, ‘How do I know they are there? Don’t overcomplicate, be more of a merchant’,” David recalls. He describes his own business as “a battle of integrity of craft and commercial viability. But we make 400 individual designs a year and few other design businesses or manufacturers can claim that at the moment.”

David is a friendly man with a nice sense of humour: his pieces reflect a surreal wit. I liked Time Table, a rosewood side table with a huge clock in its top, whose leather sides and base look like a watch strap. There are brightly-coloured leather Astonette chairs, based on the reclining seat of an Aston Martin classic racing car and the extraordinary Vortex Credenza from the Art Furniture Collection.

The top is decorated with Optical Art-ish marquetry veneering in Santos rosewood and sycamore; opening it involves a series of secret buttons. Drawers lined in gold leaf paper and velvet suddenly appear. “It’s for whatever you like,” he grins.

Linley's Pimlico showroom
Linley’s Pimlico showroom

If you haven’t room for furniture, there are plenty of tempting Linley gifts and accessories to buy. I found a Union Flag marquetry tea caddy filled with Fortnum and Mason’s Royal Blend tea, the charming mouse’s head cheese knife and a money box with an inlaid pig on its side. David always tries out new ideas on his sculptor wife Serena, “You need someone to tell you that you’re not brilliant all the time”. Not surprisingly there are a lot of Linley pieces in their Chelsea home, but sometimes not for long. “It’s become a sort of holding pen for the shop,” he says. “I come home and say: ‘where are the chairs?’ My desk has been sold four times!”

Many of his earliest pieces were given to his grandmother the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, but a tower of drawers – one of his first works – sits proudly on his photographer father Lord Snowdon’s desk. “I don’t think it’s very useful, but he tells everybody that I made it,” he smiles.

Hotel commissions

In 2006, Claridge’s in London’s Mayfair asked David to redesign suites and rooms, an ongoing project of which 20 have been completed. These rooms are known now as The Linley Suites.

Guests can choose from three styles: Traditional, Art Deco or a mix of the two, in keeping with the hotel’s history (Claridge’s was built in the late 19th century, but has 1930 additions).

“I use the same principles whenever I’m asked to refurbish a hotel. First stop is always the archive to study its history. Then I want to know what kind of clientele they have. I thought that when a Hollywood star stays there they want glamour. We put in huge showers and a TV you can watch in the bath. We used warm saffron yellow for the traditional suites and cool colours for the art deco. Both are obviously of today and obviously English.”

In 2005, the elegant Edwardian Goring Hotel near Buckingham Palace wanted a more luxurious-looking dining room. David called it “the reinterpretation of an old friend”. He redid the plaster work and used a delightful harmony of warm yellow, walnut and crystal lit by Swarovski Pink Blossom chandeliers

David’s influences

  • Andrea Palladio
    “His work is elegance personified, with proportions based on nature. It was classical architects like him and James “Athenian” Stuart who gave me the idea for our keepsake and jewellery boxes in the form of famous houses.” 2009 is the quincentenary of his birth and the Royal Academy has an exhibition running until 13 April.
  • Leonardo da Vinci
    “Da Vinci has fascinated me since I was a child and I had a print of one of his cartoons by my bed. His understanding of nature and elegance of line were inspirational.
  • Poul Kjærholm
    “In modern design it has to be Kjærholm, who was part of an individual Danish movement reacting against mass production. He has greatly influenced Craig Allen, my Head of Design. Kjærholm believed, as I do, in the Arts and Crafts concept of quality yet function.”