Bespoke is Back


Australian furniture maker Michael Hayes.

Hipsters not hippies, are leading a new craft revival.

The wheel turns. Once upon a time custom made was how it was. There was no power other than the hand. Then machines came along, and repetition and economies of scale were possible. And then, in the 70s, the wheel was reinvented. We had a craft revival, and the ‘hand’ as in ‘made’ came back.

Then craft became art, and design skills were valued and taught, so much so that in Australia hand skills appeared to be on the verge of dying out. Technology took over. At technical colleges furniture and cabinetmakers were taught some hand skills but industry became more interested in employees who could assemble and fit components that had been cut, drilled, bored, stacked and packed by computerised and robotic machinery.

Lower priced goods from overseas large-scale operations led to the shrinkage of local manufacturing industries. Individual furniture designer/makers continued to make things, but for most, sustainability was more about staying afloat than using ethically sourced materials. Profitability was either about competing against increasingly lower priced mass produced goods, or charging more to an aesthetically informed but elusive sector of people who valued the handmade.

Not all will agree with this gross over-simplication of what’s happened in the last 50 years or so, but it seems a new ‘maker movement’ is underway. Everywhere there are signs that bespoke is the new black. Gone are the hairy hippies of last century’s craft revival, in are a new generation of hipsters, who see themselves as makers more than designers.

Australian furniture maker Bern Chandley.
Australian furniture maker Bern Chandley.

It doesn’t get more bespoke than traditional trade skills and what are now known as rare trades are definitely receiving attention. The first Lost Trades Fair last year attracted 7,000 people to a non-capital city location. This year’s event, again in Kyneton, had over twice as many visitors.

Ironically it’s online technology and globalism that is fostering the return of the hand and the fact that new makers can now reach global markets through online craft sales platforms. Early models of these were US-based Etsy, founded in 2005 and in 2009. Technology is also enabling networking amongst makers, and according to Katrina, the ‘cross-pollinating and blurring of artforms’ in arts hubs, collectives and makerspaces.

Launched in Melbourne less than a year ago, Space Tank Studio is developing a ‘makerspace ecosystem’ where creatives in a host of modalities and mediums may lease space and utilise a fully stocked metal and woodworking ‘tool gym’. It’s an incubator for innovation, a ‘smart factory’ where not just individuals, but also companies can rent space for projects, product development and specialised training.

Solidifier in Darlinghurst claims to be Australia’s first makerspace for ‘hardware start-ups’. Makers Place Inc in Erskineville, NSW is a makerspace opened by Three Farm, a social design enterprise. David Byworth of Fab Lab Adelaide was quoted by as saying ‘The massive loss of labour-intensive, low skilled manufacturing roles are having significant effects on whole communities and the days of large companies with thousands of employees are numbered. Instead, the future lies with dozens of small, entrepreneurial businesses, each employing a handful of skilled employees. These businesses need makers.’

Making a living as a custom or bespoke furniture maker has been notoriously hard. Materials are expensive, you need a fair amount of equipment and space, and processes and hand detailing are labour intensive, even if you are producing limited production runs of some items. Those that survive have often resorted to other income streams; teaching, selling timber or tools, relying on the income of a partner.

Survival for bespoke makers can come down to a play-off of time versus quality or detailing. Economies of scale are difficult if not impossible when making prototypes, art, one-off or commission pieces – especially where traditional construction and fine detailing is concerned.

As before, makers can either charge more to fewer clients or compete on price to a larger market by simplifying constructions, producing in-fashion designs or adopting hi-tech machining or detailing means. Working within a collective, makerspace, hackerspace, fab or maker lab can side-step start-up and ongoing capital investment costs.

Apart from specialised maker fairs and exhibitions; online sales, ideas sharing sites and social media are now the way forward for makers to network and market themselves in order to create a name or a brand. Websites, Facebook, Instagram – today’s makers now can brand and market their work globally on a variety of online platforms.

The wheel is still turning, but whereas the craft revival of the 70s was a rejection of technology and industrialisation today’s maker movement is being fostered within an increasingly digital and hi-tech environment.

Article by Linda Nathan, in Australian Wood Review, issue 88, September 2105. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *