Second, make sure to check out the Design Harvest festival! It is being held this weekend, September 29&30, on Grand Avenue between Damen and Wood.
“Commissioning a custom piece is similar to having a suit custom-tailored versus buying off the rack,” says Carson Maddox, who will be showing work at the fest. “The one off the rack may work just fine, but nothing can compare to the fit, finish and feel of something crafted just for you.”
Commissioning your own special snowflake can be daunting for first-timers, so we talked to some artisans, dealers and designers to demystify the process.
1. The price might be right. Custom furniture isn’t necessarily more costly than ready-made pieces from a showroom or chain store, and can even be less expensive. “A large furniture manufacturer has a lot of invisible factors involved in its pricing structure,” say Jordan Mozer of Jordan Mozer Associates. “It has to pay a designer a flat fee and often a percentage of sales, and a factory to make the merchandise. Then there are taxes, shipping, advertising and overhead costs for the retail outlets, such as rent, insurance and even air conditioning. All these costs are rolled into the final sticker price.”
2. Is time on your side? It takes a while to design and build custom furniture, obviously, so it’s crucial to establish a time frame. “Once the project has been defined and designed, I tell my clients it will take eight weeks, give or take,” says Dan Sullivan of Chicago-based Navillus WoodWorks. “It’s not unusual to go through a few revisions before finding exactly the right size, materials and forms.”
3. Size matters. An experienced craftsman can make Goldilocks a bed that’s neither too hard nor too soft, but just right. “I designed a dining room table with eight chairs for a couple who were dramatically different in size,” says Lee Weitzman, owner of Lee Weitzman Furniture in River North. “The husband’s a big guy and his wife is much smaller, so we made one of the chairs shorter with a smaller seat. All the backs are the same height, though, so no one can tell.”
4. Knock off the knockoffs. If you like something you’ve seen in a showroom, on an episode of “Real Housewives” or on the pages of a shelter magazine, buy it and don’t expect anyone to make a discount doppelgänger for you. “Designers specializing in custom pieces already have a signature look and use of materials,” says Arrin Williams, proprietor of The Haymaker Shop, an Andersonville shop that focuses on local independent artisans. “They don’t want to be ripping off or borrowing from other folks’ designs.”
5. Pictures? Perfect. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t feel free to stockpile your smartphone with inspirational images and share them with a designer. “Showing clippings is an excellent way of sharing abstract concepts and visual experiences,” Mr. Mozer says. “I see the world differently than everyone else and don’t always have words to express it; clients are the same way at times.”
6. Go green. Custom gives you a way to control what your piece is made of. Rocky Levy of Chicago-based Icon Modern solely uses sustainable and recycled materials in his furniture, and says reclaimed urban wood is “the only way to go.” His company upcycles trees that have been torn down to make way for new construction, felled in storms, or axed because of age or disease, slicing and dicing them into handsome countertops, conference tables, and stools.
7. Invested interests. Custom furniture can enhance the portfolio as well as the pad. Wright, the Chicago-based auction house, recently put a collection of early-1990s Mozer-designed furniture from a Glencoe residence on the block, and nearly everything dramatically exceeded its high estimate. A sofa estimated at $3,000-$5,000 sold for $25,000. “It was thrilling for us,” Mr. Mozer says, “and I’m sure our clients were pleased that they had a chance to enjoy it for 15 years and then make that kind of profit.”
8. Singular sensation.Perhaps the most obvious reason for having a bespoke headboard or a one-off ottoman is that it’s going to be made just for you. “You will own something that no one else does,” Mr. Williams says.
9. Local options. “There are philosophical issues at hand when you buy locally made furniture,” says Mr. Mozer. “You’re supporting America, and the people that live and work around you.”
10. Payment plan. “Paying in steps allows for a client to maintain control over the commission,” says Mr. Mozer. Expect to put down a small deposit after the initial consultation, with the balance doled out over two or three additional stages, typically after approving designs and then upon final review.
11. Presto change-o. Many people turn to custom design because they have a space that’s oddly proportioned, or they want to turn design lemons into lemonade. Weitzman designed a television mounting system and cabinets to go around unwieldy circular support columns that run through the space of a new condo building, and disguised the sink an Orthodox Jewish family wanted in their dining room. If you’ve got something to hide, a good furniture designer can work magic.