“Can you design and make two custom bookcases for me?”

“I only need them to be about 6’ tall, 4’wide, and um, say about 12” – 14” deep. I want it made using that thick “dark, cool looking wood”, and it has to have 5 shelves. Can you make it so that the shelves are adjustable? Also, I want some doors, those cool sliding ones that slow down when you close them. I don’t have much of a budget and am only looking to spend about $300 – $400. Can you have them to me in about a week?”

A custom-made media installation from bke designs

This was similar to a conversation that I had with a person that recently contacted me because they were interested in having some “custom” work done. While some of you reading this may not find the humor in the story above, it is conversations like this that is a bit frustrating for not only furniture designers, but creatives in general.

The material alone to buy the “dark, cool looking wood” would cost somewhere in the range of $250 – $1000, depending on what “dark, cool looking wood” our potential client was referring to. Let’s say they chose the $250 material, and I charged them the top end of their budget; $400. That leaves $150 for the slo-motion sliding door hardware, adhesive, fasteners, finishing materials, labor to design, labor to fabricate, and oh, my profit. See the humor?

There was a time where the skills of an artesian was understood and respected to a higher degree that the Crate & Barrel and Ikea age we now live in. I believe a lot of has to do with the client not fully understanding what it takes for a human being (not a CNC machine that can crank out 500 units a day) to not only conceive a unique idea, but also make it… in a week.

Orbit Chandelier designed, produced, and installed by bke designs

I have been designing and fabricating custom wood furniture, lighting, and components for clients for the past 15+ years, and have learned to become more patient with regard to educating my clients in what is involved with commissioning a designer to make a custom piece. I explain to them the time involved in the design process, the costs of materials, and the costs of labor (both design and fabrication). I help them understand that a custom piece is actually not expensive; it is though an investment that is made with the end result being an item that was conceived and fabricated especially for them.

I have found that in engaging this “education process” a true client will make the investment. The others will end up at Ikea, or with a “custom piece” at a “cheap price” that they will never be happy with.

As designers, we have a responsibility to educate our clients, create beautiful unique products for them at the highest quality possible, charge a fair price, while making a living in the process. So designers, create, have fun, and even make some money, but most of all educate your client. You owe it to yourselves; you owe it to your clients. For the audience of potential clients out there, please know that our labors for you are truly labors of love BUT we can’t just give it away…

BK Ellison – bke designs

BK Ellison is an architect, designer, and an Unbranded Designs manufacturer. BK produces the ISA Chair and R2 Coffee Table for our customers as well as a number of custom pieces for local Chicago clients. 

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4 thoughts on ““Can you design and make two custom bookcases for me?”

  1. modified originals says:

    amen! I just fielded an email like this earlier this week. Worth noting however: there are (potential) clients out there that just don’t understand… no matter how much you educate them on the design and fabrication process. In these cases, i think it’s fair and important for designers to learn to walk away. I know it’s always tempting for me (some money is better than NO money!) but it leads to a false idea amongst the general public of how much work is involved in creating custom pieces and lowers the expectation of what clients feel that they should pay for one-off or limited run work by designers. Great post!

    • Samer Saab says:

      As consumers we’re so jaded because we have access to a million options provided by the Walmarts and Ikeas of the world at absurdly low prices. We take for granted the amount of engineering, effort, and quality that goes into really well-designed pieces. Educating on process and true value sound like the only ways to get consumers thinking correctly.

  2. bkedesigns says:

    Thanks for the comment mod, and I agree with you as well, we have to learn to walk away sometimes…

  3. Everything about this post resonated with me. We are a custom design/build firm and we hand select about a dozen projects every year, but it’s amazing how many people (the ones that don’t turn into clients) tend to oversimplify, misconstrue, rush, and even become offended by the custom pricetags. Keep on doing what you’re doing, I know we are!

    Caitlin, GPI Design

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