Commissioning a bespoke piece of furniture is a real luxury and involves a cabinet maker being cherry-picked by a client for their specialist skills and style. Often, it is a process that arises when a buyer is looking for something truly special, like a one-of-a-kind piece that cannot be found on the high street or through big retailers. It may also be the result of stumbling upon a bespoke design made for someone else resulting in an urge to commission something equally brilliant for yourself!
In many ways, a commission is a special invitation for a maker to creatively respond to the needs of a would-be buyer. Each piece of furniture is designed to meet the specific needs of the commissioner and, in one sense, help bring their story to life. So, how do you go about commissioning bespoke furniture today? In this blog, Tom Fraser, principal of the Chippendale School, will explain the process.
1. It starts with an idea!
Once you have a good sense of what you are looking for, the next step is to seek out a furniture maker who can bring your ideas to life. Do your research by speaking with friends, doing some Googling, and checking out reputable sources like the Fine Furniture Guild website which has a list of skilled furniture and cabinet makers – all Chippendale School alumni.
It’s always good to think local first and support your local economy, so have a look at who’s in your area to see if there are any nearby furniture makers you can approach.
2. The commissioning process
Commissioning a bespoke piece of furniture should be a collaborative process and one in which ideas and inspirations are shared, discussed and bounced around by the commissioner and the maker. This is a richly exciting part of the process where a lot of decisions will need to be made.
You’ll need to consider which style to go for, which materials to use, not to mention discussing the function of the piece – what and who it is for? A piece of furniture for a small child will not normally meet the needs of an adult! Likewise, a kitchen table will see a lot of wear and tear as one of the hardest working pieces in a home and should, therefore, be made from solid, lasting materials. Seek out quality, locally sourced wood for the most sustainable results.
3. The Artist’s Way
For great results, you must invest in great design, the costs of which must be taken into account in addition to manufacturing costs. Any skilled maker will be strong on design and can create some ideas for you. These can be shared with buyers in a range of ways; sketched and painted in watercolour or rendered on a computer, for example.
Modelling is something we teach and promote at the School and it is one of the best ways to get a feel for a final piece and test it. Making prototypes is a discipline in itself! Some designers might charge extra for computer designs or making small models, but it is worth the investment to avoid mistakes further down the line when they are less easy to correct.
4. Can you be more specific?
It is vital that your chosen furniture maker is well briefed on the requirement. Try to be as clear as possible when telling them what you want. A great maker will ask lots of questions and challenge your brief to ensure they have a clear picture of what you’re looking for and what you don’t want! Bring a list along to your consultation or email it if doing this virtually.
As a buyer, you will need to think about sharing reference designs from existing pieces, photographs of similar ideas, or even your own sketches. Throughout the briefing process clearly explain what you want and check your maker has a solid understanding. This should not be a quick process and is usually followed up by another meeting to further develop and refine ideas. At the next stage, the furniture maker will likely present some ideas, sketches or renders and provide material samples.
5. Cost is King
Commissioning bespoke furniture designs does not come cheap. To achieve something exclusive you will have to be prepared to pay. Discuss the budget as soon as you can so that expectations can be managed! Bear in mind that when having a bespoke piece of furniture made, you are paying for an experienced and skilled craftsperson to create something unique for you.
There is much more to commissioning bespoke design than the cost of materials! You are paying for their time, expertise, running costs, materials and much more. If you are dealing with a sole trader, they may have high overheads so be sensitive to the scale of their operation. Some makers will require a deposit to be paid in advance of work taking place, this is standard and demonstrates a commitment on both the buyer and maker’s part – the latter who do not have the financing power of big retailers!
6. Review and approval
Once the design has been crafted, then comes the approval stage. This is your final opportunity to review what has been done and ensure that it meets your requirements and the agreed brief. The maker will have explained their review and approval process so you should know what the limitations are at this stage and what can be tweaked if needed. It is common for only very small changes to be made here as it is costly to change something that has been handcrafted. That said, don’t accept a design that you are not happy with if it does not meet the agreed brief and expected standard.
7. Don’t forget the feedback!
Once you and your maker are happy and your design is heading off to your home to be admired for years to come, why not think about leaving a review on the furniture maker’s website? Not only will you give your fine furniture maker confidence that you are truly happy with the design, but it is also a seal of approval for others who might be thinking about using that maker.
Online reviews are so important to small businesses operating in an increasingly busy marketplace so leave some positive feedback! Don’t think that your relationship with a maker will end after one commission, very often once a fruitful relationship has been struck, commissioners will return again and again to add to their growing collection of beautiful bespoke furniture.
Want to commission bespoke furniture? If you are looking for a fine furniture maker, why not take a look at the Fine Furniture Guild’s Makers’ Directory? For information on furniture making courses, see the Chippendale School website.