Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Price and Quality, this weekend in Massachusetts

This weekend I was in western Massachusetts, in an outlet store, and I stumbled across a perfect example of an issue I’ve been thinking about since I started working with my father: the trade-off between price and quality. It was a chair very similar to the one in this image.

It’s a knock-off variation of our Rope chair pictured here.

Perhaps “knock-off” is the wrong word to use. It is clearly a bergere form, whereas the back of ours is open. Plus, the original chair was not our design anyway (I believe we are perhaps the only firm with patterns based on the 1870's Napoleon III original, however) and “knock-offs” are a part of this business anyway. What shocked me was the price. The bergere was selling for about $2,000 in the store.

Suffice it to say, we could not carve, finish and upholster one of our chairs for even close to that cost!

Now, there are some important differences that must be pointed out. Ours is a gilt finish. Ours has tufted upholstery. Ours has a stretcher. Our carving has greater detail. The proportions of our rope is consistent. The tassels of our arm-posts are free-standing from the posts. And so on...

But at some point you have to ask, does the client signing the check care? Would they rather have the more expensive, detailed example of fine craftsmanship, or would they prefer the inexpensive example that gives a similar idea of the original?

I believe that more and more, clients are opting for the later.

Certainly, the current recessionary times do not help, but it’s my opinion that the average client is more interested in the “idea” behind a piece and the look or feel of their home as a result. You could call them the “aspirational” client. The apsirational client may make the choice based on price, or simply because they are unware of the custom option, or the reasons behind the cost difference. But, for whatever reason, they decide to spend their money based on how they want their home to feel.

Now, there is still a client out there that does want the detail and does want the craftsmanship, and is willing to pay for it. But, similar to knowledgeable collectors becoming fewer and fewer, I think there are fewer and fewer of these clients around. From a personal perspective, when these clients place an order it is exciting from the production end, because these are usually jobs that push your boundaries a bit and require you to really engage your creative side. But if I am right and there are fewer of these types of clients, it means that high-end customized furniture and craftsmanship will continue to be relegated to its niche. And, without getting too Malthusian, we will continue to see a dwindling of the bespoke production trades in America. Small talented craftspeople and firms will need to find others ways to stay relevant.
I pulled this post together quickly and did not take the time to find supporting hard metrics. Most of my opinions here are a result of my observations and then stumbling across this chair. So please tell me what you think, or if you feel differently. I would love to know. Just one clarification: I do not place a value judgment on these two diffferent client groups – one is not superior to the other. The 2 groups are themselves a gross over-simplification I used to illustrate what I think I see happening in our business. In fact, sometimes the same client can act both "aspirational" and more custom oriented. I simply want to note these observations to help us make more informed business decisions, and if I am lucky, some of our readers’ as well.


  1. I don't object to your use of the word "knock-off " for don't we all see such phrases such as "Inspired by..." "in the manner of ..." " an homage to ..." used in magazines and trade publications? Anyone who has taken even a rudimentary course in the decorative arts cannot but be unaware of the many familial resemblances in popular catalogues to authenticated designs. How many poor copies of the Brno chair litter the flea-markets of America?

    Sometimes discrimination is not a bad thing.

  2. even in a small market, I began stressing these very sorts of details early.isn't finance always the issue? I am lucky after almost 30 years to say people do pay attention-the moral here is if-as client,buyer starting out you do not make lots of compromises after 30 years you can have some incredible rooms. The most frustrating thing for a young designer is going through this process-it can be disheartening to feel you are being pushed to compromise to get a job. pgt

  3. I've always liked Fournier-style rope furniture, even though I've never seen a piece--either a period original or one of your copies--in real life. Then again, it doesn't matter that I haven't, since I can't afford either one. In fact, even at its bargain-basement price of $2000, that ham-fisted knockoff at the top is still out of my price range. But here's the thing: even if they were giving it away, I wouldn't take it. It looks cheap.

    The rudimentary diagonals on the seat rail look like they were hacked out with a machete & the legs' textureless carvings remind me less of rope's spirals than they do the Michelin man: a bunch of stacked-up inner tubes, with some of them starting to go flat. Of course, the sweatshop in China that cranks these puppies out probably doesn't have access to an antique original for reference the way your firm does, but it's pretty clear they've never seen your version, either. For that matter, judging by the generic carving, I don't think they've ever seen a piece of rope. Don't they have rope in China? These mopes must have been working from a cell-phone picture.

    OK, so that's the chair itself: absolute crap. But it exists, so who's its target market? Obviously, anybody familar with the real article--either the antique or your version--is going to take one look at this mutant freak & run away screaming. Or, more likely, laughing. Of course, these days, we need all the laughs we can get, but not for $2000.

