The new bespoke furniture customer is discerning and involved - and a vital part of creating an unmatched artisan piece.
Crafted furniture is as much style as function
In the past couple of years, the Dubai-based interior designer Laith Abdul Hadi has observed a new type of client requesting his professional services: "They are well educated in design and they know quality," says Abdul Hadi, who is also the founder of Burlesque Gallery in Jumeirah. "It used to be that when local clients had a majlis to furnish they didn't really care about the details as long as it was finished quickly. But now, they are becoming increasingly discerning and involved. Most importantly, they are more willing to wait for a piece to be delivered and keen to build a relationship."
Abdul Hadi's clients are typical of a consumer who is no longer willing to compromise when it comes to furniture. They want quality, obviously, but they also want individualism - and when a high-end sofa from a well-known European or American design collection can easily cost the same as a small car, many customers feel it makes both financial and sartorial sense to turn to bespoke.
"True bespoke furniture is all about the craft; it's furniture as an art form and, at its best, an expression of contemporary quality," says the master craftsman John Makepeace. "Unfortunately, the term has been overused to describe everything from kitchens to radiator covers and been saddled very much with a trade connotation."
Not in Makepeace's world, however. Deep in the English countryside, his Dorset workshop produces some of the finest bespoke pieces of furniture available in the world today. In the industry for almost 50 years, he has been credited with creating a renaissance of the bespoke craft and his talent is likened to that of a contemporary Thomas Chippendale. He describes his career as "an adventure in wood" - and he wants his client with him on it every step of the way.
"The client relationship is at the heart of bespoke," he says. "I see their role as one of patron and vital to the creation of an original work."
In the eight to 18 months that it takes to create a Makepeace, a client will often take several trips to the workshop to see the work in progress - and at up to Dh250,000 for a dining table one can imagine why it's a trip clients don't mind taking. Would Makepeace not just prefer to get on with it rather than have his client breathing down his neck every time he picks up a chisel? "On the contrary. I get disappointed when people don't give the time to stay in touch and give their input," he says. "The whole experience is diluted for both of us and the result is more of a formulaic solution."
"For a designer there is nothing more exciting than the thought of applying a fine craft to a bespoke piece simply for one event or one individual," says Katrin Greiling, the designer-in-residence at Traffic Gallery in Dubai. "There are so many compromises to be made in design, so the freedom that bespoke gives allows a real blurring of art and function."
Greiling says her ultimate bespoke creation would be a glass-fronted display cabinet containing a documentary in images, film and mementos of the life of its owner: "Bespoke is about a piece being created for just one individual - and this, for me, would illustrate that element of it completely."
Makepeace agrees that every bespoke piece doesn't necessarily become a beloved heirloom: "The spirit of bespoke may die when you die. It has been made to meet your precise wants and needs but that doesn't mean it cannot still be enjoyed by anyone else - it's just never quite the same."
The trend for glossy, minimal Italian furniture was at its zenith the year Aiveen Daly graduated from design school specialising in upholstery. However, Daly finds the look that has been responsible for a thousand high street copycats boring and generic. "How can people pay so much for what are essentially blocks of foam?"
Instead, she took her cues from the fashion industry, giving her bespoke chairs exquisite pleating, ruching, buttons and laced-up corsetry. "Coming to us for a piece is the equivalent of going to a Jermyn Street tailor or Paris couture house," she explains from her London workshop. Her customers tend to be people who have their fair share of branded high-end furniture and are looking for something a little fun to set their interiors apart.
"I adore my clients' input but we don't want to frighten them off," she says. "If they come to us with a completely off-the-wall idea, that's great but we also can just hold their hand through the whole process if they like."
It generally takes between six and eight weeks from commission to a completed piece - chairs cost from around Dh11,000 - and Daly thinks that the wait simply heightens the pleasure of bespoke. "People just aren't used to having to wait for anything these days and that delayed gratification makes it all more worthwhile."
Given the UAE's plentiful supply of workshops, factories and affordable labour, we're more used than most to the concept of custom-made furniture. But the craftsmanship that embodies true bespoke is often missing, which means more often than not, customers here just end up making do. However, the skills certainly are available, insists Abdul Hadi - if you're prepared to look hard enough.
"It has taken me six years to find people up to the standard of craftsmanship I require and I've found the most amazing fifth-generation wood carvers covered in sawdust in workshops from Al Quoz to Sharjah," he says. These craftsmen have come from places steeped in a tradition of carpentry such as Egypt and Rajasthan yet end up churning out cheap wooden furniture in factories for people who just aren't interested in producing quality. "When I explain to them what level of work I would like them to do, you should see the joy on their faces."
When he discovers a talented artisan, Abdul Hadi takes them under his wing and helps them to re-nurture their craft. "I have to let them practice a lot because after years of mediocrity they have to get back into the zone - and being asked to carve roses with skulls in the middle is no mean feat."
He's done the same with his team of embroiderers, who have transferred their skills from beading saris and abayas to adorning his sofas with silk ribbons, beads and crystals.
"It's a whole different technique and it took me a year to retrain them," he explains. "It's very time consuming. Just to complete the work on the back of a matador-inspired sofa we have in the gallery took five months."
In the future he hopes to set up a centre of excellence, with artisans working together under one roof. "It would go a long way into making people understand that the talent is here. I've still got a way to go with the clients who demand to look at catalogues from France, where craftsmen are booked solid and prices are exorbitant.
"My ideal bespoke customer is the one who is happy to experiment with craftspeople who work from their heart. That want to create pieces that really will stand the test of time."
Where to buy it
Al Wasl Road, Dubai, 04 346 1616
+44 130 886 2204, www.johnmakepeacefurniture.com
Studio Greiling, +46 760 15 8700, firstname.lastname@example.org
+44 208 962 0044, www.aiveendaly.com