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3 Keys to Custom (Furniture)

There was a day when custom furniture meant astronomically expensive, hand-fashioned furniture that only royalty could afford. But additive manufacturing, computer-aided design, and rapid prototyping have made custom far more accessible than many designers think.

I was looking for a small-batch prototyping shop two years ago when I found Creoworks, a custom furniture design and manufacturing shop in Seattle, Washington. Owners Amy and Diego del Olmo blew me away. Their client list includes giants like Starbucks, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Hyatt, T-Mobile, Expedia, REI, and Nordstrom. Creoworks can fabricate anything from metal sit-stand desk components, to giant custom wood slabs, to Amazon’s famous banana stand.

Staying in touch with Creoworks has been a blast, and in the process I have heard first-hand the benefits and difficulties of doing custom furniture installations. Here are the three biggest “keys to custom” that architects, designers, and facility managers should keep in mind:

#1 - Custom must come EARLY

The first key to successfully using custom furniture or installations is starting early, and integrating the custom pieces with the rest of the design. Few designers, however, remember this critical time element. Creoworks owner Diego del Olmo says “Designers often come with a specific financial budget in mind, but rarely have an equally specific timeline.”

How, then, do you identify custom pieces early in the design process? Says Creoworks VP Matthew Spenny:

“As a company, look at where and how you are trying to differentiate your brand. That is where custom applies.”

For example, a steakhouse with the city’s best wine list should probably use standard cabinetry, but might consider a spectacular custom wine rack to showcase its selection. Another example is Amazon, who after enormous growth and a huge new headquarters spent relative pennies on the dollar for the aforementioned famous community banana stand!

#2 - Custom doesn’t have to be expensive

“What separates the best custom shops from the rest” says Matthew, “is value engineering.” Value engineering is the process – part design, part engineering – of understanding exactly what role the product plays in the larger picture, and making sure that costs are incurred proportional to value provided.

Creoworks worked with a restaurant to develop custom furniture to fit their unique footprint. The restaurant knew that the unique size and shape were critical, but wanted to keep costs low. The solution was found in materials: they leveraged durable coatings and the natural/industrial elements of the rest of the design… creating the custom furniture out of raw plywood that looked right at home!


Starting conversations on costs and value engineering early is imperative (see #1!). Says Matthew: “If you come with a rigid set of specs and materials because we are the last piece in the puzzle, custom furniture will be expensive. But if you come early with a precise idea of what you want to achieve, there is so much we can do!”

#3 - Custom doesn't have to be complex/difficult

When designers think of custom furniture, they often think of only the most complex and difficult pieces. However, if a company strong in value engineering is engaged early, custom can make sense in a wide variety of cases. It is difficult to make this point further generally, so I will resort to two examples.

First, a large tech company had purchased sit-stand desks for all their employees, but heavy computers and equipment were causing the desks to strain and fail. Enter Creoworks, who engineered a custom reinforcement part that could be easily installed on each desk. The part worked so well that both a foreign company and a domestic mainline created their own knock-off parts. The irony: the foreign product had severe quality failures, and the domestic “knock-off” was more expensive than Creoworks’s custom part!

Second, a Hyatt Regency hotel was re-doing much of their facility, including the main kitchen. They wanted to add a super-premium dining experience in the heart of the hotel; a private tasting room. Dimensions were specific, space was at a premium, and the design had to match the hotel and elevate this experience. With ample time to operate and a clearly defined (and very reasonable) budget, the result is simply stunning.

Conclusion

Custom furniture can be a tremendous boost to a design. To successfully leverage custom furniture:

  • Engage early in the process for the design elements that most closely reinforce your brand’s unique positioning.

  • Use value engineering to ensure that you spend smart

  • Consider custom for “straightforward” projects that have unique applications or constraints

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