COLLECTABLES / Modern heirlooms for family seats: Contemporary furniture can be unique, made-to-measure - and a very good investment. John Windsor reports on the Chippendales of the 1990s

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AT the ages of 11, 12, 14 and 15, the four children of the Gittus family were introduced by their parents to John Makepeace, one of Britain's most renowned furniture makers, and invited to commission a chair each. Makepeace sat with them, one by one, listened to their dreams, and fashioned from them chairs which they could call their own.

Twenty years ago, bespoke furniture was virtually unknown. People bought either antiques or factory-made. In 1980, when John Makepeace visited the Gittuses' Suffolk farm, a boom in made-to-commission furniture like that of Georgian times was beginning; they were among the first new commissioners.

Today, the social standing of the designer-maker is once more approaching that of Chippendale. Names such as Makepeace and Viscount Linley - a graduate of Makepeace's training college at Parnham, Dorset - have slotted into homemakers' minds.

Lower down the price scale, middle-class couples whose ancestors might have told the village cabinet-maker 'I want it this wide' are seeking young furniture-makers whose reputations have grown by word of mouth.

Designs are inspired and deals struck not at workshop counters but at dinner parties. An etiquette has developed in which commissioner and designer-maker acknowledge equal status. The maker (the somewhat deistic term preferred to 'craftsman') will be the first to eat at the dining table he has made. Nearing completion of his commissions, his hosts will invite him to another dinner at which he will be 'passed on' to their friends.

When John Makepeace took instructions from the Gittus children, he and his wife were the family's guests for a weekend. Both parents and children had taken a liking to the furniture he displayed at the annual Royal Show at Stoneleigh (the big national agricultural show) and had toured Parnham College when visiting relatives nearby.

The chairs were Ethne Gittus's idea. Both she and her husband, Fred, lost their mothers while still young. The chairs were her attempt to lay down a heritage for her own children. 'Call me silly or sentimental, if you like,' she said, 'but these chairs are things they have lived with. They will remain part of the family wherever they go.'

Both John Makepeace and the Gittuses' daughter Anna, now Anna Montgomery and working for a whisky company in Dundee, use the same word to describe her chair: 'elegant'. She said: 'I love it. I never let anyone sit in it. It drives my husband livid.'

The chairs cost about pounds 3,500 apiece. Ethne Gittus was unabashed by the price. Running her own embroidery business had taught her that 'people are out to pay a pittance, especially for art. They don't appreciate it.'

But for the well-heeled capable of commissioning a 'landmark' design, there are small fortunes to be made. A successful design can seem to pop up everywhere, as an award-winner, in style magazines and on exhibition catalogue covers, although no more than a couple of pairs may ever be made. Their value rockets.

John Makepeace's Millennium chair, with 40 layers of laminate in sweeping curves, threatened enormous labour costs. So he gained the consent of its commissioner to make two pairs instead of one. One pair, in holly wood, was jointly bought for pounds 100,000 by the Lewis Collection in Richmond, Virginia and the Art Institute of Chicago. The commissioner's pair, in rosewood, cost pounds 50,000.

His Knot easy chair in elm with oak legs - a little less than easy, to meet the American commissioner's specification 'conversation rather than sleep' - was selected as logo of the Chicago International Applied Arts Exhibition in 1992, guaranteeing landmark status. A limited-edition print of it was published. Only five Knots were made. The commissioner paid pounds 60,000 for a set of four; the prototype (carrying premium value) was sold for pounds 27,000 to a private collector in Hong Kong.

Back in 1978 his ebony and nickel silver Mitre chair was sold to its commissioner for pounds 2,000 although it cost pounds 4,000 to make. The Phoenix (1991), cover model of Sotheby's Preview, went to its commissioner at pounds 18,000 a pair. The prototype is for sale at pounds 15,000.

Makers taking instruction from clients can find themselves interpreting either whims or the spirit of the age. Andrew Varah of Rugby, Warwickshire, a furniture designer for 25 years, accepted a commission for a design 'occasionally to be used as a chair but in the form of a piece of sculpture'. The result, which he made for a modest pounds 2,500, is the magnificent landmark Rosewood Sculpture Chair, a ground-breaking foray into the 'conceptual'.

Designers in other crafts, notably ceramics, have succeeded in escaping from functional craft shapes into stunning 'conceptual' abstraction. For example, you would not think of putting flowers into an exaggeratedly slender-necked Lucie Rie vase. But Rie's vases succeed in looking more vase-like than functional vases - and Varah's chair more chair-like. It needed a whisper from a client to bring a conceptual transformation into furniture design. As it happens, the convex seat is quite comfy.

