CustomMade Scholarships

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2012 CustomMade scholarship recipient:
Annette Sophie Lippert
North Bennet Street School, Class of 2014

Consumer Advantages of Buying Custom Furniture

A customer's experience of purchasing a well-crafted piece of furniture from a skilled North American craftsperson can be likened to a foodie seeking out a great meal prepared from locally grown ingredients – in short, it is a life-style choice. Though the visible duration of the products is quite different, the consumer's advantage is rather comparable. The client can be treated as a unique person with particular desires instead of being identified by a non-descript credit card number. Similarly, the furniture maker is a tangible contact with whom the customer can readily interact. Thus the customer can gain a better understanding of the furniture making process. Via the commission, a focus on quality products is established, which in turn shapes the local environment and will likely cause those who interact with such a piece to think about the built environment on a broader scale. Quality and durability move into the forefront of decision-making and affect how other elements in the home and beyond, are selected. Over time this results in a redefinition of the word 'value'. Value becomes a function of fair remuneration for a well-crafted object in one's life. The benefit is much greater than the boost for the local economy. By commissioning a custom piece of furniture the customer is investing in an object, which will likely become a treasured piece inherited by future generations. The lasting impact on the aesthetics of our society is certainly important – and who better to understand the local aesthetic than a regional, skilled craftsperson.

Though the physical environment is clearly enhanced by custom-built furniture, society, of which the consumer is a part of, can benefit on many more levels. In a world, where efficiency is frequently measured purely by quantity, which usually means the use of mass-producing machines, the loss of handcraft specific knowledge is too often underestimated. Fortunately the renewed emphasis on the revival of trade professions and craft techniques has become a priority in the North American culture – their importance as essential building stones of society seems to have been recognized. This movement is allowing a specificity of styles to be developed again. Looking at historic furniture one can usually identify its origin based on the details, mostly in the decorative elements, which each craftsperson or region developed slightly differently. This is not only desirable, but part of the charm of a custom piece of furniture made by a skilled craftsperson. Even the slight irregularities speak of the hand that crafted it and thus convey the human touch in the piece.

On a more technical level, the skilled furniture maker can detail a piece precisely around its use and material. Meaning, for instance, a case-piece to house a collection of sorts may be designed as a veneered cabinet with inlays, since its primary function is a show casing and thus the uniform look of veneered panels gives it the appropriate grace. Whereas a kitchen table is more likely to be detailed out of solid wood, resulting in more visibly interconnected elements, but also having the necessary durability to withstand the daily activities that will occur on and around it. A skilled furniture maker is also keenly aware that beyond the visible elements, the construction details need to account for seasonal wood movement. It is after all, one of the most critical aspects of a piece of furniture that shall stand the test of time. A layperson likely does not know the difference between wood movement in the long-grain versus the cross-grain direction. Why should they - it is the job of a good furniture maker, to detail each element accounting for grain direction, so that the piece will function equally as well during a humid summer as a dry winter. We, as skilled craftspeople, need to convey to the customers that they are perhaps too readily dismissive of seemingly small annoyances, such as an uneven gap here or something getting stuck there. However, we have all seen the results of a series of functional failures – such pieces of furniture find their way onto the curb on trash day, or at best get tucked in a corner in the basement. Most customers, for instance, do not understand why the drawer on one piece of furniture continually gets stuck while the drawer on another piece always slides in smoothly and without hesitation – the simple answer: it is all in the detailing and that is of enormous value in what a skilled furniture maker can deliver. We also need to educate the consumer about the differences in the materials used, from varieties of wood species, which primarily have an environmental impact that is worth considering, to various types of glues and finishes, especially since the latter two can pose potential health risks. In North America there is at least some regulation of VOC’s (volatile organic compounds), but many local furniture makers go far beyond the regulations to ensure that they are delivering a safe and ecological product to their customers.

Then again, on a more emotional level, each custom-made piece of quality furniture has a story behind it: from what inspired the piece, to the design process, to how it was constructed. This calling into life of an idea or concept, which then becomes a physical object of specific form and style, is an enriching experience, which can be very rewarding for the customers and indeed is part of what they are purchasing. Particularly for those who have no prior familiarity with design, it can be interesting to learn how customer desires are transformed into a built element, i.e. how their style is reflected in the design, how proportions are developed and how surroundings are incorporated into the piece, while functionality remains in the forefront of the design decisions.

One can see there are numerous benefits, both for the customer and the local region, when an individual decides to commission a custom piece of fine furniture from a skilled North American furniture maker. It starts a cycle, which for instance could lead to the craftsperson inviting the patron – as a thank you - to a foodie inspired local meal, which in turn allows the chef to support local farms; starting a cycle that has many far reaching positive effects. Knowing specifically where a product is coming from and who made it, especially if it is locally sourced in North America, leads to a stronger American society, culture, environment and economy.