The consummate Renaissance man
A tribute to Robert C. Whitley
On June 1, 2020, the woodworking world lost a grand master when Robert Whitley passed away. Whitley was the consummate Renaissance man, fluent in history, the arts and just about any other subject that you might engage him in if you were lucky enough to catch him relaxing. But his primary passion was woodworking, and his palette spanned centuries. Capable of crafting immaculate reproductions of classic 18th-century designs, Whitley’s background in art and sculpture allowed him to easily cross the bridge into the 20th century, producing exquisite contemporary furniture.
There isn’t enough room here to list all of Whitley’s major commissions and awards. He built countless museum-quality reproductions of high-end 18th and 19th century pieces. His contemporary work resides in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., as well as the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. His celebrated “Throne Chair” was the 1980 winner of the National Endowment for the Arts award. He also successfully produced and marketed a selection of his pieces, including a beautiful, comfortable rocker that he built in batches of ten. These “Whitley Rockers” occasionally turn up for sale online, and have proven to retain their value well into the 21st century.
In the workshop, Whitley was adept at just about any operation, whether rough milling, carving, joinery, or anything else. But his favorite wheelhouse was finishing. He loved coaxing out the nuances of the grain and luring out the overall personality of the wood. He was equally comfortable with brushing shellac, spraying lacquer, or hand-rubbing an oil finish. He would often have four or five pieces in the finishing room, each with a different type of finish.
One of the projects he was most proud of was his copy of the “Resolute” desk that resides in the White House Oval Office. (See page 52). Commissioned in 1978 for permanent display in the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, the piece took nearly a year to complete. Whitley spent three days in the Oval Office measuring and photographing the original under tight security while then-President Jimmy Carter was on a trip to Germany. Other historical commissions—including a reproduction of Thomas Jefferson’s swivel chair—reside in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Carpenter’s Hall, and Franklin Court.
As to his own history, Whitley was born in 1924 in the formerly rural outskirts of Trenton, New Jersey to a school teacher mother and a father who loved antique furniture. The senior Whitley would bring young Bob to auctions to buy pieces that they would then clean and restore together. The boy was an eager student, quickly absorbing his father’s instruction as to what makes great furniture. After attending the Trenton School of Arts, the young man took on many diverse jobs, including working as a cowboy and a welder. Then, in 1948, he started the area’s first flea market, along with a business restoring and selling furniture. A year later, a young Ervin Hart began his 60-year stint as Whitley’s trusted and devoted assistant.
As his skills and reputation grew, Whitley garnered commissions for reproduction work while simultaneously developing contemporary pieces of his own design. In addition to his ambitious workload, he purchased thirteen acres outside New Hope, Pennsylvania, where he built a home and workshop complex. By the mid-1970s he dominated the woodworking landscape in Bucks County Pennsylvania, along with George Nakashima, his famous woodworking contemporary. Although their styles differed, they both shared the view that—regardless of the project—the wood should take top billing. Like Nakashima, Whitley sourced much of his wood locally, using the best stock he could find, and usually directing the sawyer as to how he wanted the wood processed.
For the rest of his life until his informal retirement in 2011, Bob Whitley did right by the craft he loved. He lived his 95 years on earth fully, and leaves behind a legacy of work that most of us can only aspire to. But we’d do well to try.
On a Personal Note
I had the great fortune not only to know Bob Whitley as a friend, but to work alongside him for a few years—a dream come true for me. As a budding woodworker in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in the 1970s I was well aware of Whitley’s reputation for unparalleled expertise in the craft, and was lucky enough to finally meet him in the early 1980s. Over time, we became close, and enjoyed many long discussions in the tranquility of his Japanese-style tea house. The topics usually focused on the appreciation of beauty in both art and nature, as well as modern society’s indifference to it.
In addition to Bob’s relentless passion for woodworking, he was also a believer in holistic living and leading a healthy lifestyle. I came to realize that he was a man of his word, which is a rare commodity in today’s world. It’s true that he didn’t suffer fools, and could be a stern taskmaster. However he was equally effusive with praise for a job well done. I’ll miss him. Rest in peace, my friend. –C.B.