David Savage 5 Point Plan For Success archive

Wednesday 19 January 2011

With the acquired wisdom of 35 years of designing and making furniture, David Savage has compiled a simple checklist of business-savvy ideas for those starting out


Making a success as a furniture designer-maker boils down to a few factors. Key among them is having a representative body of work to show to prospective customers, listening to what they want, having the right attitude, offering excellent service and making an exhibition piece or two.

1 Portfolio of work

When my own students are about to enter the world to earn a living making furniture I tell them that they must be aware that their portfolio is their identity. It displays to the prospective client the maker's sense of style, shape and line. The customer will choose him or her because of what they see and if their portfolio doesn't demonstrate the maker's work, how can he or she begin to show the client who they are?

2 Listen to client

I think they need to listen much more carefully to their customers. The arrogance of the young design mind is an essential prerequisite to creative thought; however, it can get in the way of the process of developing a piece of furniture for a specific client for a specific place to serve a specific function.

In that situation its better to remember that you have two ears and one mouth and that you should use them in exactly that proportion. Listen extremely carefully to what your prospective client is telling you. Ask leading questions that would tease out of them the underlying reason for why you're there. If they didn't want a designed piece of furniture they would have gone to John Lewis and be done with it. The fact that you're having the conversation means that they want something special.

What is it that's special? How's this going to work for them? What's it going to say about them? Find answers to these kinds of questions without scaring them with a load of psychobabble and you're halfway there.

Don't presume to sell them your pre-cooked solution; they wouldn't have asked you if they didn't like your portfolio. Now its their turn to be heard and listened to. Your job is to interpret what they want but in your visual language.

3 Have the right attitude

Attitude is absolutely paramount. If you don't believe you can be successful in this and hold that feeling even as the terrifying shades of recession draw around you then your failure is bound to occur.

I've been bankrupted in this business once, then come close to it a couple of other times. I know that it's not how you fall down that matters but how you dust yourself off and get up again. There's no doubt that there are easier ways of making a living than this; however I can think of no more satisfying experience. Risk is an essential creative act. Without risk there's nothing new, but in this kind of business it's a matter of managing the risk.

4 Excellent customer service

When was the last time you received absolutely outstanding customer service? I bet it wasn't from your TV, phone and internet providers, or even from your local garage. These days, we seem to have become used to having some rubbish service.

What I seek to provide for my clients is a service that gives them confidence in me and makes them want to come back for more.

Here's an example. I received an email this morning from a client whose daughter had used a pair of hot curling tongs at her mother's dressing table. The hot tongs had touched the shellac surface and damaged it. Could I do anything about it?

Yes of course. I will be arranging for the collection of this piece, its repair and safe delivery back to her apartment. It won't go into the hands of a delivery company. At every step of the way her precious furniture will be in our hands.

It's a great fuss for us just before Christmas. We don't have that much free time to do it but we will work like heck to get it back into her apartment before she comes back from a holiday in South Africa. And I won't be submitting a bill for the work. It's part of the service.

5 Exhibition pieces

Almost all of my furniture has been made for customers. However, many years ago Alan Peters, who to a great extent was my mentor and guide, told me that it was a good idea to make an exhibition piece now and again.

The challenge of the exhibition piece is that, if you're like me, you tend to throw everything into it with the result that people may admire the exhibition piece but nobody wants to buy it.

Once it's been around two or three exhibitions what do you do with it? I had an ebony cabinet Terry Sawle made for me years ago. We showed it at exhibitions and it then formed a part of our exhibition stand. It was always admired but I never sold it.

However, that piece sold me more work, made me more money, than anything else I ever made. It sat at the back of our exhibition stand. When we were talking to people we would draw them into the stand, offering them leaflets or brochures, all of which were stored inside this cabinet. We would then open the doors and perfume the room with the scent of cedar of Lebanon, slide open a boxwood-fronted drawer and give the client a leaflet. By then they were totally convinced that we could make exquisite furniture without us having to say a word.

6 The future

I'm now in my 60s. I've been making furniture for over 35 years but I want to work with clients in the next 35 years to develop a new body of work.

This has meant turning over the habit of a lifetime: that of gathering work and customers who have given me the comfort of a 2-year order book. I have now been saying to some clients: "I'm sorry. I'm returning your deposit. I can't make that piece of work for you."

This is essentially because I don't want to make the piece of work. It's a repetition of an old idea and now I only want to work with a few clients who I know and who know me. I hope that doesn't sound arrogant, especially to young people starting out. It's just that one only has so long in which to do things.

Woodworkers Institute

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furniture , cabinetmaking , David Savage , Magazine

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