“I love this piece! What is the price?” I was recently texted this message from an individual who was looking at my website. Like most artists, this question for me embodies the seemingly incongruent emotions of gratification and terror every time I have been asked it. These emotions are especially strong when an individual is approaching me through my website or other social media because the question comes from outside the context of a gallery or specialty retail shop where the reputation of the shop, the pricing structure, and sales personnel would provide a context and rationale for the price. Even with gallery or retail representation to provide this all important information, I believe that sales of custom and studio furniture can suffer because of a lack of context the general public has towards this functional art medium.
Specifically we as American consumers have limited understanding of why a complete bedroom set at our local furniture store can cost $1500 and why a single chest of drawers at the same store can cost $1800. We are amazed and even somewhat bewildered when we can purchase an apparently stylish piece at Ikea and pay double the price at the store next door for something with only half the style. Salespeople at these stores only serve to confuse the problem more with throw-away terms such as “solid wood” and even in the naming of the species of woods used in the furniture (i.e. “this is Cherry”, rather than “this is an unknown wood product from south-east Asia with a Cherry looking color applied to it.”) Within the world of furniture very few can determine what has value and what does not other than through strict functionality of the furniture or through antiquated and dated ideas of branding (i.e. “It’s from Thomasville.”, or “It’s Amish made.”) Into this world comes the custom studio furniture maker with a portfolio and idealism. Hoping that the workmanship, quality, style and materials used will justify the price-tag for some customer.
But it doesn’t. It doesn’t because of misinformation and marketing that is foisted on the buying public every day. It doesn’t because inferior materials and workmanship can be covered with a slick finish and smooth salesmanship. It doesn’t because the public can’t see through the ruse to what actually goes into making good furniture. I am not talking of style here, more on that later, but strictly of quality, craftsmanship, and materials. When it comes to furniture, very few can determine what qualities a piece of furniture with any integrity actually possesses.
So how did I answer the inquiry about my price on the piece? Of course I know how much time and material cost are embodied in the piece, but I also always want my pieces to be within the financial reach of someone who appreciates fine work. Sometimes this desire outweighs my goals for the profitability of the piece and to this end I visited my local furniture store. Fortunately, my local furniture retailer has examples of quality American-made furniture, made with real wood from real North American forests. They have drawers joined with dovetails or finger-joints and are not merely nailed together. Those drawers slide on slides that are nicer than kitchen slides and the doors are actually made of solid wood. When veneers are used they are veneers of wood and not veneers of pictures of wood applied to sheets of glued together sawdust. Finishes are smooth, and the color of the finish is even but not so uniformly unnatural that it would conceal the fact that real wood is a natural product with natural color variations. Finally the furniture was assembled and ready for delivery and not packed flat in three boxes. To my joy I found that the retail price of such furniture was positively comparable to what I was willing to accept for the piece this customer inquired about. I was able to provide the price to the customer and the context of existing furniture pricing while adding the uniqueness and artistic merit of my piece. As all furniture makers know, sometimes this is not the case due to the complexities of the design, but even in such cases it is important to try to establish a pricing rationale and context for our work.
For those looking at custom or artistic furniture, go out and look for quality American –made and European-made furniture. I can tell you to check out retailers such as Room and Board (www.roomandboard.com) and manufacturers such as Herman Miller (www.hermanmiller.com), and your local retailer. You will be surprised by the number of smaller manufacturers of quality furniture there are. Expect to pay more for quality furniture but you will get more for the money you spend. Finally check out custom and studio furniture makers who are bringing artistic merit to the craft of furniture design and construction.