contributed by Dan Zongker [furniture designer / vice president of Zongkers Custom Furniture, Inc. / hearty Nebraskan]
EDITOR’S NOTE: You’ll find Dan and his company tucked away inside the walls of the old Metz Brewery building in Omaha, Nebraska. He and his brother Dennis have been designing and fabricating premium-grade custom furniture and casework nationally in the residential, commercial and government markets since 1989. They’ve proudly created a company mixing traditional craftsmanship with modern technology, and their 12,000-sf facility boasts 10 of the Midwest’s finest craftsmen who each possess an exceptional eye for detail. As it can be a confusing and mysterious process, P&C asked Dan to provide our audience of both up-n-coming and practicing designers with some solid advice on what to expect when commissioning custom work.
For nearly 20 years we have established close relationships with interior designers and architects, assisting them with design and product specifications, and, ultimately, providing them and their clients with a quality product. Hard work, honesty and perseverance have proven us to some of the nation’s leading designers, and working hand-in-hand with many design professionals has led us to find five common misconceptions related to custom furniture fabrication.
1 | With the vast array of imported furniture and mass production, the idea of custom oftentimes slips through the cracks. The advantages that custom furniture can offer the customer are frequently overlooked or misunderstood. Production companies focus on the vast market, and designs tend to lean towards the general consumer, focusing primarily on the cost of production.
Custom, however, provides the consumer something unique and defined, allowing both commercial and residential environments to be tailored for special functional needs. Through customization, design professionals can assist retailers in enhancing their brand, corporations in increasing productivity, institutions in reinforcing their traditions, and individuals in expressing their personal tastes.
With the world becoming more and more eclectic and global in focus, commercial and residential furnishings have followed. How many of you have collected cherished antique and/or ethnic pieces in your homes or workplace over the years” To help those items fit in with a disparate scheme, the commission and integration of a custom piece can ease the “odd man out” item’s transition by incorporating subtle, scaled back details from it into another piece of furniture, lending unity and harmony to the interior as a whole.
2 | In relation to imports and mass production, cost becomes misunderstood within our industry. With each piece individually designed, engineered and fabricated, comparisons to mass production furniture pricing becomes difficult. With lower foreign labor rates, usage of CNC machinery, robotic assembly and repetitive production, custom furniture cannot compete in the arena of cost. Nor will it ever.
Think of it as being comparable to purchasing an authentic painting versus a print. Even though each is beautiful in its own right, the painting is truly one of a kind, authentic and, therefore, more valuable. The original painting took the artist countless hours to make and can only belong to one owner; the prints, however, are pumped out by the hundreds and accessible to all. Understandably, the cost is reflective of a piece’s scarcity.
Furthermore, custom furniture can directly be related to the artist who created it. Artisans meticulously handcraft each piece is as a sculptor would a sculpture. Furniture incorporates all the artistic elements – from its overall design and special finishes to its detailed, original carvings and picturesque inlays known as marquetry. The attention paid creates an investment that can be treasured for years to come. Even though each piece is unique and could easily be considered a three-dimensional piece of art, the price-point is certainly taken into account and is often competitive with the upper-end retail market.
3 | Another misconception we find common is color versus the actual hardwood. For example, many times we will be asked to match existing furniture. After review of the project, we learn that the existing cherry is not actually cherry hardwood at all, but simply a cherry stain applied either to a different type of wood or even a composite material.
Retail fabricators have traditionally referred to their furniture as cherry because of the color only, but various hardwoods may exist within the piece creating marquetry or parquetry patterns. The consumer has been educated to think that cherry is a dark, burgundy color wood, but in reality it is a light tan and pink hardwood. If executed well, the burgundy stain applied by the manufacturer creates a visual appearance of cherry no matter what the base material actually is. However, since different woods accept and reflect stain differently, “matching” existing pieces is often not actually achievable, depending on one’s definition of the term “match,” of course.
4 | Visualizing the piece of furniture is probably one the most difficult adventures we have with our clients. Not being able to see the finished product before it is fabricated is not only challenging, but also sometimes scary. Quality custom furniture makers should understand this and go above and beyond to assure everything is presented to you for approval prior to fabrication. Being involved throughout the process creates that comfort zone that the product being fabricated is exactly what you or your clients is looking for.
Countless hours are dedicated by designers sifting through endless shelves packed full of catalogs, searching for a particular piece of furniture. “This piece looks great, but it won’t fit.” “This one will work nicely, but it’s the wrong stain.” How many times have you ventured into the unknown mass of catalogues, only to end your day disappointed” How about those sore feet from walking through miles and miles of furniture on display at your favorite retailers or To The Trade showrooms” Exhausting, isn’t it” Personally, we go out of our way to make your job easier by in-depth discussions of what exactly you’re looking for. Complete design drawings, engineering drawings, finish samples – everything is designed and fabricated perfectly, saving you valuable time and stress.
5 | Finally – but far from least important – is “quality.” This term is misunderstood throughout our industry and countless others. When selecting a custom craftsman, quality should be the backbone of the company. Not only does the exterior of the piece need to have the smallest detail perfect, but the interior needs to be equally as flawless. Production methods – often unseen by the eye – assure longevity and are extremely vital to quality, but they are misunderstood by most.
How many pieces of furniture have you seen with beautiful exteriors, but when looked at thoroughly, they are constructed with short-lived particleboard interiors, flimsy structural elements, and coarsely operating drawers” Low-grade finishes are another measure of lack of quality. Simply said, the finish should be clear, durable and lustrous, not cloudy and soft.
Quality has become even more vague as technology advances. In today’s market one often has to ask: “Is this really wood”” On many occasions it looks real and feels real, but is far from something harvested from the Earth. The advancement of plastics and embossed technology is not necessary a bad thing, but they can easily deceive, cheating both design professionals and consumers alike if presented in a false manner. In other words, know what you are getting.
The interior design industry is growing vastly, and a superior level of expertise is now available to the consumer in need of both commercial and residential design services. Likewise, a mind-boggling array of specification options are available to design professionals. However, if you are looking for something that you can’t find in the mass market, have an idea for a special detail, or need to insure extra high quality for a demanding client, custom is the way to go. (And, of course, we’d be happy to help.)