If Ikea is your only idea, sit down and read on ...

When you spot your sofa at your boss's house and your best friend's, it's time to commission a one-off piece
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The Independent Culture
Only the interior designer knows the secret of making an impact with a careful selection of furnishings. Most people furnish their homes with a hotchpotch of the inherited or affordable, rather than the sought-out or beautiful. So what does the result say about you? Does your furniture say no imagination, no taste and no purchases made anywhere but Habitat or Ikea? Or does it say conservative, traditional, thrifty? Would you rather it said inspirational, unique, tasteful?

If so, the answer is to commission a furniture-maker to build you a one-off piece. It may be more expensive than a shop-bought piece, but the chances are that it will last longer and withstand the vicissitudes of fashion. "Craft furniture is extremely good value," says Tony Ford, of the Crafts Council. "You are buying the antiques of the future."

Yet the British public is unusually phobic about the process, according to young furniture-makers Victoria Reed and Paul Kelly of Zwerlin. The pair, who specialise in glamorous, larger-than-life pieces, from 11ft Delft-blue sofas (pounds 1,900) to foxy pink library chairs featuring bookshelves built into the arms and a drawer under the seat (pounds 450), say that nearly all their inquiries come from US or Europe. "People abroad have more confidence. If they like something, they are prepared to buy it. Here, people are wary, unless you are part of the establishment."

How should you begin? It is important to spend some time on research to find someone who understands your budget as well as your taste and practical needs. Most makers will have brochures, slides or examples of work to give you an idea of their range. Mary La Trobe-Bateman, director of London's Contemporary Applied Arts, believes commissioning is an art in itself.

"A lot of people have a strong idea of what they want because they have seen something they like somewhere and want it recreated," she says. "They don't allow themselves a leap of the imagination. The most successful commission is one where a person gives the maker a free hand."

Prices vary greatly between a well-known, established maker and a recent starter but, bearing in mind that you are also paying for the idea itself, can be surprisingly reasonable. The other bonus of buying direct is that you avoid the retailer's mark-up.

"Buying a one-off piece can be comparable to the more expensive high- street prices such as Maples or Liberty. It can, of course, cost a lot more," explains Ms La Trobe-Bateman. "The amount of time spent on producing a one-off object has to be be built into the cost."

Young cabinetmaker Katie Walker, who makes traditional outdoor and indoor furniture which is wooden, sculpturally influenced and starts from pounds 400, finds that people want to commission pieces but don't want to pay up until the piece is ready in case they don't like it. "I get them to be very specific on the brief. People who aren't used to commissioning want a solid idea of how the piece will look. I make a theatre-scale model and photograph it to show them."

Where do you find furniture-makers? The Crafts Council in London is a good place to start. An index of council-selected makers is stored on a user-friendly computer system which enables visitors to search for images and information by maker, object, material or technique, which can then be looked up in the photostore or slide library. Alternatively, a selection of designers is available by post. Contemporary Applied Arts shows pieces in its shop and also has a slide index of makers on its books. For new and innovative ideas, the Design Council suggests approaching art schools for portfolio viewings. Furniture fairs and design shows, often listed in Design Review magazine, are also good breeding grounds for inspiration.

From an ergonomic point of view, the piece you commission has to fulfil its function. Levent Caglar, an ergonomist with the Furniture Industry Research Association, says: "If you are getting a chair made for your own personal use, it is necessary to be measured yourself. It is most important that furniture is fit for its purpose. If it is a chair for relaxing, that is what it should do."

Whatever you decide to have made, you will be secure in the knowledge that you won't see anything like it in a friend's house.

The Crafts Council Photostore and Picture Library (0171-278 7700) hires out up to 36 slides for a month for pounds 10, incl. p+p. It will print out colour pictures of five large or 18 small images to a page for pounds 2 per sheet. Contemporary Applied Arts (0171-836 6993 and, from January, 0171- 436 2344) charges a negotiated fee for its commissioning service. Zwerlin: 0956 416 623 and Katie Walker on 01403 211323.

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