- This Grovewood Gallery show floor display includes a bed by John Wesley Williams, screen by Jake Jacobson, side table by Don Gauthier and lamp by Jan Jacque.
When it comes to selling handcrafted furniture, “It takes a perfect storm,” says Karen Kennedy, furniture gallery director at Grovewood Gallery in Asheville, N.C. “The customer has to love the piece, has to have room for the piece, and has to have the money to buy the piece. If any one of these is missing, we don’t have a sale.”
- At Northwest Woodworkers Gallery in Seattle, furniture is placed in room settings like the one shown here.
The good news is that retailers can help those three factors come together and, when they do, reap big rewards. Whether sold from inventory, on commission or through custom orders, handcrafted tables, chairs, bedroom sets, consoles and other pieces can become a retailer’s mainstay. But they require space, patience and, above all, the ability to create relationships—between gallery and artists, gallery and customers, and perhaps most important of all, between customers and objects.
Craft galleries report that studio furniture sales are climbing back after the 2008-2010 slump. Empty nesters, professionals and people who, through a combination of work, luck and tax breaks, have ample disposable income continue to be the top buyers. But the retailers we contacted for this article say they are seeing an exciting new trend.
Bill Walsh, co-owner of The Outside In in Piermont, N.Y., is increasingly selling to “a lot of younger people moving to the area and buying their first home.” Similarly, Kennedy has noticed “young people becoming more selective of pieces for their homes, and they want ‘made in America’.”
Local also holds special appeal. Grovewood, which carries work from around the country, reports that its bestselling items are rocking chairs from two makers: Alan Daigre in neighboring Tennessee and Joe Godfrey in nearby Forest City. In its four years in business, The Outside In has added more furniture in response to demand, all regional.
- Room settings like this one at The Outside In in Piermont, N.Y., are designed to give customers a better feel for space, fit and furniture proportions in their home environments.
Easier Studio Access
Focusing on local artists has practical advantages. Retailers can more easily visit workshops and get to know the artists and their processes. Back in the gallery, this proves invaluable when helping customers understand the quality of the work. It is especially crucial for hard-to-sell items like dining chairs.
People will happily pay, say, $4-6,000 for a table but they balk at spending $900-1,200 for a chair. “They just don’t see the intrinsic value,” Kennedy says, which is why retailers who can explain the complexity and artistry involved in making a chair have an advantage.
Understanding each artist also better equips retailers to handle custom orders. “I wouldn’t advise having a ‘custom’ conversation until you know how that particular woodworker works,” advises Sharon Ricci, manager of the Northwest Woodworkers Gallery in Seattle. “There are so many steps and so many variables,” she adds, from availability of materials to humidity levels.
Still, for all the surprises it can entail, many furniture retailers find dealing in custom work both rewarding and lucrative. Afraid visitors won’t realize this is an option, Kennedy created and hung signs at Grovewood encouraging people to ask about customizing a design they like.
- This room vignette from Ironwood Gallery includes a table and chairs by Avner Zabari, quilt wall hanging by Ann Brauer, and “Adirondack Chairs” wall sculpture by Paul Jacobsen.
On Site or Online?
This was the point Ricci was making when she lined up four of David Gray’s Mutiny Bay chairs, each with a different wood and upholstery fabric, on the Northwest Woodworkers show floor. The combination was visually stunning, “but nobody sat down,” she noticed. “As soon as I placed the chairs around coffee tables and next to accent tables, everybody started sitting on them.”
The lesson? A customer’s relationships with furniture is physical. Richard Herrmann got a painful confirmation of this when he took his Ridgefield, Conn., Ironwood Gallery entirely virtual in December 2009 and sales plummeted.
“It’s impossible to connect people with studio furniture online,” he admits. Suddenly jewelry, not furniture, became his top-seller.
It seems counter-intuitive that something so personalized would fare better. But it’s easy enough to switch out a necklace or bangle or, for that matter, a woodturning or vase—but a hall table or dresser? Not so much.
The goal, then, is to help customers fall in love, but also to commit.
To read the complete version of “Love + Space + Money,” order a copy of the Autumn 2013 issue of NICHE magazine.