Lessons for Young Designer-Makers: Meeting Sean Sutcliffe / Benchmark

“Even the best makers in the World can starve”, said Sean Sutcliffe, co-founder of Benchmark Furniture Company (https://www.benchmarkfurniture.com/).

I was stood in their show room, surrounded by waney edges and soft grain; it was very ‘insta-worthy’. I was there with the intention of learning about batch production from their successful brand, so vigilantly, I took notes.

‘Good designers need a good understanding of making processes’, and of course, the same goes for makers. As creatives, we often get tangled up with the efforts of creating an interpretation of our own expression; however- as Sutcliffe explained- there is great importance in being able to make our work commercially viable.

Benchmark has grown from a start-up capital of only £6,000, to now be regarded as ‘one of the leading and most technically advanced furniture makers in the country’, and the reason: the company’s ability to adapt.

It seems appropriate to quote Darwin: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change’. Nowadays, our species as designer-makers is a rare one, and therefore particularly liable to the need to adapt. Economic turmoil, questions of sustainability, even political movements, all contribute to our ability to do what we love, providing quality and lovingly made furniture and objects for others.

It may seem ominous, being adaptable; no stability or consistency; but I would argue that if we substitute the word adaptable for creativity, then it really opens ourselves to far more  opportunities, than it deters us from.

“We will make pallets!” Sutcliffe exclaimed; highlighting his dedication to the craft and his business. It seems that a good knowledge of how to batch produce design effectively, is at the heart of a prosperous future. Batch items are like ice-creams, they should be impulse buys. Examples, such as Byron & Gomez’ jewellery boxes from their Offcut Collection (http://www.byronandgomez.co.uk/off-cut-collectioon/), or Benchmark’s own Puck side tables (https://www.benchmarkfurniture.com/Furniture/Tables/Side-Tables/Puck-Table-Large) clearly demonstrate this. Also, they should be products that are accessible to all, in aesthetics and function, maximising your products customer base. Clearly knowing the price point of your design and what the market is prepared to pay, is a crucial consideration for batch production.

‘Bread and butter’ earning depends on these well considered objects, as they are the pieces designer-makers are able to fill their ‘dead time’ with. Batch producing products and putting them into storage, between commissions and larger projects, is better than standing still.

Jens Risom (http://www.jensrisom.com/t621_bench.htm) is a good example of a designer that was able to rationalise his designs, in order to make them more batch producible. This included limiting the number of components, to speed up and simplify assembly; reducing the variety of components, so that multiple pieces can be created using the same jigs and processes; and restricting the design to time-efficient and consistent processes. Sutcliffe clearly described it as the ‘application of common sense’.

Further advice was given, such as retaining bespoke work for commissions and exhibition pieces, as the demand very much fluctuates and the importance of scheduling and learning to reschedule work is integral; as well as using social media and contacting local businesses to build up a client base. Direct selling was advised, as the average mark-up price for retailers is 2.7, however this leads to the importance of creating a reliable marketing strategy. Makers like Wood Woven (https://www.instagram.com/woodwoven/?hl=en) show how an effective Instagram account can make for a successful business.

The talk ended on a positive and up-lifting note: to always remember that a business within this industry is possible, and opportunities are always there for the taking.

One response to “Lessons for Young Designer-Makers: Meeting Sean Sutcliffe / Benchmark”

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