And then a Light Bulb Went off…(II)

I think this clip from the TV series Portlandia pokes fun quite well at a certain type of ‘artisan’:

I think many artists/craftspeople, at least those who have moments when they don’t take themselves too seriously, can see the humor in the above portrayal – we’re not always practical or terribly business-like. One of the points I take from this is that artisans often do not sell the advantages of the their work very well, or at least many in the public might not perceive much of an advantage with something handmade over mass-produced. And if you are an artisan making things “by hand”, does it make any sense to compete with your wares against mass-produced items? I guess only if you can convince your market that the advantages conferred are worth the cost difference. I wouldn’t pay $68 for a light bulb that was fancy but only lasted a few months, however I would pay that for one which lasted 50 years (even if I don’t live 50 years longer!). Not sure though whether a 50 year light bulb is a valid selling proposition in this culture, at least for most buyers.

There are people lined up to buy Richard Mille wrist watches at $400,000, while a $25 Timex will serve a ‘similar’ function, so somehow those that are excited to buy Mille’s products have arrived at a place where they are willing to pay, and handsomely, for a perceived difference. How is this the case in terms of watches and cars and clothing, but not so much in terms of furniture and, I would say to some degree in architecture? Some might ask where the great craftsmen have gone, and unfortunately many have starved to death, literally or figuratively. They failed not as a result of what they made, but largely, I suspect, in how poorly they sold and promoted their work, presuming there weren’t other factors involved.

I’ve been thinking a lot as 2012 gets underway about how to market my work more effectively and meet the clients I know are out there. The economy is what it is, and sitting around waiting for a ship to come in is not often a wise course of action at the best of times, so I’m giving more thought as to how to connect with the market for custom made high quality solid woodwork and architecture. If anything, I suffer from thinking too small sometimes and need to aspire to bigger dreams I think. That’s how things seem here in early January. I’ve been doing a lot of design work and will likely be sharing some of that with readers here on the blog.

It’s been very rewarding over the past few years to hear from readers from many countries, and learn about how much they have enjoyed and been inspired by this blog. The tricky bit is to figure out how to connect and inspire those who might commission work from me. I’ve talked to many other woodworkers about this matter over the years, and frankly, most of us haven’t a clue at all. Most woodworkers are simply getting by day-to-day, much like a ship bobbing on the waves, never knowing if a wind will blow them into some new exciting place or whether they might be becalmed indefinitely.  While control might be illusory in certain respects, doing nothing and hoping for the best is really about a surrender of whatever ‘control’ there might be. I don’t want to see myself as a ship adrift on an ocean – I want to hoist those sails (sales?) and go somewhere. Every day brings another opportunity to figure out this puzzle and I remain optimistic that solutions will be found.

I do think that if you believe in what you do, believe in the path you take, that you are the best-positioned of anyone to sell the work you do, because sales after all is nothing more than sharing an enthusiasm with a potential buyer. Many of us are repelled by sales and salesmen because they have to fake that enthusiasm, but with one’s own work that is never an issue – more the problem, usually, is being a bit gosh-shucks, it’s just a li’l thing I made kinda-shy about the whole thing. Some buyers might be charmed but to others such self-effacement on the part of the artisan comes across as uncertainty, un-professionalism, or vacillation. Not strong selling vibes.

So, where’s the happy middle ground? I made this or that piece, and I might at times be proud of what I do, but I’m not going to ram it down the potential buyer’s throat either. Surely there’s a place between clubbing them over the head and letting the subtle virtues ‘speak for themselves’.

I recognize that in this advertising-saturated culture the buyer often has a wall up to any attempt at selling, and is trained to be skeptical and is trained to be unaware of subtle details with many things made from natural materials. They’re untrained, let it be said, because those of us specializing in making things with these subtle details have generally done a pathetic job of presenting such information to the buying public. There’s a lot of room for improvement.

And I think that one’s self-image has a lot to do with whether one advances into areas and endeavors which might not be entirely comfortable. Personally I find it easy to self-identify as a technician and as a designer, a bit less so as an entrepreneur, and even less so as a salesperson or manager. Yet managing a business and creating sales is what allows the designing and creating to take place, and the shop rent and heat to be paid, etc.. I can see clearly what holds me back. So, it’s either wish upon a star or work on these weaker areas and see what happens. I’m choosing the latter option. That’s the general plan for me and my business, Azuma Design Build, as 2012 rolls along. I’m focusing in on what I really want to do and walking straight towards that, and that means more architectural work. I like creating structures, and while I love furniture, it is timber buildings, especially intricate roof carpentry, that keeps me up at night. I’ve have the equipment and experience, and invested time and money into obtaining a contracting license, and well, we’ll see what happens from here. I’ll keep readers posted.

Thanks for dropping by the Carpentry Way.

