Wednesday, 29 April 2015


Apart from the very rare foray into retail, I've worked to commission most of my career. I now know most of the pitfalls but also the joys of what it is like to produce original work with every job. I've been incredibly blessed to have worked on some extraordinary projects and with some amazing clients, but this isn't always the case. 
A few years ago I had the client from Hades. I knew she was trouble the minute she and her Hermes Birkin waltzed into the Urban Croft and, although I did everything in my power to try and accommodate her wishes, nothing I did was ever right or good enough. There were three main problems. Firstly she came to me because I can make, not for the style of my work, and wanted me to to emulate other people's products which for me is unethical. Secondly she saw me as HER employee and expected me to drop everything for her including my other clients. On one occasion I had to tell her I had some samples to make for a high end designer before I could make her order to which she hissed icily
-Well, we mustn't keep Oscar De La Renta waiting!-
To which I thought- No, of course not, I'm not going to keep Oscar De La Renta, one of the biggest, most respected designers in the world, waiting.
Thirdly she actually said I should work for her for free because it would be good exposure for my business. What did she think I lived off? Dust?
The last straw was her screaming down the phone at me because she'd been away when her order had arrived and it had allegedly been sent back never to be seen again because obviously I'm responsible for the Post Office's offences as well!
So when I recently found myself in the position of becoming a commissioner rather than a commissionee I used my experiences and drew up a number of criteria which I think useful to anyone thinking of going down this path.
1. Find The Right Person For The Job.
We have an incredible wealth of designer/makers in this country of every ilk and style to suit every taste. Research thoroughly until you find someone who's work you not only love but that will compliment the space/person you are thinking of putting the commission into/onto. There's no point going to someone who's work has a minimal aesthetic and asking for guilded Rococo  Even though they may take the commission [us small creative businesses sometimes have to tart our selves out- we have a living to make and do have to eat on occasion] it won't be a pleasant experience for both parties and you will end up with something with no soul and many curses.
2. Know What you Want.
It's important to have a fairly good idea of what you want and to be able to communicate that. You should be able to tell from your first meeting or the working drawings if your wishes have been understood and noted, but be open minded to suggestions and new ideas. 
3. Let Them be Creative.
This is what we do for a living. Part of design is about solutions and if you give the commissionee freedom of creativity within your brief you will end up with an excitingly original piece made with love and care.
4. Cost.
There sometimes seems to be a misconception that having something made bespoke should be cheaper than if you bought it retail. Many a time I've heard - Ooh I could get something cheaper in Debenhams- Well yes if you want a mass-produced rip-off, but the whole point of bespoke is that you get a tailor made one-off that's unique to you.
Bespoke may seem expensive but when you consider all the time-not just the actual making but the meetings, the sourcing of materials, the designing which often includes working drawings- the costs of running a work shop and the cost of materials, you're actually getting a bargain.
So think about your budget, what you can afford and how much you want to spend. Ask for a quote at your first meeting. It may not be exact. It's sometimes hard to give a precise price with commissions as they are an unknown quantity but you can usually get a ball park figure.
5. Lead-time.
You are having something MADE for you. This can take time, especially if it's hand-made. Don't expect your order to be ready the next day. Making is a physical, labour intensive and sometimes very complex process, so be patient. If you have a dead-line for when you want your commission to ready make sure you go to the maker in plenty of time.
6. Go Directly To The Maker.
This way they will benefit from receiving all the money for what they do rather than them having to give a hefty cut to some fancy showroom up West.
 Above, a working drawing for a tassel hat for Gabby Deeming, House and Garden Decoration Editor.
Below, the tassel hat made.

I recently acquired a new flat which had two alcoves that, rather just be filled with shelves, were crying out for something beautiful and a creative use of the their space. As I'm always harping on that one should support our designer/makers I decided to put my money where my mouth is and go down the bespoke commission route.
I chose furniture designer/maker Liam Treanor because I'd loved his most recent Santiago collection and the more I looked at his work more I felt it's timeless simplicity would harmonise perfectly in the space aesthetically.
At our initial meeting we discussed ideas- what I was looking for visually as well as practically [I was wanting a desk and some kind of cabinet/shelving unit] I had a file filled with reference images which gave an idea of the colours/themes/visuals, a mood board if you like, I was planning to put into the interior. 
Our next meeting was at the property so Liam could measure up, and get a feeling for the space. It was during this meeting that we also discussed a shelf for above the desk which came from me looking at old-fashioned luggage racks, using a woven leather panel to tie in with a leather insert that was going on the desk.  I also decided on which wood I wanted from the samples Liam gave me.
From a file full of working drawings/designs, which incorporated all the ideas we had pawed over, that Liam sent through I made a choice on the furniture combining the different elements I liked the best. The rest, as they say, is history and I came home one evening to find nestled in their new nooks the most beautiful pieces of ash furniture that far exceeded my expectations and that fitted visually in the space perfectly.
I love them more each day and they give me a great deal of joy. I will admit that when I embarked on this project I also had at the back of my mind that these could also be investment pieces, but would I ever sell them? Hell no- I'm going to be buried with them [at which point I can hear a collective groan from my friends who already think my request of being laid out in a vintage couture Channel suit while Randy Crawford's 'One Day I'll Fly Away' plays on a loop in the background with the Muppets as my main mourners is an ask too far].

Above, the cabinet in situ.
Below, cabinet shelves showing off my studio pottery collection.

Above, the cabinet cupboard with it's stained black doors.

Above, the desk and rack shelf in situ.

Above, hand-woven leather panel.
Below, shelf.

Above, desk top with beautiful curved back.
Below, leather insert.

Which brings me neatly onto this months favourite projects from the last 25 years…
So these are the most recent on this list but as they fall into this year I thought they could count. 
I'm always being asked if my home drips with passementerie and the answer is no, mainly because I don't have the time for extra curricular trimmage,  but I wanted to add a touch of tassel to my new kennel. When Liam and I came to the question of handles for my furniture I wanted some kind of tassel pull. Liam suggested drilling holes to thread the tassel loops through. Being finicky about finishes I didn't want to use a knot to anchor them from the inside [I know you wouldn't see it much but it's just not couture enough for me] so Liam came up with the genius idea of making a wooden toggle that sits snuggly in a small bay.
Making for myself meant indulgence by using my favourite materials horsehair and leather and using a complex mix of techniques because budget wasn't an issue here. Not only did I have fun producing these but they compliment the furniture so well.

Above, cupboard handles
Below, in situ

Above, desk handles
Below, in situ

Above, inside of cupboard door showing toggle attachment.

Horsehair is one of my favourite materials. In fact I can't get enough of it. I love it's mix of shiny spikiness and bristling wildness. Docked from a horses tail this material is one of the most expensive I use [coming in more expensive than silk]. It arrives in neatly tied bundles which explode when unshackled.

So whenever a client whispers horsehair in my ear I give a happy neigh. One of my favourite and regular clients Precious McBane are also partial to a lock or two of hair and we have done several projects staring this most theatrical of swishing tresses. My favourite being four statement tiebacks for a Parisian apartment. The hand-spun cords were a mix of natural linen/rayon with a tiny touch of bronze metallic and the tassels were dip-dyed natural horsehair trimmed roundly to look like beautiful paintbrushes.

Above, horsehair tiebacks.
Below, in situ.