The Business Of Handmade Furniture, Part I
When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I create custom handmade furniture they often respond with a combination of interest and perplexity. “That’s cool! Uh, what kind of furniture do you make?” Sometimes this initial question is followed up with, “Do you make rustic furniture?”, which used to make me wonder if I was a rustic looking person. But even after I started dressing better and shaving more often, this “rustic question” persisted. So, I have come to the conclusion that it is hard for most people to imagine an individual in our modern culture who makes elegant, nicely crafted furniture by hand. After all, there just aren’t that many of us out there. If someone says they are an architect or interior designer or mechanic, we can conjure up a mental image of what that person might do, but furniture maker? Uh yeah. What kind of furniture do you make? Is it rustic?
Many years ago when I first got interested in working with wood my highest standard was nice kitchen cabinets with raised panel doors and a glossy lacquer finish. That was what I aspired to make. Then one day I came across a copy of Fine Woodworking Magazine on a news stand and learned there were living people who could actually reproduce beautiful antique furniture and others still who were building new forms to their own design. This revelation blew my mind! In my ignorance I just didn’t know the art of furniture making was still being practiced at such a high level and was continuing to evolve.
Thirty-five years later, I’m not sure much has changed in the culture at large, though. People look for furniture that is functional, comfortable, in a style and color they like, but few people think of encountering furniture they might get excited about or swoon over. Almost no one thinks of furniture as an art form or as functional sculpture. Almost no one even knows someone who is a furniture maker. My friends and clients don’t even know what to call me. When they introduce me they say, “This is my friend, Louis. He’s a really good carpenter.” This frightens me because you would not want me to build your house.
But one mustn’t get discouraged by every little thing. Even after building hundreds of pieces, I still get excited when I start a new project. I have the opportunity to work with beautiful materials and bring new forms into the world. I have the opportunity to work to a high standard and to create things that are both functional and aesthetic. I am still passionate about what I do. I get to pour myself, body and soul into my work, and there must be a lot of satisfaction in such an occupation, right?
The answer to that question is yes, but one can’t eat satisfaction. Satisfaction won’t support my family or pay my taxes. As challenging as the creative and technical aspects of furniture making might be, doing it as a business and making a living at it is probably an even greater challenge. This subject, the business of furniture making, is one that seldom gets discussed in magazines, online, or even in prestigious furniture making and design schools. I have friends who have come out of such schools. They learn how to make incredible furniture but are left clueless as to how to market their skills. One might wonder if it is even possible to make a real living as a furniture maker. In coming posts I hope to share from personal experience what I have learned about this ignored topic.
Would you like to hear more about this subject of making a living as a furniture maker? Then please leave me a comment.
You can see more of my work on my website.