He makes 'sculpture for use'
Solesbury, Pa. — Robert Whitley has been making furniture by hand for 35 years, and he can't imagine working anywhere but among the tall oak trees and rolling hills of rural Bucks County, Pa.
He grew up here. As a child he roamed among the meadows, forests, and streams and watched his father, an artist, and his grandfather, a local cabinetmaker, restore the antiques they collected. It was the tools from his grandfather's shop which he eventually inherited and which have long been a valued part of his own shop.
So, early in his life Bob Whitley learned to appreciate nature and companion with trees and work with wood. To this craftsman, whose work is now known all over the United States, the "country" look describes his native health and habitat. It comes as naturally to him as breathing.
The living-and-work compound he designed and built for himself, his wife, Feene, and their three children consists of three interconnected buildings containing the workshop, showroom, office, and home. The exterior, with its thick shingle roof, appears to be a mixture of Japanese and chalet architecture.
The interior looks and feels like an English country cottage, with gray slate floors, wood beams, plaster walls, fireplaces, and wood-burning stoves. The colors and textures are all natural and subdued. Much of the furniture consists of Whitley originals, handcrafted at various times during his career and ranging from caliper-correct copies of 18th-century chairs to a sculptural "throne" chair that looks like the functional art object that it is and sells for $6,000.
Even the kitchen cabinets are richly worked Whitley creations, since Mr. Whitley feels that all the wood pieces in his home should "have a few marks of human use, be polished by the constant touch of human hands, and look a little bit old and loved and well utilized."
It was 1946, after Trenton Art School and exploring the West, that Mr. Whitley rented an old barn in Bucks County and began to make furniture for sale, in much the same fashion that his antecedents might have done 200 years before. The going was rough, because few people then appreciated the painstaking skill, patience, and careful craftsmanship that went into making a handmade piece of quality and great beauty.
He helped make a living by doing restoration work for museums and private collections, and by making precise copies of traditional pieces for people who wanted to fill out sets of antique chairs. He says he applied "18th-century integrity" to the latter job, making photographs, drawings, and rubbings of the original pieces to make exact patterns. He charged from $1,200 to $2,000 for these reproduction chairs.
A few years ago he was commissioned to make the Queen Anne chairs that are now in the Governor's Council Chamber of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, as well as 14 chairs for the historic site of George Washington's headquarters in Morristown, N.J. He also made the famous desk for the John F. Kennedy Library that opened last year in Boston.
He has also been asked to make occasional presidential gifts for foreign heads of state, has shown at craft fairs, and been exhibited in craft shows at museums.
He began to design his own objects in 1951, and the Whitley rocker, with its flowing contoured surface, which he first produced in 1953, is still his most popular piece. Today it sells for $1,400 in black walnut. "Young people are by far my most appreciative audience today," he says. "They are intuitive about shapes and forms and aware of what goes into a handmade piece. And they are willing to pay the price." His prices, he explains, always depend on the time, labor, and materials involved.
Walnut is his favored wood, because, he says, "it is strong, finishes beautifully, and ages gracefully." He also uses maple, of the figured, bird's eye, and curly varieties. At one time, in the 1950s, he often cut his own trees. Now he says his store of aged wood will keep him supplied for years and is more precious to him than diamonds. He still makes an occasional deal with another craftsman, trading one of his rockers for a particularly desirable piece of their wood.
After years of making furniture of almost Shaker-like simplicity, he has more recently become adventurously experimental. "Today I am headed toward a more pure art form and making furniture that is actually free-standing sculpture, sculpture for use," he explains. One of his new forms is a desk and chair, organic in concept and intricately carved, sold at the Rhinebeck, N.Y., Craft Fair last year for $10,500.
Mr. Whitley is one of a handful of craftsmen in wood in the US who has managed to support himself and his family for more than 30 years through tenacious effort and what he terms a constant learning process that has kept him changing and growing. His assistant at the bench for the past 32 years has been Ervin Hart.
Bob Whitley has had the pleasure of watching a few of his earlier pieces bring four times their original price, at auction, and he feels sure they will gain in value as time goes on. Right now he would just like to feel that he is making furniture that "could last forever," or at least for the 800 years that the great chair he saw at the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh has lasted. He would like to think that his own throne chair, inspired by the ancient Scottish model, will be around as long.