Artisans of the New Age

Silverlining Furniture in the U.K. blends traditional craftsmanship and advanced technology to create functional objects of art.

We live in a world in which technology drives design. In virtually every field of manufacturing, products can be modeled by computer and fashioned by machine. What is the role of the artisan in this high-tech age? Mark Boddington, the founder of Silverlining Furniture, believes he has the answer.

“Human creativity will never be replaced by technology, however far it advances,” he says. “There are essential, human elements in successful design that cannot be defined so easily, or measured so precisely. What’s exciting about being an artisan today is combining new technologies and materials with the slower art of traditional craftsmanship.”

A cabinet made from custom-dyed ripple sycamore. The detailing comprises seven layers of marquetry in various shades of blue with mother-of-pearl inserts at the center.  

After training with John Makepeace, the “father of British furniture design,” Boddington set up Silverlining Furniture in 1985 in an abandoned cowshed in rural Cheshire, on the border of England and Wales (the company’s name came from his use of silver inlays and hallmarking to date his early designs). By the mid-1990s, his clients included aristocracy and celebrities such as David Bowie and Kevin Costner.

It wasn’t long before Silverlining attracted the attention of yacht designer Andrew Winch. A first motoryacht commission followed, for the 180-foot (55-meter) Claire (now Samax), launched by Feadship in 1996 for the Prince of Brunei.

This gentleman’s desk is made from American black curl walnut with a top surface of reindeer leather salvaged from a Russian ship that sank in 1786.

Today, with one-off furniture pieces aboard more than 80 of the world’s top superyachts, including the 325-foot (99-meter) Feadship Madame Gu and the 312-foot (95.2-meter) Lürssen Kismet II, superyachts account for around half the company’s annual turnover. At the time of my visit in early summer, Silverlining was working on interiors for nine yachts, seven of them more than 230 feet (70 meters) long.

“Superyacht owners have the desire and drive to own something unique; they demand the latest designs and the best craftsmanship,” Boddington says. “This provides the perfect opportunity to combine the high-performance possibilities of modern technologies and materials without skimping on quality materials, development time or handcrafted perfection.”

 Colored straws for straw marquetry; Hand tools are used alongside automated machinery; A sample of Japanese lacquer using sap from the urushi tree.

Each year, the company produces sample boards based on an overarching theme to exhibit at the Monaco Yacht Show. The materials and processes used in making the samples—works of art in themselves—may take years to be integrated into finished furniture pieces.

Last year’s theme was light, and one piece in the collection, “Andromeda Galaxy,” was made from rich amboyna burr wood with laser-etched concentric rings containing 67,000 pinpricks of Dubai gold resin. At the piece’s center is a polished disc of translucent gypsum, a semiprecious crystal, set inside a ring of 23-carat Champagne gold. The inspiration for the piece was the countless stars that crowd the sky on moonless summer nights.

Jason Roberts, CNC machinist; Alissa Brown, leather crafter; Daniel Lloyd-David, finisher. 

Another sample, “Carved River,” celebrates hand-carving and saddlery skills by combining three-dimensional “water ripples” in English walnut with a hand-tooled leather border and pedestals. An American client saw the concept piece, leading directly to Silverlining’s most expensive single item to date: a dining table costing more than $375,000 for a private hunting lodge in the state of Georgia.

Composed of four sections and able to seat 24 guests, the tabletop is made with rippled and curl walnut (the same wood used for gunstocks). Solid English walnut is used for the riverlike hand carving, and emperador scuro marble for the pedestal bases. The wood is treated with a citrus peel wax, which has a natural ultraviolet block. White-glove delivery service included specially made transport cases.

Thin veneers carefully burned in hot sand provide a subtle 3-D effect when they are then inlaid into a wood surface.  

“Designing and making the table—and delivering it 4,600 miles to the U.S.—in just 18 weeks in time for a Thanksgiving Day party was a huge challenge,” Boddington says, “but we managed it with three days to spare.”

Sourcing materials has become a never-ending pursuit for Boddington. Some of the more unusual include semifossilized bog oak dating back more than 3,000 years, and reindeer leather salvaged from a ship that sank in 1786 that had remained submerged and protected by layers of mud for 230 years.

At the center of this piece is a polished disc of tigereye, a quartz gemstone, set inside a ring of 23-carat Champagne gold. The inspiration for the piece was the countless stars that crowd the sky on moonless summer nights.

The Silverlining team, whose average age is just 28, is also working with craftspeople from around the world to preserve lost skills. These include one of the few remaining English blacksmiths working with Damascus steel (once used for sword blades); Japanese artisans renowned for their 9,000-year-old lacquering techniques using the sap of the urushi tree; and an Albuquerque expert in the meticulous method of engine turning, or guilloche, as seen on watch dials and Fabergé eggs.

But new-age craftsmanship also requires new-age technology, and for some processes, Silverlining relies on advanced software and automated machinery, from CAD tools and rapid prototyping to CNC cutting and 3-D laser etching. One sanding machine is so precise it could shave the print off paper. The latest investment is a cubicle that dries varnish from the inside out to avoid pinholing: tiny air bubbles trapped inside the lacquer as the surface hardens.

Left: David Williams is a furniture maker who joined Silverlining in 2016. The average age of the employees is under 30. Right: The mind-boggling complexity of some of the furniture calls for precision cutting tools, without which many designs would simply be too time-consuming to make.

“Technology is part of what 21st century craftsmanship is all about,” says Jim Birch, head of design, “but it reinforces rather than replaces the traditional hand skills, helping to improve efficiency and create furniture designs that were previously thought impossible.”

Much of Silverlining’s work is exploratory, and an ongoing project in collaboration with Holland & Holland, the famous London-based gunmakers, uses photo-realistic images of feathers to create innovative finishes, from iridescent marquetry patterns using custom dyed veneers and colored resins to hand-carved wood and gold leaf inlays. Combined with traditional checkering (the textured finish to add grip) and metal engraving techniques, the processes will be used to decorate the stocks and breeches of made-to-measure rifles and shotguns.

Left: Silverlining founder Mark Boddington (right) reviews a project with his head of production, Luke Briggs. Right: High-tech CNC machinery might have transformed the furniture maker’s art, but each piece is lovingly finished by hand.

Other research is focused on developing beautiful, yet sustainable alternatives to natural but often rare materials. Straw marquetry, for example, is an age-old technique, but the Silverlining team is working with a group of university researchers to find ways of infusing the hollow fibers with bioresins. Once cured, the strong, yet lightweight panels can be polished to reveal their multicolored honeycomb structure.

Another field of inquiry is the byproducts of agriculture, such as palm or pineapple fibers, which can be transformed into chemical-free, eco-friendly textiles with properties remarkably similar to real leather.

Made of rippled and curl walnut with emperador scuro marble for the bases, this dining table was commissioned as the centerpiece for a hunting lodge in Georgia. The core of the table is honeycomb aluminum for lightness, stability and strength.

“Sustainability is changing notions of what constitutes luxury,” Boddington says. “Our customers understand that it’s the time and skill that goes into building our furniture pieces that gives them integrity, not just the rarity of the materials they’re made of.”

Throughout its history, Silverlining has had fewer than 70 individual clients. This is partly because a residential project often leads to furniture for a yacht, or vice versa, and partly because the same customers—and their children or grandchildren—return again and again to the company. The record is 17 commissions from a single Swiss client.

“All our clients love to visit the workshop,” Boddington says. “Creating inspirational furniture is a collaboration between client, designer and maker. Ensuring the journey is joyful and exciting for the customer is all part of the adventure.” ◊

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This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue.


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