We are waiting for David Linley to arrive at his eponymous store in Pimlico, Belgravia. “It’ll only take a minute,” assures Carmel Allen, the then Creative Director of the company. “He’s cycling over.” I almost do a double take. The Earl of Snowdon, Honorary Chairman for Christie’s EMERI (Europe, the Middle East, Russia and India), son of Princess Margaret, nephew to the Queen of England, is cycling over from Christie’s to his store for this interview? “Yes, don’t worry, he’ll be here soon,” says Allen, clearly misinterpreting my surprise at Linley’s mode of transport.
He arrives looking polished in a black turtleneck and grey wool suit, a sartorial signature he’s kept for years, judging from pictures of him, past and present. He belies none of the harried, sweaty demeanour a normal cyclist would possess post trip. Instead, he calmly shakes my hand and insists on being called David. Then, he slides into one of his chairs by a medium-sized dining table. His hands instinctively run across the grain of the table, feeling its smoothness, perhaps a habit formed from his woodworking days.
Linley has come a long way since the inception of his first shop in 1985. The company recorded a strong show in profits in 2016 after being dealt some setbacks. Its genesis was a two-man show before evolving into a full-fledged business in 1985 that saw everyone, from Wall Street financiers to superstars, buying its handmade, bespoke desks, boxes and chairs, then, later, employing its interior design services, in accordance with 80s glamour and excess.
By 2010, the company was hit hard by the recession. Between 2008 and 2011, LINLEY had two separate investors; firstly Sergei Pugachev, then secondly British yacht broker Jamie Edmiston. In 2014, Edmiston sold 51% of the company to Malaysians Dato’ Sri Nazir Razak, CIMB Group Chairman, and David Chua of Overture Investments Limited (Chua was former President of Genting Hong Kong).
The Malaysian magic seems to be paying off. In June that same year, LINLEY grew to GBP13 million. By 2016, LINLEY saw an increase in shop sales by 20 per cent and a hike in online sales by 50 per cent, citing overseas sales as the reason for its healthy transformation.
Are his Asian investors very hands on? “They can be as hands-on as they want,” he says matter-of-factly. “The shareholders know much more about the Far East than I do. That’s the exciting thing. What direction the company goes for in that particular market? Does it change for that market?
“It’s highly complimentary that they would want to work with me. I think we all bring something different to the party,” he continues. “We are quite a good combination.”
Dato’ Sri Nazir Razak agrees. “The partners make a good team because we each have different strengths and we get on very well,” he says in a statement. “We have big ambitions for Linley but first we must strengthen our business foundations which includes expanding our interior design and fitted businesses to complement our market leading bespoke franchise. That would give us the economies of scale to then pursue new customers and we have lots of untapped potential in Asia and America. Nevertheless, for Malaysia specifically we already have a representative on the ground, Farah Rahim Ismail.”
A teenaged Linley could not have foreseen that his tiny workshop would grow to such international proportions. “My father’s a great influence in my life. He was very much into design (he designed the Snowdon Aviary at London Zoo). He’d always been a maverick in business, and had never really done anything towards wanting to have a proper job in the city or in finance, nothing like that,” he says, referring to his father, the famed photographer Lord Snowdon.
Linley finished school at Bedales and then, adhering to his father’s philosophy and ignoring royal expectations of furthering at university or entering the military service, promptly enrolled into the influential Parnham College, a woodworking school in Dorset, under the tutelage of John Makepeace. “After Parnham House, I was what they called a ‘designer-maker’, and was flown out to America as a representative of a hundred craftsmen. That’s where I honed my marketing skills by facing clients, and not just being a cabinet maker.”
In 1982, he and a friend, the artist Matthew Rice, decided to open a small workshop above a fish and chips shop. “I didn’t find it very amusing because it was very small, and very smelly and oily. But my room was immaculate – my father came to see me and my bed was beautifully made, crisp linen and my hifi and my books and rugs on the floor,” he says.
“When I started, I was very much trying to be my own person. The problem was in the mid 70s and 80s, it was a new thing to go and do something like setting up your own business. So, between 1982 and 1985, I had a cooperative with two friends (including Rice). We started at very low cost, no capital because none of us had any funds and received kind contributions. My grandmother gave me the planer and my mother gave me the bandsaw, both very masculine steel machines.”
From the very beginning, what made LINLEY special was its innovative use of colour, which was virtually unheard of back in the day. “My first exhibition was red and yellow at an agricultural show – it was a bit of a shock to the normal shopping experience,” Linley muses. “We were still pioneers in reintroducing traditional craft skills. We were the first people to make screens with marquetry on them and they sold very well. In fact, they sold much better than things that I’d spent a long time making, like desks!
“We utilised more marquetry, which had really only been used in the 18th century using flowers and decorative things, so we used that to illustrate other things like architecture and landscape, and that became a look which we still have today.
“In 1985, we found this tiny, tiny shop and the loo was in the garden. Downstairs, we had a design room. Upstairs, we had a showroom,” Linley reminisces. “It was very small but it was actually on the King’s Road turning, so everyone saw us and we became known.”
