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Commissioning a Piece

Welcome to the Slow Furniture Society

Things men have made with wakened hands
And put soft life into
Are awake through years with transferred touch,
And go on glowing
For long years.
And for this reason some old things are lovely
Warm still with the life of forgotten men
Who made them.

Step 1: Welcome to the slow furniture society

The inimitable Matt Burt calls bespoke furniture the “slow furniture society”. I rather like that.

Where possible I like to start the process by meeting you where the furniture will live. “Turn up clean and on time” was the only sales advice I was given by a mentor, and it has served me well.

Delivering on promises is what bespoke furniture is all about. I’m asking you to trust me with a large chunk of cash based on nothing more than a few sketches and my dazzling wit. Turning up on time is the first step in earning that trust.

The mission of the first meeting is to understand what you need. Anyone who is interested in bespoke furniture wants something special. But that doesn’t always mean flashy. Creating a piece that quietly enhances the space it lives in without overtaking is much more difficult than making something that screams, “Here I am. LOOK AT ME!”

“This dining table you want – is it light or dark? Do you like natural edges? Delicate and graceful, or strong enough for a Greek wedding to dance on? How many people normally eat at it? How many might eat at it? Do you like figured woods? Will you need chairs to go with it?”

Having extracted the brief, I’ll leave you with a ballpark figure. “No more than $5000, but no less than $4000”. The following day, or the same day if there’s time left, I’ll email the brief back to you, with a note that I won’t start the next stage – the drawings – for 14 days. This is 14 days for you to add, change, or otherwise amend the brief. 

Step 2: The Drawings

In the days leading up to  a design day are troublesome for my wife. They follow the same pattern: escalating irritability, loud music and compulsive cleaning. She assures me I start growling at the dogs. There’s a lot of ‘othering’ done. Anything, please, but sitting down to the damn drawings.

I go into my workshop and clear everything off my bench. No other work is done on design days, and putting everything away stops from ‘just for a moment…’

With nothing on my bench but two sharp pencils and a scalpel, by the end of the day I’ll have a finished set of presentation drawings.

I fill a page with quick, scribbly, mostly crap images. A brain dump to flush out the rubbish and get to the good stuff.

The first doodles are like a reheated meal. A shadow of a proper dinner, leftovers from old ideas. I want to get past those, so I dump them all on the page until there’s nothing left but inspiration.

Then I walk the dogs, grab a coffee and it’s back to the bench to turn a doodle into a formal drawing.

These drawings are important. They show you, my beloved clientele, what the bloody thing will look like. They’re also vital for me in the workshop when the kids are sick, it’s the end of the day and my brain has slowed to a creep. What was I doing again? Ah yes, a table!

Now that there is a front, side and plan elevation drawing for me and a perspective drawing for you to hold up and see the thing in your space, I’m done for the day. And I’d better get a good night’s sleep, because tomorrow we do it all over again.

The mentor also told me to never turn up with just one idea, and I’m not game to try and prove her wrong. She never is. 

Step 3: The Deposit

If you choose one of my ideas, I do a little mental dance (Hooray! The mortgage is paid this month! The kids are fed!). The way we make this official is a 50% deposit.

In normal circumstances I don’t give expected delivery dates. So much can happen to delay projects that there’s really no point, because it will almost certainly move. Unless you have a solid date you must have it by, such as a restaurant opening, we shake hands and I tell you I’ll be in touch when I start.

First thing is to order stock, and when it arrives I let you know. I let you know when the first cut has been made. I keep you updated the whole time. The sadist in me enjoys saying “see this $1200 piece of ebony? Watch me cut it in half”, but really, I’m yet to have a client who doesn’t appreciate a blow by blow account of the making.

Step 4: The Delivery

I enjoy the design period. I love the making period. But without any hesitation, my favourite day of any build is delivery day.The look on your face when after this long process, a process fraught with anxiety on all sides, is finally complete, is the reason I do this. From the first time we speak to this moment our relationship has been resting solely on faith, and delivery turns that faith into something tangible, a product of both our imaginations come to life.

Custom Furniture. It's not a need, it's a desire. And it's a long, winding road from initial conversations to receiving a totally unique piece. But for some people, it's the only way. "Mass market" is not how you see yourself, and your home should be a reflection of that.

The commissioning experience is the same but different every time, with its own needs, pace and milestones, yet it is always collaborative, absorbing and enormously satisfying for you and me.