Saturday, July 26, 2008

Just keep working.

We've had something of a heat wave here in New York over the last week or two - I've been coming home every day soaked in sweat, sore as hell, completely covered in black dust, and happier than I've been in a long time.

I'm well into a new project, and anxious to start writing about it. This isn't regular work. This is the reason I do what I do, and I haven't been able to do that for far too long.

Let's try to start at the beginning.

I get asked fairly often how I get clients, how a job begins, and how the designs happen. Each one is different and has its own variables, but there are enough common elements to generalize. Most people find me through one of three channels - word of mouth, seeing my work at a show, or finding an article about my work in a magazine.

As anyone who makes anything can tell you, not every piece is a home run. In fact, even for the best of us, you're lucky to get one or two out of every ten. This is why it's so crucial to keep working, and it's what's so intimidating about that elusive, "next piece," especially right after an important one - you have to get over the notion that each piece will be better than the last. Just keep working, the work will take care of itself.

Anyway, about three years ago, I hit a bonafide home run. It got a lot of press. Then I got asked to do it again a year or so later, and it got even more press. In that particular round of people paying attention to me, it was published in ForbesLife magazine.

Now, when a piece gets published, it generally results in a flurry of calls and emails, inquiries about commissions, etc. I try to find common elements and figure out a general percentage of how many of those inquiries end up as actual work, but the more it happens, the more I realize how pointless that is. It's completely different every single time. Just keep working, and the work will take care of itself.

Of course, since this was Forbes, and the fancy price tag was right there in the article, I assumed that I'd get fewer calls than usual, but a higher percentage of "quality" inquiries. The people at Forbes warned me that this was going to change my world, that I'd better gear up to handle the deluge. That the attention I'd gotten from the NYTimes article was nothing compared to what I was about to receive.

Uh huh.

For weeks, I got nothing. A "congratulations" from the couple who was kind enough to lend me back the piece for the photoshoot.

And then I got one phone call. From one of the biggest Design/Architecture firms in New York. To this day, it's the only call I've gotten from that article.

And it resulted in a $28,000 commission.

Thanks, Forbes. Deluge or no deluge, you did me right. The photoshoot was incredibly professional and pleasant (thanks to a great photo editor and a really impressive photographer), the copy wasn't filled with errors or nonsense, the article looked great and was well placed.

One call, one great job. I'll take that ratio any day.

So I talk with the design firm, and they graciously decide to put me directly in touch with the client (which is highly preferable, but also highly unusual). The client loves the bench. The client doesn't need a bench, though, the client needs a pair of chairs.

This is a very common occurrence - someone sees a piece I've done, and falls in love with it for whatever reasons, but has a need or desire for a completely different thing. It's my job to find the elements that spoke to them, and find ways to transfer that to a new idea. It involves a lot of questions and listening carefully to the answers, and a lot of gentle suggestions to make them fall in love with what I want to do. As my Dad once taught me, "I want everything to go my way, and I want everyone to be happy about it."

After all - when it comes to the big ones, the jobs that I know are going to take every ounce of blood and batter every muscle and test every skill and challenge every cell in my limited brain - I don't do this for them, I do it for me.

I just need to convince them to support me while I do it.

In exchange, I give them what I've done. That's the deal.

It often hurts, to give that up, but that's why you have to keep working. Just keep working, and the work will take care of itself.

So. The client tells me all the things that they love about the piece they've seen. It's a pleasant process for a narcissist, to sit and listen to someone tell you how they're deeply moved by your work. Then they tell you what else they love, and they show you pictures of things that have nothing whatsoever to do with what you do, and they ask you to somehow combine the two. Almost every time, this happens.

That part doesn't feel quite as pleasant.

But okay, it's a challenge and that's fun, that's what takes you into new territory, makes you find a place you haven't been, and if you're smart about it, you can steer that ship and take it somewhere exciting.

In this case, that's exactly what happened. The chair they showed me was horrible, an obviously uncomfortable abomination, a mixture of styles that contradicted each other and resulted in a coarse and angular piece that appears to be sticking its tongue out at me:

But that's alright, that's also common. There were things about it that they liked, and I listened carefully to what those things were, my brain working diligently in the background trying to tweak and caress those things into my own style, to swallow those ideas and find a place for them within my own vocabulary. And then when I open my mouth, I can find the words to make them happy about what I want to do.

They liked the sharp lines and the angularity, I made them softer. They'd seen the striped odd beauty of the wood from a palm tree, I explained that a palm can't deliver what we wanted - I've always wanted to do a piece with Macassar Ebony, I said, it's also oddly striped and marbled, and incredibly rare and opulent, an astonishingly beautiful material - it will be far superior to a piece made from what is essentially very thick grass.

They agreed that the tongue was silly. The liked the way it leans forward, I convinced them to make it lean back. They liked the curved rectangle for the back - I don't, but I gladly traded that for more curves and the chance to elevate the seat so that it appears to be floating.

And at that point, I agree to go away. We discuss a general price, and I take 10% of that to go away and design something. Depending on the piece, I'll come back with a little model, or a full-scale mockup, or a series of doodles, or a full 2D rendering, or even a set of working blueprints. If they decide to go with it, that 10% becomes part of the price, and I take a full 50% deposit to get going (obviously, there are little tweaks and such, within reason). If not, they are free to say, "no thanks," and I've been paid for the work I've done thus far, and everyone's happy.

I think - that's never actually happened. I mean, really - how can anyone resist my charms?

Moving on...

Someday maybe I'll do a separate post showing examples of all those different presentations, explaining why each was appropriate for its situation, but for now let's stay with this project.

For these chairs, I ended up doing a series of doodles and a full scale mockup of the back leg. The doodles because I was playing with line and stance, with the posture of the thing, and knew that a lot of the finer detail would come out as I actually did the pieces - they were going to have to trust in my ability to find it. For now, I just wanted them to know how they would feel, more than the perfect representation of how they would look.

I showed them these little sketches, and a sample of Macassar Ebony:

And we agreed to get started, on the condition that I would show them more detail as it came clear. They gave me a whole bunch of money, and I came back later with this slightly more defined sketch, the beginnings of the working shop drawings (drafted blueprints), and the mocked up leg:

Last adjustments were made - let's make them an inch taller, let's make the seat a little less deep, that kind of thing - and I'm off and running.

The next step? Figure out where the hell I'm going to find enough Macassar Ebony to make these things, and even more of a challenge, figure out how the hell I'm going to make these things. I'm reminded of something a friend once said, looking at a sketch in my notebook.

"Nice. And you're just stupid enough to try to make that."

Just keep working, and the work will take care of itself.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Wow dude, I've really been enjoying your last couple of posts. Probably because I relate to it with my music processes, but still. You write really well about it. I'd be curious to know if there is a circle of people within your industry or other people you know that are involved in this stuff that keep blogs like this too. Really impressed.


2:41 PM  
Blogger Rabbit B. said...

Hey Suapyg, could you possibly provide a couple of examples of great furniture art? I want to gain some perspective on your art vs. others.

Good post by the way.

3:00 PM  
Blogger sb said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Rabbit B. said...

Ya, I definitely suggest a post about it. Looking through those websites was really eye-opening. Furniture art is pretty niche to most so while looking into it through you is cool, I think a grasp of the art as a whole is necessary.

3:57 PM  
Anonymous rr said...

I posted my comment on the last page
Opps my bad but a great comment

9:16 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home