14 Replies to “And then a Light Bulb Went off…(II)”

  1. Chris,
    I lived in New York City years ago but still follow the real estate market. High end is doing well. Someone who buys a 3.4 M co-op can easily afford you. Don't know if it can be done but if you could inform the boutique realtors (check “Curbed”) or the decorators working with new owners about your splendid work, I think you would sell.
    Bruce Mack

  2. Chris –

    For what it's worth, it seems to me that if you want to focus more on timber structures, you should try to develop relationships with architects. Yes, the “a” word. I know that many, many architects are primarily interested in making a statement and wind up creating “homes” that are barely inhabitable, but there are some out there that understand and appreciate traditional building design and construction. And then, of course, out of those, you'll need to find one whose ego will allow him or her to develop a reasonable professional relationship with you. Not easy, I know, but I think it might be possible. I do know an architect who I used for some work about 10 years ago who should be worth talking to. I'd be happy to forward his info to you, if you are interested.

    If you haven't already, I think you'll need to consider working in a reasonably large geographic area, as well, maybe stretching down to NY and NJ. I almost certain that in NY, or at least in my part of NY, you don't need a license to build a home, just to restore or renovate one. You probably know better than me, but legally, raising a frame in a state other than your own, shouldn't be an issue.


  3. I think a lot of people that are willing to pay more for a special piece over a mass-produced piece want the ability to show it off. No one is going to buy a $68 light bulb and stick it under a lamp shade. The same reasoning might apply to furniture as well, people want to show off items with a story behind them. Artisans need to get someone to say, “I want to buy that table made from wood harvest in the blahblah forest (near where I grew up) during the fall of 2003 (the year of my son's birth) by this master craftsman (of who I had a great 30 minute conversation with, and feel I know personally) instead of this IKEA crap.”

  4. Bruce,

    good to hear from you and I'll look into that site you mentioned. Good idea!


    thanks greatly for your comment. I understand your thinking, however I want to do more than just 'raise frames', something I see as a problem within current timber framing practice. It's not holistic, it is 'component supplier' logic. I've had no luck so far with architects. They do not build. I'm not totally closed to the idea, but it would have to be a different sort of architect.


    yes, your point is a good one, however locating those people who will make statements on one's behalf is not always easy. Word of mouth is effective, but it would appear these days that it is not always enough.

    Lots of food for thought gentlemen. I've had a few emails from readers on this topic, so I figure it is a matter of interest to many artisans out there. Thanks for the input!


  5. Chris,

    Now that you have your contracting license I think you will find more opportunities to work in the holistic manner you desire.

    Working as a sub, a framer, a carpenter on site is always going to be a “component supplier” no way around it.

    It might be more beneficial to work on a way to stress/ market your design services in order to attract prospective clients in your door before they walk into the architect's office.


  6. Mike,

    thanks for your comment and you make a very good point. The 'typical' client who I might possibly engage with would more than likely seek out an architect for building work and wouldn't think to look for a designer/builder instead. I'm going to spend a bit more time this year producing building designs as I can see no other ready way to demonstrate the ideas I have – the the tricky bit is getting those images in front of people who would be receptive.

    I appreciate your input!


  7. Hi Chris,

    I have been a professional woodworker since the early 80s. When I started out it was very exciting and rewarding because I was new to it and there was a generation of sixties-influenced buyers setting up, in many cases, their first homes. The idea of custom made work by a talented individual had general appeal.

    In the ensuing decades there have been recessions, big box stores, and E-Bay. In my small city a successful boutique owner/businessman started shipping furniture by the container load from Asian countries. The pieces roughly resemble colonial furniture from the British Empire. They are made from tropical hardwoods and have hand tool marks all
    over them which you and I would recognize as caused by inexperienced workers using dull edges but which look authentic to Joe Shmoe. The wood was worked in third world sweatshop conditions and when brought to upstate NY the doors warp like potato chips, moldings twist, etc. If the customer has a problem they go pick out a new one. The price tag for such finished work is less than it would cost us to buy materials to build. You see them in homes and professional offices all over.

    My business as a custom builder hit the skids some while back and has prompted me to pursue making a product (one at the moment) that I can market through shows and on the web, as opposed to a service.

    An architectural “product” might be something to consider developing in addition to general building services.

  8. Tico,

    nice to hear from you. Is the product you mention the shooting board? I thought it looked well considered and well made, so I hope you're making headway with the sales and marketing.

    I'll think about your suggestion some more. I did have a thought about a garden lantern a while back…


  9. Hi Mike,

    thanks for your comment. I wonder where those people who 'invest' are? Most of the venture capitalists, as far as I know, are looking for high rates of return and fairly rapid turn-around on their investments. You're totally on the money though, if you'll excuse the pun, in terms of preparing a business plan. At the moment i am in the visioning stage – thinking really concretely about my vision for the business and where I want it to go, both in the near term and further out.


  10. If you build a business model of sound economy, and principal, capitalists will support it, Sure that is the goal of capitalist. High rate and rapid turn around, is the problem of the day, yet as those opportunities dry up or become associated with too much risk, as we have seen, you will find a shift towards, sound long term investment opportunities. Mike

  11. Mike,

    well, I do like your optimism! I eagerly await this shift towards “sound long term investment opportunities” you suggest will occur, if not for me but for the larger society.


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