Varah advises that the time to start commissioning furniture is when you have bought the table you liked best of all in the shop while realising that you really liked none. But how can you be sure that the design you commissioned as a one-off potential landmark will not reappear in thousands in the high street? And what are the chances of being overcharged?

One landmark design whose simplicity recommended it for batch production is the Rhythm and Snooze rocker by Parnham graduate Tony Portus of Cato Furniture Makers, Bristol. They cost pounds 995 each. Soon after accepting the commission, he was struck both by the chair's strong appeal - 'It really hits the spot' - and its potential for manufacture. It happened that the commissioner could not afford the pounds 4,300 labour and pounds 200 materials costs for a one-off. So he sold her the prototype for the bargain price of pounds 1,000 and, with her consent, went into production. He has sold 30 in the past 18 months.

John Makepeace says that people should not fear illicit copies of their one-off commissions being sold at the maker's back door. 'Creative people don't like repeating things. They would never have the same resonance. The second time round, the brain is not solving problems, it is trying to remember 'How did I do it?' It will not repeat things so well.'

Never give the go-ahead to make your commission until you know how much it will cost. Andrew Varah warns that 'technically immature' young furniture-makers, labouring over-meticulously, can charge their inexperience to the customer. He would like to see regulations introduced. 'We're at the critical stage where we desperately need to convince people that you don't need to take out a second mortgage to commission furniture.'

But he points out that in the high street, where the wholesale-retail mark-up on furniture can be as high as 240 per cent, customers are paying more towards rent, rates and other retailing costs than furniture. The disadvantage of trading direct with the public is that, lacking a high street shop-front, some makers are virtually invisible. There is no directory of made-to-commission furniture-makers. An attempt to form an association foundered three years ago. The Crafts Council has a photographic library which includes furniture makers and the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers supplies a list of the makers of the 130 pieces awarded its guild mark.

It is no surprise, then, that would-be first-time commissioners, timidly crossing the threshold of Andrew Varah's workshop, are received with near reverence. 'Once somebody has taken the trouble to find me, they're like a little jewel in my hand. I have only one opportunity to make them feel that commissioning furniture can be an enjoyable experience and not at all intimidating. Then when they point to a design and say 'That's fantastic' I begin to get some idea of what they have in mind.'

He lacks John Makepeace's unblinking attitude towards money. 'I reassure clients that everything is possible, that they should have fun. Then, rather than ask them to admit that they have only a certain amount to spend, I draw up a range of options, some less expensive than others.' As the relationship between maker and client mellows over time, this is the kind of badinage that takes place:

Clients: 'We'd like you to make us a wardrobe.'

Varah: 'Absolutely not. They're just boxes within boxes.'

Clients: 'Oh, come on. We've let you have your head in so many other directions.'

Varah: 'All right. But can I put some humour into it?'

The result was the Umbrella Men Cloak Cabinet, for which he charged pounds 3,500. Like many of his pieces, it has a secret compartment not revealed to the client.

According to John Makepeace, most clients are 'in love with the concept of commissioning'. Patronage, he says, 'has always meant using one's influence to make sure that things happen - even though one's first commission may be for a small piece of furniture costing no more than pounds 5,000'. Commissioners, he said, are usually self-made, self-confident and frustrated by the commercial furniture market. 'People actually learn by spending money. It educates their eye. If they are inheritors rather than self-made, it tends to frustrate their confidence in commissioning things.'

The reason there are not more commissioners, he believes, is a system of education which fosters academic achievement at the expense of aesthetic sensibility. And the reason there are not more designer-makers is that the same system treats manual work as being for dimwits only. He has demonstrated that good hands and good heads go together.

At David Linley's new shop in Pimlico Road, where a floor covering of sea grass was still being laid by craftsmen (or were they just workmen?) I received a welcome whose effusiveness I took to be typical of the profession. I invited Lord Linley's chief designer, Tim 'Goose' Gosling, aged 26, to imagine that I had money to spend and wanted something amusing and extraordinary with which to impress future generations. A chair, perhaps.

'What do you like?' he asked.

'Mahogany. With plenty of show wood.'

This did not appear to be a Linley speciality. For a start, most of their designs are made not from solid chunks but from Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) covered with a distinctive palette of veneers. Otherwise, he said, central heating would wreak destruction on different woods with different moisture contents. MDF is as dry as a bone.

Gosling took out his pencil. Did I know that space is just as important as the pieces in it? And that you can sculpt an extraordinary wall space using a cabinet, a couple of plinths and a couple of long mirrors? He dashed off a lightning sketch, drawn with the help of a scale ruler.

