Robert Whitley 1924–2020
Studio furniture designer and master craftsman Robert Whitley was born in 1924 in Trenton, NJ to a school teacher mother and a father who loved collecting and restoring antique furniture. From a young age, he joined his father at auctions and old farm houses. They brought home their discoveries and restored them together and it was through these experiences that Whitley developed a nuanced understanding of, and appreciation for, the craft of woodworking and furniture making. He was a third-generation craftsman and learned a special oil formula from his father and grandfather that would eventually become a hallmark of his own work.
Whitley later studied drawing and sculpture at the Trenton School of Arts before working in a Trenton airplane factory during WWII. He was so skilled that he was promoted to head welder in just a few months. After the war ended, he opened his first shop in 1948 where he restored antiques and began designing original works. An active member of the local community, he opened the Lambertville Flea Market in the 1960s, which he later sold before moving to Solebury, PA to build his home and shop where he would live and work for many more decades.
Whitley developed an impressive career restoring furniture (as master conservator at Independence Hall in Philadelphia), reproducing period works (for example, President John F. Kennedy’s Oval Office desk for the Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston), and creating his own unique designs. Perhaps his best known original commission is a chess set presented by President Richard Nixon to the Soviet Union, now in the collection of The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. His work is in the collections of many prestigious institutions, including the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In 2016, Whitley was awarded a lifetime membership in the Society of American Period Furniture Makers (SAPFM) in recognition of his lifelong commitment to advancing the understanding, education and appreciation of period furniture. He was also the recipient of several prestigious awards, including the Society of American Period Furniture Makers Cartouche Award (2002) and the Renwick Gallery's Craft Multiples Award (1975).
Whitley was a tireless and passionate craftsman and worked well into his early 80s. He passed away in 2020, leaving behind an indelible legacy in the worlds of woodworking, craft, and period American furniture.
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