Handmade: Bespoke Furniture by Paul Case

by Katie Treggiden in Bespoke stories

This week for her handmade column, Katie Treggiden speaks to Paul Case about the bespoke and handmade furniture he and his team of craftsmen design and make in his Lancashire workshop.

“It’s one of the most basic human instincts to try and add to our environment. I love creating new things and looking at how existing things could be improved. It’s a great feeling when you come up with an idea and after some development you realise it could really work.”

“Finding myself working in furniture was really just down to luck. About 10 years ago, I was trying to get out of an unsatisfying career in finance and noticed furniture-making courses in Devon. I signed up for a 12 month course and set up on my own immediately afterwards. Wood is a wonderful material that can be shaped into all sorts of organic and structural forms and is fantastically tactile. Glass, metal and plastics and lots of other materials have fantastic qualities too and I enjoy experimenting with them all.”

“My design process usually starts with a client brief or an idea I’ve had. Liaising with a client to provide a functional solution that’s as interesting as possible is a challenging process, but one that I really enjoy. The nature of bespoke pieces is that each one is individually made – that requires a skilled craftsman to guide the piece from initial planning through to completion. There are a huge number of decisions to be made at every stage of the design and making process. You are often doing things for the first time, and as much as possible you need to get every decision right first time. That is usually helped by experience. But throughout the process there is a lot of what we call ‘head scratching time’. The decisions just don’t stop with bespoke work.”

“It is important to communicate some aspects of how we have conceived the piece – it may just be a few subtle details on how and why we have designed it the way we have.”

“The making process is about creating a group of components, which you glue together to create the whole – a bit like an Airfix model. Once you’ve done that, it about finishing. You need each component to be as refined as possible, so you painstakingly start building up the finish to create a lovely tactile piece. The finish is vital – sometimes you can be delivering a nice piece of furniture to a client, aware of the effort and thinking time that has gone into every decision, and the client just runs their hand over it and says ‘Oooh, isn’t it smooth?’ Hopefully they will give other positive feedback too, but it shows that you can’t ignore any stage of process.”

“At one extreme there is the making of unique bespoke pieces and this does have an artistic ‘warm glow’ to it. It is by nature very creative and there is a lot of problem solving involved, which is fun to do. However, it is very difficult to cover the cost of the time involved in putting so much creativity and problem solving into one piece of furniture. We try to design things that we can sell a number of, with time, so we can be more efficient. We still put all the quality and individuality, that making something by hand allows us to, into the product, but we can use existing jigs or make things in batches as well.”

“The first item in the Spyder range was the dining table. The inspiration behind it was clarity of structure – as few lines as possible. The design came from a tiny thumbnail sketch, but straight away I knew it would work. All the weight of the table, and any people sitting on it, is channelled under the table and counterbalanced by the horizontal stretcher. The table doesn’t look very strong but because of that structural design, it really is.”

“I’ve found the craftsmen who work with me in the workshop from variety of sources – but you do have to be patient. I have taken on a young person from a local furniture making college; I have taken on a really experienced older person who used to have their own business similar to mine; I have taken on a joiner who has quite a lot of furniture making experience. Two of them just came knocking on my door and the other I advertised for in a national furniture magazine. Each one has strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of exactly what my business does. It is a question of working to their strengths and being adaptable.”

“With my business head on I’d say my favourite part of the process is getting new work confirmed. With my creative head on, I’d say seeing the finished piece beginning to come together. It is a great feeling when the idea you conceived months ago starts to take shape before you – it gives you a real buzz inside.”

“It is important to communicate some aspects of how we have conceived the piece – it may just be a few subtle details on how and why we have designed it the way we have. It relates back to the sheer number of decisions involved in making a piece and the heart and soul you put into it. I think most clients quite like to know about this – on delivery I usually give them a ‘guided tour’ of their furniture and explain a few details to them. People like to understand the things that make it such high quality.”

“I think there is a reasonable future for handmade products but you do need to be commercial about it to survive – we are still trying to get that balance right. The designs need to be right – exciting and distinctive, but commercially viable for the price people will pay for them and that depends on whether it is a bespoke piece or a repeat product. Then there is the whole marketing question, which is expensive stuff and impacts the whole focus of your business. Some people spend very little on marketing and sales and rely entirely on their local market and world of mouth – and this can be sound commercial decision. You just need to be very focused on what you are doing and why – and you won’t always get it right first time.”

Paul Case Furniture – paulcase.co.uk

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