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How to Commission a Piece of Furniture

by Alfred Sharp

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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.

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But 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.

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Once 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.