    And if people don't see anything wrong with it, then they probably won't get the reference, anyway, so what's the point? Who's going to shell out $2000 for a [bad] copy of a chair they don't even recognize? And what's up wit' da rope, Doll?

    It's like the time my dad did his James Cagney imitation for my niece. It wasn't a very good imitation, but that was irrelevant, because she never heard of James Cagney, anyway. All she saw was her grandfather talking weird & jerking his arms around in front of her friends, and the appalled, get-me-out-of-here look on her face was the same one I'd have if my friends ever came over to my house and saw that cheesy imposter chair sitting in my living room. "Really, you guys, I have no idea where that chair came from."

    One time a friend's father said "Check out the watch I just bought!" and pulled up his sleeve to show me what looked--to my uneducated eye--like a Rolex President. I admired it in silence for a few seconds, then said. "Well, it would sure fool me."

    He jerked his hand back. "What makes you so sure it's not real?"

    "Simple." I said. "You own it."

    Same thing with this awful chair: It's like the club that accepted Groucho Marx, and I wouldn't want any part of it, either.

    Now, I understand wanting a good deal, but face it, Freddy. anybody willing to fork over $2K for that is unlikely to ever be your customer, anyway.

    The chicken-or-egg question of what happens when the craftsmen who don't have enough work to stay busy in order to transmit their skills to others is a more serious one, but it's not really new. In a book I was reading the other day, I came across a letter written in the early 19th Century by (I think) the architect Sir William Chambers, explaining to a client that only part of the reason for the then-recent switch from delicate, Robert Adam-style plasterwork to the bolder, simpler forms of the Regency was aesthetic; that the other, more prosaic, reason was that the network of workmen & artists that had brought Adam's delicate designs to life--Jospeh Rose, Angelica Kauffmann & some others I can't recall--had all died out in the 1790s & that the new generation simply didn't have the skills needed to do that kind of work anymore. It's an old problem.

    Either way, it's an interesting question.

  4. Thank you Blue. Yes, having a discerning eye is valuable. And absolutely - everything has been knocked-off to some degree. Tony often says there is "nothing new under the sun." Everything now and then, I think there is something new though, but that may just be to lack of "time-served." I actually enjoy being able to see a piece and trace its predecessors. Thanks for the comment!


  5. Thank you PGT. Being able to cultivate a long lasting relationship and knowledge base with your clients is perhaps one of the few real perks of this business, in my opinion. Compromising is never fun. Most of the time the decision does come down to finance, but I am not sure it is always a compromise. Hopefully if it is, then you can look back on the entire project and its success will out weigh the compromise - you just can't make too many of them! Thank you for your comment!


  6. Thank you for such well written comment, Magnaverde. You gave both Tony and I some chuckles - particularly the idea of machette applied, Michelin-Man detailing. I definitely agree, that someone seeing this chair without knowing of the original incarnation, would (hopefully!) shy away from it for the "mutant-freak" that it is. I also agree that, typically, the client who WOULD buy this chair would likely not be our client to begin with. This chair in question does look cheap, and hopefuly that would be evident to any persepctive buyer. But I perhaps chose an easy mark - a chair made to look like rope. Everyone knows what rope is and could see that this chair it is not. And yet this style is constantly knocked-off in various forms because evidently someone is buying them.

    But what about a regular chair? How does an average person tell if a chair is "cheap"? The best way I can think of is to sit their butt down in a cheap chair and then a great chair. The problem is, we might go out of business by the time we sit everyone down and someone then turns around and makes a purchase.

    Your comment and those from Blue and PGT, are helpful more than you know. The truth is, these are issues we wrestle with constantly - all while having to make payroll. Your comments help us think about it from different angles. We certainly never intend to just hawk cheap goods. That would be the antithesis of being a luxury goods provider, and, as my father says, we must be able to stand behind what we make. To that end, I think we must continue making the "inspirational" pieces and find ways for the "aspirational" client to enter into that market. Thank you very much!


  7. Just from a very quick review of the photos there clearly is a difference between the two chairs. As I noted on Blue's blog, there's nothing wrong with a good copy, (such as yours). But when the copy takes on poetic licence, as in the "knock off", then it loses its relevance and becomes something else entirely. People who buy that clearly are not interested, nor do they understand the product you are trying to sell. I think it's therefore important to introduce the relevance and history of your product over theirs. And of course there will be far fewer "takers", but your profit margin should allow that. The finer things in life don't come cheaply, as we know.