Bespoke furniture is a great way to get what you want for cheaper
You don't have to be earning hundreds of thousands of euro to go bespoke.
Have you ever commissioned a piece of furniture? Personally I haven't because, like you, I always assumed that bespoke furniture was the exclusive reserve of the super-rich.
But I've recently learned you don't have to be earning hundreds of thousands of euro to go bespoke. As it turns out, it ain't cheap either, but if you really want something special made, you can usually have it commissioned for hundreds rather than thousands of euro.
"I think that making furniture to commission is the most useful thing that we do," says Conor Kelly of Snug, a small furniture-making workshop in Snugboro, Co Wicklow.
"We have all our regular pieces on the website, and sometimes people like them as they are; but sometimes they might want something a little different. That's when we sit down and tease it out with them."
Kelly finds that people can be afraid of the idea of commissioning furniture because they think it's going to cost a fortune. In reality, getting a bespoke piece will be a little more expensive than an off-the-peg item, but you won't be adding zeros to the price.
The 'Snug Chest', for example, is a 76cm-high chest of drawers that costs €565. Kelly received a call from a customer who wanted something very similar but a little larger. "It was just a matter of dropping out to her house, understanding what she needed, and adapting the design we already had," he says. The added cost was about €130.
In another instance, a customer had bought Snug's three-seater bench (€225) and wanted a kitchen table along similar lines. "He didn't know what commissioning a piece actually meant. I told him that the process is a very simple one – you just tell me what you want and I make it for you.
"I didn't charge for the design work because it was useful to me – we're going to be offering that new table as one of our regulars. That's how designs evolve and improve."
Snug also has a number of off-the-peg items, ranging from €15 for a chopping board to €1,295 for a kitchen table. The firm's work is made from ash timber – its surfaces combining the natural finish of the wood with soft, bright, spray-painted colours.
"People can be reluctant to go for a bright colour," Kelly says. "At first they think that yellow isn't for them, but they often come around to it in the end. A splash of colour can give a bit of life to a room."
The company evolved when Kelly and his partner, Nell Roddy, were doing up their own house. "We like nicely designed, well-made furniture, but a lot of it was out of our price range. So we set out to make pieces that wouldn't break the bank. They're not cheap – we wouldn't want them to be cheap – but we make a big effort to make them affordable."
Kelly admits that keeping the prices down is a challenge. "Obviously, you don't want to be working for nothing. But we're keeping the profit margins low and keeping busy. It's not like I'm stuck in a job where I'm miserable. I love what I do – that's a big part of it."
On the other side of the country, Martin Gallagher runs his furniture-making workshop from a farm at Ballintrillick, Co Sligo, where he deals in commissioned work, high-end gallery pieces, and small saleable items. "I'd make anything, really," he says. "It helps me survive in business."
That said, Gallagher's high-end pieces are probably closest to his heart and are made with the same care and attention that a sculptor might give to making a piece of art.
And sometimes, Gallagher's high-end pieces also sell for fine art prices. Two of his limited edition Ardú console tables have just been sold at Masterpiece, London's super-high-end antique and design fair through Peter Petrou's gallery and they cost €8,500 each.
Go Gallagher! That's the type of bespoke we usually expect.
But such sales triumphs are rare in the life of an independent furniture-maker, and expressive pieces like the Ardú are massively labour-intensive. "The design development might take a year and I could make three or four full-scale prototypes before I get it right." Gallagher explains. His most recent labour of love is Cascade, a chest of drawers with a deep carved wave pattern. "I'm a keen surfer and I wanted the detailing on the piece to capture what it feels like to be on a wave. The first prototype was a big sideboard but it didn't fit into the car, so I scaled it down," he explains. Like the Ardú console table, Cascade (€6,250) is likely to find a home with a wealthy collector in London or New York.
However, in between this high-end work, Gallagher keeps bread on the table by making decent high-quality furniture, mainly to commission.
"It's very client-led," he says, "I make what people want me to make and it keeps everyone happy." A dining table, for example, might cost €2,500. He also makes smaller pieces like the Bud vase (from €50), a wooden receptacle that holds a number of small flowers, and the Key Dish (€46) which combines a vase and a place to put the keys. Now that's ultimately more affordable.