Crafting a Life – Episode 6

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Hello, and welcome to Crafting a Life.
I’m Evan Dunstone and this is the Dunstone Design podcast
Episode 6, “Heart and Soul”

Like most makers, I love making exhibition pieces, but unfortunately it’s not very good business, and it’s possibly not even a very reliable way to get good art either. A lot of time and expense goes into a serious piece, so there’s a limited number of such pieces that an individual or company can make. Unlike visual art, furniture comes with the annoying caveat that it must actually work as furniture and fit in with somebody’s lifestyle. Knowing my luck, if I made a two meter cabinet speculatively, somebody would want the same thing, but at 1.8 meters. This is why we, and many makers like us, basically work to commission.

If you do see a piece at an exhibition or gallery that suits you, then please snap it up. These moments are rarer than you think. It is extremely expensive for a maker to produce an exhibition quality piece, and very fortuitous for everyone if it fits your house, your budget and your lifestyle. By and large, the best work is made for clients who have commissioned it, and such work is not publically exhibited.

But by and large the best work is made to commission, simply because it is fully funded and clearly directed but commissioning takes a leap of faith. Not suprisingly, the best clients get the best work; this has less to do with budget and more to do with expectation and relationship. By the time a client has commissioned a few pieces over a period of time, they and we have gotten to know each other pretty well. A good client is one who supplies a clear brief, has an identifiable aesthetic, and accepts advice.

Disappointing work is almost always the result of unrealistic expectations or a brief with conflicting requirements. We occasionally attract amateur woodworkers as clients, and believe it or not, they are sometimes the most difficult to work for. Perhaps a little bit of knowledge really is a dangerous thing. There is an excellent book on the English maker Edward Barnsley by Annette Carruthers. In it, Carruthers wrote “His (that is, Barnsley’s) response to the wishes of clients occasionally had disappointing results”… Carruthers goes on to say that some of Barnsley’s least successful pieces were the result of a client insisting on some element that just didn’t work.

To put this into the Australian vernacular, if the client insists on a dog’s breakfast, then that is what they end up getting. The client who listens to advice and is guided by the designer gets the full hot breakfast with extra lashings of fruity goodness. Here’s the rub- this is our job, but we do this work because we want to make fine things with our hands and we are passionate about the craft. We charge enough money to make that possible, and obviously we are aiming for a reasonable profit. Very few craftsmen are money motivated in the way I assume that day traders, for example, must be money motivated. For us, the old saying that the client is always right can stick in the craw, because it is our reputation that is in question when a piece is disappointing, not the client’s taste.

When it comes to the commissioning process, all clients are constantly balancing what they want with what they are prepared to pay for. Ultimately, what a piece is worth boils down to what someone is prepared to pay for it. We might try to charge by the hour, but unless the client perceives value, there can be no commercial transaction. By the way, many and numerous are the makers who price a piece based purely on the time it took, only to be disappointed by the fact that no one else values it the same way.

But I digress; for a client to get the best from a maker, there needs to be a relationship at the heart of the transaction. The client needs to respect the maker’s talent and experience, and the maker needs to be aware of the fact that the client is parting with a serious slice of hard earned cash. It’s actually pretty important that the client and the maker have a good rapport.

On a side note, one of the curious aspects of the Australian character is that we see our house as an asset, not a home. We are encouraged to use words like investment and equity when considering our housing. The upshot of this is that Australians see spending money on a house as preferable to spending money in a house. This is not necessarily how the rest of the world see things. Apparently the rule of thumb in 19th Century England was that the value of the furniture should be typically twice the value of the house in which it sat.

At the risk of cliché, I would rather live in a well-furnished cottage than a mansion full of Ikea. My personal interaction is with the objects around me, while the roof just keeps the rain out.

You have been listening to Crafting a Life, the Dunstone Design podcast on all things furniture and woodwork. I’m Evan Dunstone, and I look forward to your company next time.