Journeys In Design: Exploring the real meaning of bespoke

'Clients want something that evokes a response and has its own unique story'

Today’s buyers are looking past mass-produced pieces for something far more meaningful, says Royal Warrant holder and master furniture maker Neil Stevenson

Neil Stevenson

In today’s prime residential market, owning a bespoke piece of furniture is increasingly in demand from discerning buyers and collectors. Mass production of furniture feels at saturation point, so many buyers are looking for something more meaningful and simpler in origin than a bulk produced item from a factory production line. Clients want something that evokes a response and has its own unique story.

Greater environmental awareness also encourages this desire to know the roots of design; the source and ecological sustainability of a piece of furniture, and to consider the true value of things beyond their price. As designer/makers we take our clients on that journey from the starting point of a raw piece of timber, to the finished item of furniture, designed to their exact specification.

To commission a bespoke piece and to play a part in the design of something exclusive with discreet, individual touches is a rare and special experience. For the person commissioning it, it provides a behind-the-scenes insight into the provenance of a piece of furniture – offering a unique opportunity to liaise with the craftspeople who have spent days working on your new table, to understand for yourself how the wood was chosen, where the materials were sourced and to understand the work that goes into such a project.

To make any of this possible takes a team of highly skilled craftsmen. Without a designer, craftsman, finisher and installer at any stage of the commission, it would be impossible to deliver the high standard that our clients expect. Of course, such exclusivity does not come without a cost which is based upon the amount of time taken to prepare the drawings and craft the piece. We do provide guidance at the outset so that the client has an understanding of the estimated price and upon completion of the design, a fixed price is agreed. The total cost is worked out by a simple time and materials basis. For example, a modest dining table may only require five cubic feet of timber and may take up 24 hours to make, whereas a complex extending table with carved embellishments and a bespoke veneered top may need 300 hours.

Skilled craftspeople account for 13% of those employed in the UK’s creative industries, and together they contribute £3 billion to the UK economy. For this reason, it’s vitally important to support craft and conservation skills in this country. In doing so, we can benefit from our nation’s rich heritage of furniture design and manufacture, long into the future.

It is for this reason that I am honoured to be a trustee for QEST (The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust). QEST is the only charity of its kind that supports craft and conservation skills, by keeping them alive through learning and support. Since 1991 the Trust has awarded £1.7 million to 253 craftspeople for study, training and work experience, awarding up to £15,000 to craftsmen and women aged between 17 and 50 to help them further their careers. I’m personally absolutely committed to encouraging and supporting skilled trades and see it as being vitally important that specifiers – whether that is developers, architects or interior designers – support them too by commissioning their work.

The Design Journey

At a recent discussion at Decorex during London Design Week, I joined the President of the BIID, Susie Rumbold, interior designer Staffan Tollgard and textile designer Margo Selby to discuss our own experiences of the luxury design journey and our creative influences. We discussed the growing interest in the provenance of a piece, in the world of interiors. Clients want to know where a piece has come from, who made it and the materials used, and significantly they don’t mind paying a premium to get that high-level of exclusivity that comes with a bespoke commission.

This desire for a ‘one-off’ piece and the interest in the design story of the maker has opened the door for clients to ask for and explore a wider range of materials.  There is a fairly standard palate of timbers used for furniture and this is because they are tried and tested and available in reasonable quantity. Veneers allow us to use a greater range of materials but with limited applications, so it is quite rare to use timbers that are out of the ordinary. Satinwood and Rio Rosewood are fairly easily sourced as veneers but in large pieces of timber they are very rare. We have undertaken two projects requiring both and the sourcing of them in the quantities required was extremely challenging particularly with the regulations on sustainability and protection of rare species. We eventually secured the Rosewood from a UK source which had the pieces lying hidden for decades, but the Satinwood we had to import from Sri Lanka.

From my experience in working with valuable exotics, for me, the most rewarding use of a rarely used timber was when I was asked to make a small set of library steps for a couple who had chopped down an English Cherry tree from their garden. This wood had been stored away for twenty years with its owners not having any real idea with what to do with it. The onset of old age had made it difficult for this couple to reach some of their many books, and so the idea of library steps was born. English Cherry is a delightful wood because of its rich creamy yellow hue with red and green streaks. Due to its very small stature, English Cherry is not usually considered a furniture wood, instead being more frequently used for turning.

In the prime residential market clients are becoming bolder with their choices, and whilst traditional walnut and oak timbers are still popular, we now see a desire to stretch the options so non-traditional furniture woods have made brief appearances as fashions change, such as Wenge, Indian Laurel and Olive wood.

So, what is the beauty of bespoke? For me, the real beauty of a finished bespoke piece is reflected in the collaboration between client and designer, by the hours spent designing and painstakingly crafting the piece from a specially chosen piece of timber – selected specifically for that commission – and the pleasure in creating something that is truly unique which will be enjoyed for years to come.

Neil Stevenson is Managing Director and Founder of NEJ Stevenson. He is a Royal Warrant holder to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Trustee of the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers and a Brother and Trustee of the Artworkers Guild