Crafting a Life – Episode 19

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Hello, and welcome to Crafting a Life.
I’m Evan Dunstone and this is the Dunstone Design podcast
Episode 19, “Colleagues”

The other day I got suckered in to an online debate with some of my colleagues. I normally avoid these types of exchanges, but this time I rose to the occasion like a big fat trout sipping down a delicately placed fly.

The discussion was sparked by an online article about an emerging American furniture maker who had reputedly lost nearly four thousand dollars making a $1,600 chair. Two well respected Australian makers, who are both at the top of their game, waded in to a discussion with me regarding how anyone can lose money on a $1,600 chair. The answer, of course, is bloody obvious; make a chair that costs more than $1,600 to produce and sell it for $1,600.

In one torrid series of Facebook exchanges between we three practicing makers, nearly the whole dilemma of being a furniture maker was laid out, autopsied and inspected. Our personal positions varied, but we ended up in broad agreement.

I’m not going to go into detail about who said what, but I am going to unpick some of the ideas. The first idea was that “we have all been there”. In short, as makers we have all, at some stage, followed an idea to create something that has resulted in a major financial loss. While I am not in a position to conduct an exhaustive study on the subject, every maker I’ve ever met has told me a story about a speculative or commissioned piece that went horribly wrong, primarily because they go caught up in the excitement of the piece.

Here’s one scenario that is probably universal; a maker decides to craft a speculative piece that they are excited about. He or she uses their best materials and they lavish time on it to create a piece that they think is a winner. After lots of effort, they finally finish up with a piece that either A) no one wants or B) no one is prepared to pay the real price for. The maker has spent real money on the production of the piece and it sits there gathering dust in the corner of their workshop or languishing on consignment in a gallery somewhere. Bummer.

For me the usual culprit is spending lots of time and money developing a chair design that proves to be a commercial flop. My ultimate example of this is the Hesland chair. The Hesland was extremely well received by the critics, but the critics don’t buy chairs. The design proved to be a nightmare to develop and make. At the heart of the problem was the fact that the Hesland is really  industrial design, not craft design, and it should be made by the hundreds in a factory, not a few at a time in a small batch high quality workshop like ours. It’s simply not possible for me to manufacture the Hesland in Australia at a price point that people are prepared to pay. I have one Hesland left in stock and I’ll probably keep it as a reminder to myself not to be an idiot. And just let me reiterate that the critics loved this chair.

Here is the second scenario; a good client commissions something from a maker that incorporates techniques that the maker has not previously used. The maker sees the project as subsidised learning, knowing that they can’t make money the first time around while they’re learning the technique, but they will recoup the investment down the track. When you’re young and silly, this is not actually such a sin. It’s not unreasonable to develop a design or a set of skills while being essentially subsidised by a client. I had a very sympathetic first client for my first Cascade Rocker. I’d long wanted to make this design anyway, and the client was prepared to pay me my “best guess” for what the chair would cost as a production piece. As it turns out, he got a bit of a bargain, but then there were also a few minor elements of the original that I wasn’t completely happy with, so we both took a risk. Incidentally, he told me the other day that he kind of wishes he had a later model of the Cascade, because he now thinks the later models are a better chair. And I think he is probably right. But he has the very first one, so at least he has some bragging rights.

Despite the client’s investment, that first Cascade rocker cost me an arm and a leg to develop, but it’s paid me back over the years with further sales of that design.

A friend of mine in Queensland is having this very dilemma even as I record this podcast. He’s been commissioned by a client to make a set of chairs to go with an established dining table design. His real dilemma is that he can’t possibly charge the client enough to cover the various prototypes and modifications to develop the design, but, because of his personal situation,  there is also relatively little chance that he can sell more examples; the project is never going to do much better than break even, if that.

Now, there was no photo of the loss making  $1600 chair in the original article, so it’s impossible to say if the chair is even worth $1,600, let alone the $4,000 that the maker invested. If the chair is ugly, or uncomfortable or otherwise un-remarkable, then who will buy it? But this lack of information didn’t stop one of the makers participating in this impromptu the online debate from saying that most wannabees don’t know how to make a chair efficiently. He suggested that $1,600 should have been ample.

As a broad statement, I sort of agree with his point in this context; most new makers don’t know how to design or make a chair efficiently. This is because most new, or aspiring, or emerging, or developing or whatever makers don’t know how to do anything much of anything very efficiently.
The red flag to me was that the maker described in the article shares workshop space with other makers to whom he is not directly commercially aligned. To my mind, this screams of an amateur approach. Shared workshops look so good on paper, but they almost always end in tears. If anyone knows of an example of a shared workshop that results in a group of happy, commercially viable makers, please let me know. All the examples I can think of have essentially trapped the participants into an endless Indian summer of not-quite commercially viable limbo. At best, this arrangement seem to be a stepping stone to getting your own dedicated workshop.  I think it is telling that shared workshops are usually run and peopled by ex-students, not ex apprentices. Shared workshops of run like the half-way house between woodschool and the real world.

A workshop is a tool, just like any other. Each maker’s workshop reflects and supports their practice. A shared workshop can only ever be an inefficient tool, much like a hand plane with a permanently dull edge. Shared workshops almost always lead to compromise and inefficiency, the enemies of both art and commerce.

As I’ve talked about previously in this series, a maker’s speed of work and clarity of thinking are the keys to success, both artistically and economically. When I walk into some else’s workshop, I am looking for the little things that make the difference. How does the maker move around his or her space? How is the workflow considered? I am quite a messy worker by nature, but I have been more or less beaten into organisation by necessity. Fortunately, my workshop manager, Alex, is super organised and tidy. That’s one of the reasons that he is my workshop manager. Our workflow is highly considered. And this leads me back to the shared workshop. Every morning, our team briefly discusses all the things that are going to happen that day. Because we are so familiar with the way we work, we can quickly see who will need what piece of equipment, and in what order. Because I am the clear boss, I can prioritise equipment based on the big picture need. Thus, if I realise that two or more makers will need the table saw at the same time, I can say who gets priority and that’s that. I am the only one economically penalised if I make the wrong call. In a shared workshop, such a negotiation can become a nightmare. It’s easy to imagine two makers with competing agendas and personal financial or deadline stress arguing over who gets priority on the saw.

Then there is the problem of maintenance. There is nothing more frustrating than arriving at a piece of equipment only to discover that it is out of square, or the blades blunt, or wrongly configured. Bandsaws are often a source of frustration, because they are so versatile. A blade that might be adequately sharp for cutting out chair legs might not be sharp enough for re-sawing. In a shared workshop, blade wear, the timing of changing blades and blade damage can all become an issue. In our workshop, this conflict simply doesn’t arise. We just set up whatever the most appropriate configuration is and get on with it. No individual is penalised except, again, possibly me.

It’s pretty clear to me that this new American maker accepted a commission to make a new chair design that was never really going to pay for itself in the first edition. The question is whether he knew this would be the case when he took the commission, or if the reality came as a surprise. I would guess from the context of the article that he knew he wouldn’t meet his costs, but he was shocked by how much money he actually lost. I, and just about every maker I know, have certainly been there. Anyone who tells you different is playing with the truth.

You’ve been listening to Crafting a Life, the Dunstone Design podcast on all things furniture and woodwork. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please consider going to Itunes and giving it a like, it really helps me out. I’m Evan Dunstone, and I look forward to your company next time.