Designer    Feature 14 Aug 2017

Designer’s August issue celebrates the life and design of Mark Wilkinson OBE

Born Mark Roger Wilkinson on 25 October 1950 in a working class suburb of North London he saw his father building sets for television and lm and so had a natural interest in design. With a particularly problematic school life – and when not bunking off school to work in a scrap yard cutting up cars with an axe for 50p a car – he spent the lessons staring out of the window rearranging and designing the countryside as he wanted. With his natural appreciation of proportion and unparalleled creativity, he taught himself a skill for visualising the way things could be created in 3-D, completely inside his head. He rarely used pencil and paper.

Known as the designers’ designer, Mark’s career took him into clothing, housing and objects d’art, but it is furniture he will be most remembered for. His interest in furniture for the kitchen began in 1977 when his first fitted kitchen design, in reclaimed pine, launched the English Country Kitchen style we know today.

Mark went on with his wife Cynthia
to create Mark Wilkinson Furniture Limited that became one of the market leaders in fitted furniture design. He was the first designer ever to use marble and granite as worktops in kitchens and bathrooms. He is also credited with starting an industry in designer handles for fitted furniture.

He created an intriguing market for tree houses when he built his own famous version in which he included a fitted kitchen. He also created a charming and successful market in children’s furniture with his famous Goldilocks and Tom Thumb designs and at the turn of the millennium, he produced his 100% Mark Wilkinson range of object d’art when he launched incredible works such as the Marilyn jewellery cabinet and the gentleman’s cloak chairs amongst other unusual pieces.

When Mark burst onto the fitted furniture scene with The Cook’s Kitchen – one of the most truly influential designs of the past fifty years – the UK was flooded with mass produced designs from Europe but he countered this utilitarian approach by designing from the heart and the mind, and with his warmth, created the atmosphere we all cherish today in the most important living room in the house – the kitchen.

Mark Wilkinson shunned trendy minimalism and championed high-quality classicism with furniture that was designed to last. His brilliance probably changed the lifestyle of British homeowners forever. His kitchen designs created a boom in the British economy by encouraging hundreds of fitted furniture companies, both manufacturing and retail, in every town and saw employment blossom in an industry that today is worth hundreds of millions.

However, his first and lasting challenge was profound dyslexia. He spent a lot of time supporting dyslexia charities and other educational groups where he was able to demonstrate that a disability such as dyslexia is not a limiter to success.

When being included in a group of famous dyslexics with Erin Brockovich, Mark famously said: “Dyslexia brings more gifts than glitches. If you have
it, flaunt it. When you stumble hold
out a hand. Help will come. When
you achieve, stand proud and
then lend a hand with humility.”

A member of MENSA, a Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers, a Fellow of the City & Guilds Institute are but a few of the awards Mark was invited to accept. He lectured in design at the University of Western England and other institutes.

But his proudest moment surely came when, in 2009 at Buckingham Palace, he received an OBE for Services to the Furniture Industry, drawing a wry smile from the young lad inside him, whose Headmaster had once told him to “stand in the waste-bin Wilkinson because that’s where the rubbish belongs”.

In 2009, he was also awarded the medal of the Order of the League of Mercy (OLM) at a ceremony held at The Mansion House in the City of London. In 2013, The Cook’s Kitchen secured the Design Classic award at this magazine’s Designer Kitchen & Bathroom Awards, the first kitchen style ever to do so. He had also previously won Designer magazine’s Simon Taylor Award for Lifetime Achievement. The company that bore his name was also awarded the highly prestigious Employer of the Year Award for apprenticeships to young furniture makers. He was a free living spirit, and in his younger days became a squatter in Villa Road, London, for two years where he met some life-long incredible friends before returning to Somerset to stay with his good friend Marcus at his farm on the Brendon Hills. It was at the farm using old
pine floor boards and his individual irreplaceable spirit that he designed his first old pine fitted kitchen that literally took the domestic world by storm.
And the rest, as they say, is history.

Over the past decade, Mark has spoken to all sorts of different audiences
from educationalists, architects
and designers, design students, young offenders, consumers and councils in the hope they recognise and help those with dyslexia.

Together with Cynthia, Mark had recently formed the Mark Wilkinson Foundation for Innovation & Employment, which is the registered charity they set up to help further the ambitions and careers of young dyslexics, in the hope they did not suffer as Mark did. Cynthia intends to continue and build on this initiative in Mark’s name.

Mark was described by Eliot Nusbaum, writing in the Sunday Times, as the ‘Mozart of Kitchen Cabinet Makers’ whilst the Editor of the interior design publication idFX called him the “Finest Designer of our Time”.

With his flamboyant dress sense and signature handlebar moustache, Mark Wilkinson was one of the most original designers this country has ever seen and his passing leaves an unfillable hole.

Mark Wilkinson |