Design: It's time to meet your maker

Why not take pounds 100 to Chelsea Crafts Fair next week and commission your own piece of art?
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The Independent Culture
Can't quite find the perfect chair at Ikea? Weary of the style slavery on the high street? Over the next fortnight Chelsea Crafts Fair offers an unparalled opportunity to see some of the most innovative design- led contemporary crafts in Britain. It is also an annual reminder that commissioning craftwork is not a pursuit entirely confined to the wealthy.

Commissioning requires trust: trust in your own taste and in the craftsperson with whom you choose to work. At its most successful, commissioning is a collaboration of ideas between maker and client. But there are no quick shopping fixes here - if you like to know exactly what you are buying, commissioning is not for you. For others the element of surprise is part of the pleasure.

The first step in commissioning a piece is to track down a designer-maker whose style you like and to see as much of their work as possible. Chelsea is one of the few occasions when you can see a representative selection of many craftspeople's current work. With 220 exhibitors selected from 1,033 applicants, it also provides a comprehensive overview of the British crafts scene. There is always something fresh to see: over a third of the exhibitors are new to the fair, while established names often use Chelsea to launch new designs or colour ranges.

If your budget is smaller than your imagination, and mine certainly is - limited by my editor to a theoretical pounds 100 - it is well worth talking to your preferred designer-maker. Most are delighted to discuss what you want.

Ian McKay's (week two, stand 18) view is typical: "Commissions aren't a great way of making money but they are a good way of trying out new ideas. I'd do more if I could, but they take up lots of time. You need to think about a new set of problems." If your budget won't stretch to your most extravagant dreams, the maker might be able to suggest a compromise with which you'll both be happy.

McKay makes mechanical toys - boats, birds and rotund women - from English lime and driftwood which cost between pounds 20 and pounds 800. "pounds 100 wouldn't get you very much - probably something very simple."

Kate Wilkinson's (week one, stand 50) flamboyantly feminine chokers are way beyond my means, but she was full of alternative, and cheaper, suggestions, such as a set of three silver hairpins adorned with crystals and dyed feathers shown for the first time at Chelsea this year.

Asta Barrington (week two, stand 14) makes sublimely soft, hand-dyed and embroidered scarves, cushion covers and blankets inspired by the chalky colours of Cuban architecture. Her handbags are equally covetable but just too expensive. She immediately asked me to prioritise what was important to me about the bag. Colour and material I thought, then the embroidery. The answer was straightforward - simplify the embroidery and the bag becomes affordable.

It's unwise to try to push a designer in the wrong direction, however. Victor Stuart Graham (week one, stand 54), for instance, makes boats and other decorative objects out of driftwood, and often accepts commissions for his rows of driftwood houses. A small street was well within my budget and he would be happy to work from a photo of my sunny street in Yarm, North Yorkshire, but warned me: "It's not much fun, it's a chore to copy it exactly." Like most designers, he does his best work when given a free rein to interpret the brief.

Most makers have learnt the hard way about the constraints and opportunities of the materials and processes they use so it is helpful if you can be as specific as possible about what you want, but remain open to their suggestions and advice. Inevitably ideas need to bounce around and there will be some to-ing and fro-ing.

Don't worry that you might be thought weird - the makers I talked to racked their brains for commissions that they thought were rather odd, to no avail. Sarah Campbell (week two, stand 109) confessed to fruit-shaped hats - a pear and a banana - but quickly back-pedalled: "They were inspired by my flower-fairy hat which looks like a piece of fruit."

It is important to be clear about your budget from the outset - it saves a lot of time and heartache. Once you've agreed on a design and a price ensure that all relevant details are written down or sketched and that you both have a copy. There might be a charge for these initial sketches depending on their complexity. Make sure that you have discussed hidden extras like transport, installation costs and VAT, and how long the commission will take.

Ian McKay's order book is full until next Easter, but delivery times of six to eight weeks are the norm. You may need to pay a deposit before work begins, but not always. Then all you need do is sit back, relax and try not to be too impatient.

Chelsea Crafts Fair is held at Chelsea Old Town Hall, King's Road, Chelsea, London SW3, 10-8pm Tuesday to Friday, 10-5.30pm Saturday and Sunday. Week one: Tuesday 13 to Sunday 18 October. Week two; Tuesday 20 to Sunday 25. Admission pounds 6 single visit, pounds 8 for one visit each week, concessions pounds 4.

If you are unable to visit Chelsea, the makers' contact details are as follows: Asta Barrington, 0181 874 3001; Sarah Campbell, 01875 320909; Bridget Drakeford, 01432 860411; Ian McKay c/o Hitchcocks, 01225 330646; Victor Stuart Graham 01273 203168; Kate Wilkinson 01494 868332; Lynn Muir 01288 361561.

For further information on the Crafts Fair, contact the Crafts Council on 0171-278 7700