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.