As greenhorns, the partners learnt by doing. “The word brand hadn’t come into our diction – we were Matthew and David having fun, designing and using watercolours. Everything was handmade. We knew absolutely everything about our client and we had exhibitions.”
The fledging business had few clients despite their best efforts. During Linley’s studies at Parnham House he was visited by an agent, Fleur Rossdale, who offered to represent him in London. “I was the first boy to have an agent,” he says, smiling. “The best thing about having an agent is you have work and, when you have work, you have stability.” Things rolled from there. “I had my first commission, a corporate gift that went to China from Lloyd’s of London, and we started to get people who were interested.”
Today, LINLEY has three stores in the UK and an online presence, selling everything from everyday luxuries to highly personalised and commissioned exclusives. Yet, its clientele is as diverse as it is egalitarian (prices online are surprisingly reasonable, with embossed, hardback linen-bound notebooks starting at GBP16 each; matches with the LINLEY brand cost GBP1.50). “I can’t generalise – they come from all walks of life,” he acknowledges. It may explain the rather cool triptych of handcrafted walnut skateboards with The Shard, St Paul’s Cathedral and Canary Wharf etched into them and proudly displayed both in-store and online.
The real fun starts when the customer gives LINLEY’s designers the freedom (and budget) to create. “I always say, the sort of ‘stumbling block’ is the creativity of the client. We can be as creative as they want us to be. One client went, ‘Go wild’, and that was the only clue to what we should do!
“It is the same person who would like to have an Aston Martin – it is a thing of beauty and gives great pleasure. Same person who goes to Savile Row and has a handmade suit when an off–the-peg will do. We can specify everything about everything. In the interior design department, we can be extremely precise. How many handbags do you want, how many ties do you wear.”
With the many obstacles Linley has faced, he is all too mindful of the various pitfalls along the way and views his journey with a wry sense of humour.
“You go from being a person to being a brand, which is hilarious,” he says of the business. “Every time a recession comes around, one does wonder why one does go through it all. If you ask me would I have done it knowing what I know now, no, because it was brave to extend my personal work into a business aged 20, and I don’t know at this point, but the glorious thing is you don’t need to,” says Linley. “I go to financial advisors today and they ask what is the company doing today, and then they tell me six good reasons why we can’t do something. And I go, yeah but you’re the kind of person who wouldn’t have started this business in the first place. It takes a lot of guts and determination, and it’s a solitary business working for yourself.”
And then there are the critics. “When we made this chair and table, it wasn’t very well received,” he says, referring to the Savile chairs and dining table we are seated at, a retail collaboration with designer Matthew Hilton “They all went, ‘Ugh, you got it wrong and it’s bad’. At the time, Matthew and I thought these were fantastic things, and I still think they’re great chairs.”
Time will tell? “Well, time is already telling, which is great,” says Linley and goes on to talk about pieces from 30 or 40 years ago “having a life of their own” and becoming talking pieces or soughtafter acquisitions. “They get to auction houses, they get handed down to people who bring them in and they say, please can you do them up.”
Linley is not beyond marketing himself to create a bigger presence for the brand. “The reason for wanting to be in magazines and current affairs, and going on television wasn’t vanity,” he says. “It was terrifying for me because I’m quite shy. The reason to do it is it’s such a unique business unlike anything else. I give lectures at the V&A, I go to The Met and so forth. The reason I do that is to widen the appeal and hopefully people might think kindly of (the brand).”
Perhaps, of the man too. “People have it in their minds that, through my background, I’m going to be unapproachable or arrogant, so all these things I’ve spent my life trying to take down,” he says.
Linley has weathered controversy, notably over the sale of some of the items passed down from his mother, of which he and his sister had actually found necessary in order to pay the inheritance tax. “Some of the things the newspapers say… aren’t very nice. But it’s got your name on it, so what are you going to do? A lot of the time, they are quite rude about me but the number of visitors who come to the shop go up every time you’re in the papers.” Any press is good press, then? “Well, up to a point!”
I ask him what it takes to stay relevant. “You tell me,” he says, laughing. “No, I think what we are doing now – and it’s very much the team here doing on a day-to-day basis – is that you have to come up with ideas that are relevant, but there also has to be a sense of occasion, a sense of fun.”
To Linley, the pleasure is also in “working with good people, nice people,” and what is key to running the business is “open and honest communication.”
“It’s very simple. So many companies stumble when they don’t communicate,” he says. “We’re too small of a company to have departments. Each person who works in this company should be an entrepreneur, so we’re all thinking, ‘Right, how can I better the company? How can I make more money? What ideas have I seen on the street? What shows have I been to? What can I tell the designers, the colours I’ve seen?’ All these things feed into and make the company have an energy and a power.”
It’s the same kind of energy and power that gets him going and sees him trying to salvage as much time as possible. When asked how he juggles between his duties at Christie’s and LINLEY, he deadpans without a moment’s hesitance: “Well, on a bicycle!”