Commissioning a unique piece of furniture should be a wonderful process; one that allows you to own something entirely individual and, in the process, help to maintain the rich tradition of furniture design and craftsmanship in Britain, for which it is rightly proud.

If you are intending to obtain the greatest benefit from your patronage there are a number of fundamental points to consider.

Design

Separate the cost of manufacture from the design fees and be prepared to invest properly in the design process. You cannot short-circuit the design process if you truly want something that meets your needs and desires. It will depend on you how long that process takes and how much it costs. Designs can be presented in many different ways; the main ones are sketches, watercolours, computer renderings and models. Some people can visualise a piece from two-dimensional drawings but many can’t. Although it will cost more to produce computer renderings or models, they will resolve issues before they become problems on delivery.

Brief

The clearer you are about what you want (or what you don’t want) the easier the design process will be. It is part of the designer’s role to interrogate your brief, as quite often what is perceived as essential is not in fact what is really needed. A designer who does not question your specification is doing you a disservice, as you may very well end up with what you asked for but not what you actually want. Make sure that you have prepared a list of what you require; function, ideal size and position in the room. A sketch, however poor, is useful as are images that express a style, colour or feel. It is the designer’s job to extract as much information as possible from you during a lengthy discussion and you should allow at least an hour and preferably more. The clearer your description and the better the imagery, the quicker an outline proposal can be created. The second discussion should be to refine the direction based on basic sketches and material samples.

Budget

Bespoke furniture is expensive, particularly if you want something that is truly unique. It is essential that you have a sensible discussion about cost at the earliest stage. It is a complete waste of everybody’s time to have designed something that is too expensive or too cheap. Adapting a design up or down will always be unsatisfactory, it is far better to understand all the parameters before starting.

A bespoke piece of furniture is a prototype, it will be the first one of its type and potentially it may have some flaws, unless you are prepared to build in a prototyping budget. This makes a lot of sense if the piece has complex articulation.

It is extremely unlikely that you will be able to purchase any piece of craftsmen built custom furniture for less than £1000. The costs of running workshops are high and very few craftsmen who are running professional businesses will be operating at less than £35 per hour and probably more, giving a basic labour cost of £1400 + vat per week.

Quite often it is assumed that material cost is a major factor and whilst there are significant differences between timbers, it is quite a small percentage of the actual bill and really a false economy to use cheaper materials, culminating in having something less pleasing to the eye, particularly when you are going to look at it everyday.

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Approval

You will be surprised by how many people sign-off a design without truly understanding it. This is surprising given the investment in time and money. From a craftsman’s viewpoint, the worst thing that can happen is that you buy something you don’t like. You will be unhappy, probably tell all your friends and potentially argue about payment. If you are concerned about something, get the designer to explain and sketch. If you are still unsure it might be necessary to invest in a mock-up or a 3D drawing.

Deposits and payments

There are no rich craftsmen; it is a vocation not a career and most undercharge for what they do, working many additional hours without charge. Larger companies are better at understanding commercial principles but we are all craftsmen first and businessmen second, quite often choosing an interesting poorly paying job over a dull profitable one.

Your project is unique to you and has no commercial value to anyone else, hence you should expect to fund at least part of the manufacture as it goes along. For smaller projects a 50% deposit is common and larger projects would have a deposit with stage payments along the way.

Changes

Having approved your design and agreed a price, you will have a very happy craftsman and possibly a new friend, keen to show you what they can do.

Making a change once manufacture has started is extremely costly in time and potentially materials. If you expect the craftsman to absorb these costs you will be doing them a great disservice. Profits on bespoke furniture are usually between 10 and 20%, so it doesn’t take much to turn a job from profit to loss.

Workshop visits

Most craftsmen will encourage visits to see the piece taking shape and you will gain a greater understanding of just how much goes into making a one-off piece. You might even be able to help. Certainly the experience of seeing the creation and development of your piece will enhance your enjoyment.

The final piece

You are a patron of the arts, you have sustained a craftsman in employment and created a unique piece of furniture that will bring you pleasure forever. Enjoy!

Neil Stevenson is a member of ProjectBook.co.uk and is trained as a cabinetmaker and furniture designer and is the founder and managing director of N.E.J. Stevenson Ltd. He is a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers, a Brother of the Artworkers Guild, a Director of the British Institute of Interior Design, Chair of the Furniture Board and main board member of Proskills the manufacturing Sector Skills Council and a Royal Warrant Holder to Her Majesty the Queen. The company is the appointed specialist furniture supplier to the Palace of Westminster and a preferred supplier to The National Trust and English Heritage. 

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