How to Commission Furniture

Alf in his shop

How to Commission a Piece of Furniture

by Alfred Sharp

Today there are a greater number of brilliant and inventive studio furniture makers than anytime in, at least, the last 100 years. They are often right in your own community. They work in every conceivable style, from thoroughly traditional to avant-guarde.

These makers are equipped to use concepts, techniques, and materials unavailable or impractical for large manufacturers. You can have exactly the piece of furniture that fits your space and needs, and you can collaborate with the maker to infuse that piece with your own unique personality.

But perhaps you’re intimidated by the prospects of commissioning a piece of custom furniture. Or perhaps you think that doing so would cost much more than you can afford.  The process is not only easy but exciting, and custom work is often no more expensive than the inflated prices charged by the better furniture stores.

So, how do you get started? First, assess your own needs and desires. Decide whether you want to dip your toes into the custom waters by commissioning a small occasional piece, or go large with a major statement in your living, dining, or bedroom.

In deciding how much you want to spend, remember that the final result will be good for many lifetimes, indeed becoming a family heirloom, rather than something you’ll want to replace in five or ten years. Budget a little more, knowing you won’t have to spend again in a few years.

Bench in ProgressBut how do you find these low-profile, brilliant makers? Well, the site you’re on right now is the perfect place to find a maker. The Furniture Society website has a directory of hundreds of the best custom furniture makers and designers, not only in North America but in several countries around the world. Representative pieces from each artist are shown here on the site in the Makers Directory, and each one’s individual website is also listed. You’ll find a wealth of inspiration right here.

Having identified a few potential candidates, contact them, either by phone or email. Tell them what you’re contemplating, and whether you have a style already in mind or are looking for some original ideas. If the artist works within a reasonable distance, visit their shop and/or ask them to visit your home. Discuss your ideas with them and ask for their ideas. This first consultation should never cost anything. Don’t feel obliged to tell the maker your budget, but if you sense a good simpatico with him or her, it will be helpful for them to know so as not to suggest something either too simple or too complex.

At some point in the process, not necessarily on the first contact, you’ll ask one or more maker to develop a drawing and proposal, with price and approximate delivery schedule. If the makers have to spend some time in this process, especially if they are developing an original idea, they might specify a design fee. This fee is usually absorbed into the final bid upon commissioning, but should you choose not to accept the maker’s proposal, expect to pay that fee nevertheless.

The design doesn’t have to be chiseled in stone at his point, however, and this is one of the great things about custom work. Usually the maker will have a waiting list, often several months long, and details and refinements can be incorporated up until the time he or she begins work. Sometimes this will incur extra cost, but it’s worth it to get exactly the final result that will ultimately thrill you.

SpokeshaveOnce you and the maker come to an agreement on design, price, and delivery, you should both sign an order form/contract. Expect to pay an immediate deposit of 25 to 50%, and for large and complex projects, the maker might request progress payments while he or she works on the project itself.

The excitement of commissioning and receipt of a piece of custom furniture is rivaled by very few other purchases. The level of quality, fit, and finish of a well-built commission is much finer than what is available in the usual retail environment.

Don’t be intimidated; find your local furniture maker and immerse yourself in a fascinating new realm that will deliver pleasure to you, your family, and your friends for the rest of your life.

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