The art of craft

Mark Asplin Whiteley

The exceptional and unique pieces crafted by the Mark Asplin Whiteley furniture studio are found in the finest homes and yachts worldwide

Far from the glamour of London on the beautiful North Yorkshire coast, Mark Asplin Whiteley has discreetly established a reputation as one of the world’s foremost furniture studios, one whose work has graced the grandest homes and yachts around the globe. Its founder, Mark Whiteley, discovered his aptitude for carpentry at school in Whitby, thanks to a kindly teacher who set in motion a process that led to the emergence of his studio in 1988.

“We are designers, material engineers and technicians with a deep understanding of the art of craftsmanship,” explains Mark. “Everything we make is bespoke. We usually work with architects, developers and interior-design companies who know what their clients want, whether it is a room installation, freestanding furniture or yacht furniture. We are known for working from an image or concept, developing the design through technical drawings then crafting it into a beautiful finished piece. We have a second-to-none reputation, built up over the years. It’s been said that we are the best workshop in the country for service and quality.”

Mark’s big break came in 1985 when he was approached by Princess Margaret’s son, Viscount Linley (now the Earl of Snowdon), to be workshop manager of his renowned furniture studio, known today as Linley. “In 1987, I set up my first workshop in a converted stone building at Highgrove, home of the Prince and Princess of Wales, quickly expanding into new space near Cirencester,” he says. “At that time I worked mostly for Linley and developed a reputation for quality.”

For the Platinum Jubilee, Mark is utilising the expertise of his studio to create a piece to commemorate the Royal Family in the form of a limited-edition Platinum Jubilee Bar, only five of which will be produced. Taking its iconography from the 1920s, the bar can be customised for either a yacht or a home, and incorporates a wide variety of skills and materials. It has hints of Art Deco and features exceptional marquetry, platinum églomisé mirrored shelves and stainless-steel fiddle rails. Mark sees it as the epitome of his studio’s craft.

“What we do is endlessly interesting because everything we make is bespoke,” he explains. “It could be a double-height walnut library in New York City with ladders and rails to reach the highest shelves. It could be a sommelier’s room in a super-prime house in Mayfair in high-gloss pearl-white with mother-of-pearl inlays. It could be a blue ripple sycamore gun safe in a Home Counties country house. It could be a fitted dressing room with marquetry and bronze inlaid doors in a redevelopment in Grosvenor Square. It could be an Art Deco dressing table or dining table, or the centrepiece for a superyacht, shining like a work of art – a sculpture in wood with metals and a multitude of exquisite natural-luxury materials, all worked with and incorporated by our skilled craftspeople.”

Mark relocated to his home town of Whitby in 1997, confident that he had established a reputation that would make it easier for him to find the high standard of craftspeople and makers needed to create a successful studio. Working closely with company Managing Director Heath Chadwick and the workshop’s experienced team leaders, Whiteley takes pride and pleasure in “upskilling” and mentoring new makers as he builds a team that is as well constructed and finely balanced as his furniture.

“We have the benefit of both old-school experience and, more recently, tech-savvy makers, marrying traditional craft with digital manufacturing,” says Mark. “Not many workshops can boast this combination. It means we can generate incredible three-dimensional shapes with complex geometry, while applying the human touch of finely fitted drawers with secret compartments and hand-cut dovetails. No machine can do this. I coach makers to appreciate the aesthetic imperative, such as how to choose grain in the arrangement of veneers, as well as applying technical rigour in laying them precisely. It’s what makes a craftsman.”

The studio offers apprenticeships to local youngsters who show enthusiasm, encouraging them to develop those essential practical skills of hand-eye co-ordination and spatial thinking that are no longer widely taught. “I follow the philosophy that makers perform best when they’re in the flow, letting them get on with the process without too much interference,” says Mark. “This fosters creativity. It means our designs don’t display a monoculture of machine-driven design but showcase a rich variety of craft disciplines. I’m very keen to maintain skills in the workforce. Because of this, we attract people who enjoy working on their own projects, building works of art with craft and constructional integrity. It’s also why we are constantly in demand for our unique blend of skills and knowledge.”

Running a successful studio requires an ability to balance creative instincts with practical business sense. Mark believes these skills have been inherited from his father who was an antiques auctioneer and his grandfather who taught him how to take apart and mend clocks. And then there was that woodwork teacher who first recognised and encouraged Mark’s talent, helping to ensure that he would continue his career with first-class training at Rycotewood, the celebrated designer-maker’s furniture college.

“When people see something that has been made well with an excellent finish and fine detail, they instinctively recognise the quality,” he says. “I believe the only way to judge something is to see it, so we encourage people to come to the workshop to see the craftsmanship and the time and effort that goes into every piece we make. I can then show those elements that are difficult to achieve but which demonstrate our quality. Once I’ve done that, I can say justifiably that we are one of the best companies in the world at what we do. The excitement for me is in knowing we’ve done great work, when the client gets to see their finished piece or room and there is that ‘wow’ moment, knowing what they have is unique, built and finished by human hand, with skill and attention.”