A Little Something CustomMade in The Wall Street Journal
Furniture retailers are learning something that CustomMade has known all along: consumers are willing to invest their time and money on quality custom furniture. Anjali Athavaley explores the conversion to custom and retail’s turn towards artisanal production and limited edition furniture in her article in The Wall Street Journal Online and in an accompanying video. CustomMade’s success at making the custom option accessible to consumers is also discussed, and the works of several CustomMade artisans (and testimonials from satisfied customers) are featured prominently in the article and video.
By Anjali Athavaley
Furniture makers have found home decorators’ new sweet spot—accessible custom furniture.
It’s easier than ever for shoppers operating without a decorator to find pieces designed and created by an individual artist or artisan studio—or that just look as if they were. Websites like Etsy and CustomMade.com have made the process more accessible, helping customers find, shop and connect with small, undiscovered designers and studios. Big home-furnishings chains, meanwhile, have taken note and are expanding their merchandise assortments with work of independent craftsmen.
For consumers willing to put in the time to find an artisan, custom-designed furniture has always been an option, whether it’s a piece that’s extra-large or extra-small or something more artistic. And craftsmen who build a following can command top dollar. John Pomp, a maker of glass-blown mirrors, light fixtures and wood furniture in Philadelphia, says last year sales of his pieces, which range in price from $1,150 to $25,000, increased 30%. “People who can afford it want something that isn’t just mass-produced and machine-made,” Mr. Pomp says.
Urban Outfitters’ Anthropologie chain says it is featuring items specifically for consumers who don’t want a cookie-cutter look. “It’s a world of beige out there,” says Aaron Hoey, the chain’s global general merchandise manager for accessories, shoes and home. “We are cutting through that world and bringing something completely new and interesting.”
Pieces made in collaboration with artists and designers—such as the $3,998 Ditte sofa with fabric created by U.K. designer Fred Shand—now make up a third of the Philadelphia-based retailer’s upholstered-furniture business. Other pieces include the Flame chair, also $3,998, from South African artist Adam Birch, which the retailer calls “functional sculpture.”
Anthropologie says the typical customer for these pieces is a woman 35 to 40 years old who is affluent, well-educated and “soulful.” “She’s somebody who is pretty worldly and has seen a lot but at the same time is hungry for inspiration,” Mr. Hoey says.
Crate & Barrel has created a limited-edition collection, called “one of a finds,” under its CB2 brand, with items made in limited quantities by artisans the company finds at travel and craft shows.
It’s in part a recognition of the potential for design fatigue. “When you start to look at product that’s affordable and modern, the lines tend to be very simple, and the whole assortment can look kind of one-dimensional,” says Marta Calle, director of CB2 who says the “one of a find” items add texture and richness to the assortment.
Current offerings include a $199 “knead it” hand-painted side table, a collaboration of artisans in Jaipur, India, and the Indian designer Ayush Kasliwal. For fall, the retailer plans to offer a $399 walnut side table by the Chicago designer Jason Lewis.
West Elm, Williams-Sonoma’s home-furnishings chain, has “uniquely designed and patterned” Kantha quilted pillows and pillow covers ($19 to $24), which artisans in India make out of repurposed cotton saris. The retailer is expanding the Kantha line to quilts and upholstery for fall. “When they know the story behind a product, they feel more connected to the culture that inspired it and the product itself,” says Abigail Jacobs, a West Elm spokeswoman.
“The overall look and theory is to be bourgeois-bohemian and to offer unique pieces that no one else has,” says Ann Haagenson, executive buyer for home at Calypso St. Barth, a New York-based chain of boutiques that sells woven stools by French designer Stephanie de St. Simon that start at $350.
Big retailers jumping on the artisan aesthetic want it both ways: They are looking for work that is unusual yet mainstream enough to earn a place in their inventory. Finding artisans who can strike this balance isn’t easy.
“It’s definitely a needle in the haystack,” Mr. Hoey says. Anthropologie’s buyers and designers hunt everywhere from Etsy to craft shows, buying completed items directly from the artist or commissioning designs they think will sell. The company often chooses to work with artists who already have a small following. “Furniture is a big investment,” Mr. Hoey says, “not just for the customer, but for us.”
Some people request custom pieces to fill a particular need or artistic vision. When Erin Wallace wanted to redecorate the main floor of her two-story Toronto home last year, she had a local designer, Jane Hall, create custom lamps and drapes, and custom upholstery for some of her old chairs.
The brightly colored family room is inspired by the Moroccan city of Marrakech, Ms. Hall says. Her inspiration was a brass coffee table the client already owned. “My aesthetic is very worldly,” Ms. Hall says. “I call my style bohemian chic.”
“For me it was having these pieces of furniture that meant something to me and my family and wanting to keep them,” Ms. Wallace says. “What she is able to do is personalize it. When people come in, they say, ‘Wow, it’s amazing.’ It’s just very unique and different, and we like that.”
The website CustomMade.com is a collection of furniture makers and design studios. It screens individual designers and charges them a fee of $400 to $1,000 a year to post on the site. Shopping for a table? There’s the “artichoke table” ($2,900) from Carbondale, Colo., designer David Rasmussen, as well as “freestyle coffee table,” a glass top on a bicycle-wheel pedestal ($500 to $1,500), from designer Scott Feather of Bethlehem, Pa. Visitors to the site tripled in number to 1.5 million in 2010 compared with 2009, the website says.
Derek Hurd, a Boise, Idaho, furniture maker who sells on the website Etsy, says, “It’s given me exposure I wouldn’t have with local galleries.”
Andrew Fleischman, a 28-year-old software company analyst in Waldwick, N.J., found a woodworker on Custommade.com to build a bookshelf incorporating the letter “V” to honor his then-fiancée and now-wife, Vanessa. Bill Kirk, of North Arlington, N.J., says many angles had to be cut by hand. He charged Mr. Fleischman $580. “Instead of trying to find what I liked, I was able to tell him exactly what I wanted,” Mr. Fleischman says.
Say no to the “cookie-cutter urban hipster” look and commission a unique piece of furniture that you can relate to from a CustomMade artisan near you.