It was a moment of truth. I felt obliged to admit that, in my Victorian terraced house in Hackney, such an installation would compete mercilessly with the modestly-proportioned Italian marble fireplace and mantel mirror, within spitting distance on the opposite wall.

Marble fireplace? Gosling's pencil sprang to life again. My familiar hearth re-appeared flanked by alcove cabinets in solid oak with four adjustable shelves, the lower sections with barley twists in solid oak, glazed and backed with a mirror to reflect the antique collectables within it, the tops with two solid oak turned finials. It even had my name on it.

'I'm tickled pink,' I said.

'That's the whole point,' said Gosling, a graduate in theatre design, 'everyone's living space is a set.'

While Lord Linley discusses design with a client, Mr Gosling, all ears, will produce up to half a dozen sketches to present as alternatives. The decorative veneers are intricate and the style is resolutely neo-classical. The 'golden section' is seldom far from Gosling's thoughts and his holiday sketches of the concert hall in Vienna will be echoed in his designs. He dashed upstairs to the technical department to get a price: pounds 5,600 per cabinet. Plus VAT.

The same day, at Parnham College's graduate show at Sotheby's, I was told that since the recession, taste has changed. 'In' are simply constructed pieces which extol the intrinsic quality of materials - seemingly, a sort of mild new brutalism. 'Out' is the sort of fussy, conspicuous craftsmanship, which went with the conspicuous spending of the Eighties.

'Linley?'I asked hesitantly. 'My clients would run a mile,' said a Parnham veteran of 10 years in the trade. 'That sort of visible craftsmanship either fits in with antique interiors or is bought for fun. It's easy, unchallenging, doesn't disturb. But he's got that market very accurately. Dead on. Without him, it might never have existed.'

Nico Villeneuve, who designs whole interiors, said: 'Today's furniture should not give the impression of having been slaved over. It has to look effortless, inevitable. If the effort shows, you've failed.

'The hardest thing is steering clients into the future, persuading them not to compete with antiques. I tell them that Georgian tables were once new, at the cutting edge of good taste, commissioned by people with confidence in the future.'

I was present when one commissioner, Charles Bowen, head-hunted two months ago as chief executive of the Booker food group, clapped eyes on his finished commission by Tom Kealy, a Makepeace employee - a glass case in yew, containing his cherished model of the 18th-century British warship HMS Alfred, commissioned from a model-maker. The warship took about 3,500 hours at about pounds 8 an hour. The case cost more. It has mutually supporting curved glass and columns, fibre optics and a patinated copper dome to disperse heat. The carved base has a wave-like movement. 'Fantastic,' said Charles Bowen, 'it's actually worked. Just the uplifting effect I wanted.'

Mr Bowen is a jovial, dapper, stripe-suited 51. I took him to be typical of John Makepeace's breed of successful, self-made commissioners. 'No,' he said, 'I don't regard myself as being in the same line as people who commission beautiful objects. I just wanted a wonderful case for my ship.'

The show was full of fond recollections of commissioners. 'Some come down and take me out to the pub,' said Tom Kealy. 'It's not like mail order - it's a personal relationship. If they don't like you, they won't commission.'

Rupert Senior of Senior Carmichael of Betchworth, Surrey, said that his expanding circular table, with bronze and steel mechanics on top, had been commissioned at a dinner party by a businessman. 'I told him we'd always wanted to make one. He said, 'If it works, I'll commission it.' ' Senior sold one for pounds 14,400 (plus VAT) at Bonhams' annual selling exhibition of decorative arts in January.

The maker-commissioner relationship is quite unlike that of artist-patron. It is more like commissioning a tailor or an architect. David Linley invited a countess to sit at a table while he measured the limits of her reach and marked it with tape. As a result, her writing table will be tailor-made. She will be able to reach all its little drawers without straining.

Successful designer-makers tend to turn into interior designers and then into architects. Linley epitomises the world of interiors. John Minshaw, aged 50, studied under the potter Hans Coper at Camberwell College of Art before winning awards and teaching there. He founded a furniture studio at his home in Notting Hill Gate, specialising in lacquered and inlaid work, which grew into a factory. He closed it 18 months ago, when his commissions had expanded to include an indoor swimming pool, a huge and spectacular summer house - both in neo-classical style - and a gazebo.

But he has yet to become a household name. 'We tend to work underground,' he said.

Crafts Council (071-278 7700). Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers (071-724 5160, Monday, Wednesday and Friday only). David Linley (071-730 7300). John Makepeace (0308-862204). Andrew Varah (0788-833000). John Minshaw (071-586 0519). Nico Villeneuve (071-376 5175). Senior Carmichael (0737-844316).

(Photographs omitted)