How to set up a bespoke furniture design business

Garry Macfarlane, originally from south-west Scotland, founded Freckle Furniture when he graduated from the Chippendale International School of Furniture in East Lothian outside Edinburgh. His fledgling bespoke furniture design business moved to new expanded premises nearby at Fenton Barns after spending two years in the Chippendale Incubator workshops adjoining the furniture design school.

Since 1985, the Chippendale International School of Furniture has been running one of the UK’s leading intensive furniture design and furniture restoration courses. Many of the furniture school’s graduates take advantage of the low costs and support provided by the Chippendale Incubator Workshops for a year or more.

Turkey Shed to Workshop

A cabinet making entrepreneur, Garry Macfarlane, describes his new furniture design workshop: “It was originally a turkey shed for the Fenton Barns turkey farm. It then became a blacksmith’s workshop. When we moved in it was just a big space but we could see the potential. It was a bit of a leap of faith but it has been worth all the effort.”

Former turkey shed transformed into a furniture making workshop
Former turkey shed transformed into a furniture making workshop with separate machine rooms

Working with a fellow Chippendale graduate to create the workshop and share the costs, Garry has created extensive professional facilities including a fully fitted machine room, sanding room and kitchen, as well as a large workshop.

Getting the Furniture Business Started

Garry continues with his story: “Starting out was very tough and the first two years were a struggle. But all the hard work is starting to pay off and I am now incredibly busy which meant that I had to move to bigger premises. I’ve now completed two kitchens in London, a smaller job in Chelsea and a full kitchen near Clapham.

“The latter commission, which came through a Scottish connection, was for a Victorian terraced house with a large, open plan kitchen extension out the back. Working with the architect and the customer we came up with a great design solution. The kitchen was made from solid Scottish oak and the doors and framework painted with Farrow and Ball colours. The finished result looked stunning and the customer was very pleased.”

Varied Commissions – Bookcases, Desks… and a Human Foot!

“In Edinburgh I’ve made lots of bookcases and desks, mostly in oak which is popular. People like commissioning TV Cabinets too. I’ve also been asked to do some more unusual things such as display stands for mobile phones in an app developer’s office.

“I made a model of a foot for the BBC programme ‘Dissected, the Incredible Human Foot’ on BBC4. The programme was pretty gory though – I had to turn it off!”

“At the moment I’m working on a pedestal style desk in American black walnut with burr walnut and rosewood detailing. It is for another Scottish connection in London. Then I’ll be starting on a kitchen table for someone in the Borders using Sycamore.”

Early Challenges – Learning Clients’ Needs

Setting up a new business brings many challenges, not least learning the needs and demands of customers: “Some clients know exactly what they want; others need taken through the commissioning process step by step,” say Garry.

“I’ve got more confident with pricing, costs and timings over the last 3 or 4 years. With repetition and experience, I’m doing the work a lot quicker. I’ve also invested in good quality machines which allow me to produce things quickly and accurately. Everything in here is handmade though, nothing is computer controlled.”

Marketing as Well as Woodwork

Marketing is of course a very important area for any new business: “I work hard on my marketing. I get new commissions from a range of sources including the internet and repeat business, but more and more is by word-of-mouth. Generating the work was difficult initially but now I’ve got so much that I’m thinking of taking someone on to help me – I’ve got several months of work in the pipeline. Hopefully I can get in to a position of having 2 or 3 people in the workshop with me.”

All this is a far cry from Garry’s previous job before he went to the Chippendale Furniture School: “Previously I worked for Ryden, the Chartered Surveyors, and was sitting behind a desk all day in Glasgow. I was in commercial property investment but that was hit hard by the recession and I moved into property management when the market dried up.  It just wasn’t really for me and I wanted to do something different.

Garry Macfarlane - Freckle Furniture workshop

“Making bespoke furniture is much more rewarding, more creative and there’s less paper pushing. I don’t clock watch anymore because I’m enjoying my work. I’m my own boss and I can manage my own time.  I’ve no regrets about the move even though it hasn’t always been easy.

“My advice to other furniture making start-ups is:

1.    Be prepared not to earn any money for a while.
2.    Work hard on the marketing side. It takes a while to pull in the work and service it.
3.    You can make money in the first couple of years but living off it is tough. You’re too slow and you’re still learning so much.

Never Stop Learning

“The Chippendale School of Furniture course was a really good introduction to all aspects of furniture design and making, but the journey continued after I left. There’s a cliché that you never stop learning but in woodwork it is certainly true.”

Freckle Furniture designs and makes hand crafted, bespoke furniture and kitchens to commission with exceptional design, enduring craftsmanship and superior quality. Garry’s ambition is to make commissioning exciting and engaging, and he encourages customers to visit the workshop to see their bespoke furniture being made.

Freckle Furniture’s work has recently been acknowledged by renowned Danish design company Bo Concept as one of their ‘Ones to Watch’ awards for 2014.

More information is available from the Freckle Furniture website.

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