Once, furniture, fabrics, wallpaper and all other design articles were made by hand. Each item was produced by a craftsperson or artisan. No two items could be made exactly alike because each was made at a different time and the artisan's mood and temperament had an impact on what was created.
At the time an item was made it was cherished based on the skill of the maker. Many of these artisan pieces were so lovely they have increased in value by thousands and even millions of dollars. If the exact creator can be determined through a signature, initials, mark, or a specific detail that became the artisan's trademark, the piece is worth even more. We value it because it is unique, imperfect and beautiful.
Then came the Industrial Revolution. Machines were invented to do everything. They weave, dye and print cloth as well as make and print wallpaper. Machines cut furniture using computerized patterns creating them like so many jigsaw puzzles. The result, each piece looks exactly like every other piece.
The quality of machine-made pieces will be determined by the materials used. Hardwoods will be more expensive and more durable than soft woods. Tightly woven, finely printed fabrics will be more expensive than most solid colored fabrics having a coarse weave. Wallpapers of textured fibers or gold or silver mylar will be more costly than most plain papers with a simple, printed pattern. The qualities available will range based on the particular techniques used for manufacture and the materials incorporated. Each item created, however, will be virtually identical to its predecessor.
This level of quality may be excellent for today's customer, but probably not quite as good as the contributions from craftspeople that have survived from centuries ago. With mechanical manufacturing every piece looks perfect. If there is a flaw it is blatantly obvious. Fabric printed off grain will not wear properly on sofas or hang properly as draperies. Wallpaper with multiple colored inks may have been printed with the inks out of ALIGNment making the patterns blurry. It is easy to identify the error. And these circumstances definitely are errors -- they should not have left the manufacturing site -- or they were damaged in transit. In either case, they should be replaced.
And what of today's artisans and craftspeople? In many skills there are fewer and fewer trades people. The next generation is learning techniques from the last surviving artisans who are quite old. Some are doing research because of their own personal interest and teaching and training themselves because there no longer are trades people to pass on the necessary information. In either situation, being human, they still are not quite perfect. Let me give you an example.
A number of years ago I knew a decorator who sold a client some gorgeous wallpaper that was printed in an Oriental motif. This was a hand-screened silk paper. There was a different screen for each of the many colors on the paper. Each roll was printed in blocks down its entire length and each block was screen printed with each color needed to create the image. The paper cost $135 per roll! Obviously this is a very time consuming process because every step was done by hand. And, due to the hand processing, a "perfect" roll would have had a lot of character without the precision created by a mechanical process.
The client was doing a small guest bathroom. The paper was installed and it was beautiful, but the printing was not perfect. It was not out of ALIGNment like a machine manufactured paper might be, it just was not perfect. The paper had character. Europeans would value this paper all the more, but it was difficult to explain and convince the client after the fact that the expense of the paper was for the character inherent in its hand manufactured process.
Avoiding these challenges with clients is not as difficult as it might seem. An educated consumer is still your best client. When you are working with such uniquely created products, do your homework. Find out how the item was manufactured and what types if imperfections are inherent in the process. Explain this process to the client. Show photographs if they are available. Then explain how these minor discrepancies add to the character and value of the piece and how they prove that the item is handmade and one of a kind.
The customer will look for these imperfections once they accept delivery of the item. When friends and family visit they will show off their new possession and explain how it was created and how such an original can be identified by its character flaws.
After your explanation, if a client seems overly concerned with such products and their inherent differences, seriously consider steering them to a different product. Such clients may need to stay within the confines of mechanically manufactured items that are more likely to have fewer character marks and seem, to the untrained eye, to be more perfect. This suggestion will develop trust between you and your clients and promote good will between you and your possible client referrals.
As you continue your decorating and design career, you may want to consider this important concept: Do you want to fill your clients' homes only with items that are machine-made and virtually perfect? Or do you want to create homes that have more character because some of the items you have selected have a charm all their own? They are perfectly imperfect. The choice is yours, just be aware of what to expect based on your selection.
Susan Dudics-Dean is owner of Celestial Designs and an interior designer who has worked in the San Francisco Bay area of California for more than 11 years. She also is a newspaper columnist and seminar speaker.