Letter from the Founder: A Mission Statement
Bob Dunstan, 1955-2007
For a number of years the Whitechapel Ltd telephone did battle with a shop full of woodworking machinery with no clear winner until sometime late in 1990 the telephone dealt its mortal blow and our furniture making days were over.
Since that time we have grown through seven catalogs to our current 315 page issue containing over 4000 items each of which now seems to me to be as basic to the needs of the furniture maker as those first 80.
As a furniture maker raised in England and taught my trade in that climate I have a bias in favor of the work produced from the mid 17th century up to the early part of the 19th century in England and America. In my opinion the work of American cabinetmakers during the 18th century represents in some cases the absolute pinnacle of design and constructional virtuosity.
Having said this I should also say my tastes have expanded in all directions over the years largely as the result of contact with our customers. Thanks to them we now stock hardware with all kinds of style influences but with these fundamentals in common: Everything we supply is the best of its kind and is what it appears to be in both material and quality.Happy Woodworking,
Owner - Whitechapel Ltd.
I’d like to take this opportunity to put into words the motivations that have shaped Whitechapel Ltd.
As the years go by we have become more confident in the validity of what we offer and it is probably worth explaining what I believe distinguishes our products.
We work in a creative marketplace. Our customers are furniture makers, cabinet shops, designers, architects and homeowners. They have in common the creation of objects, whether they be jewelry boxes or houses, and, aware of it or not, they make choices from the very beginning of every project that determine the fate of their work and start it on one of two journeys. Either it will grow in beauty and character with time under the gradual influence of both wear and care, or it will look its best the day it is finished and then deteriorate from that day forward.
Assuming an equal standard of craftsmanship, the primary decision that determines which path the work takes is the choice to use real or imitation materials and fittings. For example the choice between solid wood and veneered panel material. Well designed and constructed cabinet work built from solid word has the opportunity to develop personality and soul with the passing of time while its equivalent built from particle board or MDF will, in all probability, be in the trash within 20 years.
A real product has intrinsic quality that allows it to stand on its own regardless of function and, however humble, will always be worthy of respect. An imitation product may be superficially similar but its creation is driven by expediency and economy rather than quality and in its declining years will be an embarrassment to its maker and owner.
This is relevant to us at Whitechapel Ltd. Because every item of decorative or functional hardware we supply is offered in the belief that it should outlast any of us and with luck give even more pleasure to future generations that it does our own. Every fitting we sell is real, and is the best of its kind available.
In our time we are lucky to have the combined output of many generations of craftsmanship and design to add richness to our lives. No previous generation has had this depth of resource to draw from. It would be a great shame if we added nothing to this legacy but a few extra feet of land fill. Our goal at Whitechapel Ltd is to contribute something in this effort.Best Wishes,
The Whitechapel Perspective
Most of the fittings in the Whitechapel Ltd catalog are old fashioned designs and while there are no laws demanding the furniture maker use them as they would have been 200 years ago, it does no harm to have a strong historical sense of appropriate application.
Nothing can substitute for the hands on experience of real antique furniture. The pleasure gained from working and living with antiques enriches life on many levels. Beyond the obvious enjoyment of fine woods, finishes, design and workmanship there are many lessons to be learnt studying antiques particularly if one is willing to go beyond superficial preconceptions.
Today, the bulk of fine handmade furniture is built by people for whom the ideals of the Arts & Crafts movement still ring true. Many have come to woodworking after careers in more conventional professions and tend to see the artisan life through rose tinted spectacles preferring to think of their trade as an art more than a craft. Like the proverbial butcher, baker and candlestick maker, the 18th century cabinetmaker was a member of the trade class and worked under very different circumstances. Ironically, though we now tend to idealize his products as pinnacles of grace and beauty, he would have been embarrassed to have been called an artist but proud to be respected for his craftsmanship and business success. In all likelihood the designs upon which he based his work would have been drawn from some of the readily available style books of the time, which though providing him with the broad outline of prevailing tastes left a great deal to his imagination and experience.
Another contrast between the cabinetmaker of the 18th century and his counterpart today lay in the formers expediency. In many ways it is his pace of work that accounts for so much of the flavor of period furniture. Without the benefit of power tools the furniture maker of the past was in all likelihood working at a pace that would shame those of us with fully equipped modern shops. Admittedly he had advantages that are lost to us; he could generally purchase wood cut to any thickness from veneers on up in 1/8" increments (the sawyers of the time were selling their labor as much as they were the wood itself). But his pace was more the result of an attitude than tools or materials. He would put effort and the best woods where they paid the highest dividend and not waste them where unseen. This most human system of priorities invested his work with a character that is buoyant, in contrast to the oppressively characterless nature of much contemporary furniture where misplaced democratic principals have invested a drawer bottom with the same value as a drawer front.
In all probability he would have at least one apprentice to whom he bore certain responsibilities but who could expect to work without pay for years. Perhaps he might also employ a journeyman cabinetmaker who having served his time could then qualify to enter the trade as his own master, assuming his work met the standards required by the relevant guild. Whatever wages the cabinetmaker paid were as likely to be in the form of board and lodging as money and certainly bore no relation to the wages paid today.
Earlier in his career the cabinetmaker would have worked his way through the apprenticeship/journeyman system and have developed rock solid technique. In his time (unlike today) there were few questions on matters of method and technique. The cutting of joints, assembling of casework etc would have been so completely instilled into his being during the endless years of his servitude that a question as to whether the tails or the pins of a dovetail joint should be cut first would most probably be met with silent incomprehension.
Without these advantages a cabinetmaker could not have remained in business. The cost of materials in relation to the cost of the finished furniture was far higher in his day, probably nearer one half rather than the current one fifth rule of thumb today, the cost of tools likewise.
Productivity and economy were virtues critical to his ability to stay clear of the poorhouse.The realities of the cabinetmakers life would have left little room for romantic self-deception. How typical it is that these thousands of pragmatic craftsmen, few of whom could claim any originality of design, should have left to succeeding generations such a treasure trove of balance, proportion, colour, surface, grace and of course function, while so many contemporary furniture makers placing originality above all else seem bent on turning beautiful woods into sadly crippled orphans. The purpose of this introduction is to set the stage for the furniture fitting shown in our catalog and I don't deny that my perspective is laden with bias. This doesn't mean that I have no sympathy for the contemporary furniture maker, in fact the opposite is closer to the truth. Those that have created great furniture during the latter half of this century have worked unfertile soil and their success warrants all the greater applause for their determination against the apathy and ignorance of their time.