Friday, February 23, 2007

Time Flies and Therefore, Can Crash

Let's give this another go.

When I started this blog, I was coming to a point where two or three years of nice attention had led me to believe that certain levels of success were possible, and while I was still struggling, I assumed that I could soldier through it and add this little dimension to my ways of sharing my work and my viewpoint as I grew.

This is a funny corner of the world - those who make one of a kind furniture, mired in the endless debates about whether it is art, or craft, or design. Enough overlap and grey area to confuse the brightest scholars, and convincing arguments from every angle.

Since no one really reads this blog yet, I'm sure no one actually noticed the gap in my posts. But let's for a moment assume that some imaginery audience did, and let me tell you about some of the realizations of the past several months.

For outside eyes looking in, for the eyes of my peers, for the eyes of my clients, for the eyes of the press, I've been relatively successful in this field thus far. In fact, I've been asked to be on a panel titled Running a Successful Small Shop for a conference in June. I'm featured in national magazines pretty consistently every other month. I'm the President of a not-for-profit trade organization called Furniture New York. I'm on the Board of Trustees for an international non-profit group called the Furniture Society. I'm occasionally asked to lecture in the field, I do a little teaching, and I regularly critique classes in furniture design. My client list grows steadily, I'm pretty consistently busy, and there's a nice waiting list for commissions. I can sell a bench for $21,000, a sideboard for $47,000, and I'm about to start a pair of chairs that have been sold at $14,000 each. How could that possibly not be called successful?

Now here's the truth: I'm broke. And I've been broke for as long as I can remember. And when I say broke, I mean really truly broke. As in I'm 41 years old and haven't had health insurance since the 80's, I'm months behind in my bills, and I haven't taken a vacation in seven years. And what I'm learning, the further I get into any semblance of 'upper eschelon,' is that it doesn't get any better than this. While I have argued to the contrary, this field is art. At least in terms of economics. What I've learned over time is that there isn't a single person I can identify who makes their sole living by doing what I've been attempting. Not one. They teach, they have other businesses, they have trust funds, they have products that are mass produced and sold in catalogues or stores, they are supported by their spouses, but not a single person that I've found designs and builds one of a kind pieces of furniture that take any kind of risk as their sole livelihood. There is no model for making this viable.

In fairness, I have found an extremely small handful of guys who do bespoke furniture as their sole livelihood, but the work they are doing is largely traditional, and they are isolated cases whose models do not apply here.

What I've been doing for several years is a balancing act - take a combination of the alledgedly more profitable traditional furniture, millwork and cabinetry, and the risky, time consuming, less profitable but much more satisfying sculptural work, and find ways to keep the doors open and the work flowing. The assumption was that this would achieve the compromise of giving me a bare bones livelihood, while allowing me to do the work I love. "I don't need to be rich," I told myself, "I just want to have a roof and a sandwich and do the work that makes me want to get out of bed in the morning." And, I assumed that as my name and reputation grew, that balance would shift further and further towards the more interesting work.

Well, let me tell you, there's a hell of a difference between 'not being rich' and 'you can't survive this way.' And it never occured to me that the interesting work simply cannot give me a living on its own, at almost any price.

Let me give you an example:
I have made this bench twice, and it sells for $21,000:

That's a serious number, by anyone's standards. In ten years of doing business, I've learned that it's a safe assumption that any small business must make an absolute minimum of $120,000 gross to be a viable entity. Any less than that and there's simply no way to cover overhead and still have that elusive 'roof and a sandwich.' So taking the bench as our standard, that would mean I have to a) find a way to reach 6 people per year who would be willing to spend that kind of money on a piece like this, and b) be able to actually produce 6 pieces of that level of difficulty in a year - or 8 weeks per piece. This must include the process of concieving, designing and engineering the pieces.

This is not possible. Just to break it down a little further, each leg of this bench has approximately 40 - 60 hours of work in it. That leaves four weeks or less for marketing, selling, concieving, designing and engineering, researching and procuring material, producing the rest of the piece, and finishing the entire thing (which is in itself a several week long process, though I could be starting another piece during that time).

Um, not going to happen.

This is where I thought that taking other types of work would create a happy balance. I've been wrong about that approach, and in my next post I'll talk about how and why, and begin to tell you about the changes I'm planning to make, and the influences that brought them about. I cannot stop doing the work I love, and if I'm to continue, I'm going to need to find another way.

ps - Peyton Manning has gone and proved me wrong. He has obviously finally figured out that when the pressure is on, putting your head and your ego down and working in cooperation with a team to do whatever it takes to get to the end result works much better than flailing around like a selfish idiot. I'm afraid I cannot say the same for the aforementioned employee. He has been sacked and replaced.