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  • Multi-coloured Flow by ceramicist Fenella Elms. Photo: Deborah Husk

How to commission a craftsperson

Experts offer tips on collaborating on a unique piece

Commissioning craft isn’t simply about buying an object that fits a space or your colour scheme – it’s a way of having a hand in creating a bespoke object you could live with for years.

At its best, a commission is a collaboration – you see your ideas interpreted and brought to life in unexpected form and the maker takes inspiration from a specific set of opportunities and constraints. ‘You will learn about the process of artistic work and your own creative ability,’ says interior designer Rachel Chudley. ‘You will end up with an heirloom: a work of art that will tell a personal story.’

We asked some makers and experts for their tips on getting the most out of the process.

Bespoke arm cuff made of recycled silver and gold jewellery by Meron Wolde

Do your research

It’s vital that you’re confident about the craftsperson you want to commission, especially if you don’t already have someone in mind. ‘Going to fairs and shows will pay dividends as you can see their work first hand,’ says Chudley. ‘If you are looking to support up-and-coming artists, visit end of degree shows.’ And if you’re in the market for a master in their field, magazines such as Crafts are the place to look, she advises.

When you hone in on a maker, it’s worth delving deeper – for example, to know if they can handle the scale you have in mind. ‘Normally people commission me because they already know my work, which makes things easier because they believe in me,’ says textile artist Soojin Kang. She recommends researching the artist’s previous work – for example by looking at what they have produced for exhibitions. Craft works are tactile, which makes them hard to convey through drawings. ‘Ideally they should have seen my work in the flesh.’

Yelena Ford, managing director of The New Craftsmen, points out some of the things to look out for: ‘Do they have pieces and works that make you see them in a new light? What exactly is it about their approach that makes their output distinctive? What processes inform the outcome? What elements you can play with?’ All important things to consider before embarking on a commissioning a craftsperson.

Collect 2020 VIP lounge with furniture by Cox London, commissioned by Rachel Chudley. Photo: Alun Callender

Have a clear idea of your budget

Be transparent about what you are willing to spend with the artist. ‘A lot of people seem to be really nervous about this, but artists can then tell you whether they'll be able to work with your budget,’ says ceramicist Fenella Elms.

Clarity on cost also means you’re more likely to get something interesting. ‘Parameters are good for artists – they make us creative,’ Elms says. ‘I want to help people so, for example, if they have a large space and they can’t afford a large work, I’ll suggest making several smaller pieces.’

Jewellery maker Meron Wolde points out that an experienced artist will be honest about what’s possible from the beginning. ‘I’m straightforward at the start, after looking at what we’re doing, how many hours will it take and what materials are involved.’

As for setting your budget? Chudley says: ‘Ask yourself what you are happy to pay, then ask around.’ The figure you come up with should take into consideration the cost of materials you are interested in, the complexity of the process and how the maker generally prices their work.

Bespoke ear adornment made for a client by silversmith Meron Wolde

Get to know the artist

When commissioning a craftsperson, personal contact is always good. ‘I would recommend speaking face to face – even if over a video call,’ Wolde says. ‘I may be making the piece but there will be something of the client’s personality in there, so it's nice to meet them.’

Chudley says commissions get smoother once she has worked with someone several times, but for one-off commissions, she suggests visiting a craftsperson’s studio where possible. ‘You can get an understanding of how they work, and what you can expect.’

Kang points out that commissioning work is not just a transaction but an emotional relationship. ‘You need to have chemistry and to trust each other.’ Trust is important because it’s a gamble to commit to paying for something before seeing it, but also because the work is something you’ll have to live with. ‘The client has to like the artist as a person because, if they don’t, it may put them off the work.’ When that relationship works well, it’s worth the effort, she adds. ‘You get attached to the artist and the work is like a baby – personal, special and unique.’

Commission for a hotel in the Maldives by textile artist Soojin Kang

Find an effective way to communicate

Ford says it’s important to develop a clear brief in partnership with the artist. ‘The client must provide some parameters,’ she says. ‘The maker will be able to tell you exactly what’s possible with a particular material or process and where other solutions and ideas can be explored.’

Wolde observes that each collaboration is different and involves finding a new way of communicating, but she has established certain methods that she finds effective. ‘I like to work in paper, for instance, to build models to show the structure and how the metal would move, because drawing doesn't always do a 3D object justice.’

Chudley says communication is the biggest potential pit-fall and recommends regular sign-offs at each stage. ‘I think it’s important to explain – to either draw or ask the artist for visual representation – from the beginning. The experience and expertise of the artist is invaluable; but so is the playful nature of collaboration.’

Adds Elms: ‘The best fun as a maker is when I’m experimenting and challenging myself – and really good commissions let me do that.’ Nonetheless, she warns against being too prescriptive when commissioning, adding that it’s important to give makers freedom to interpret the brief. ‘Have an idea of what you want to achieve, rather than giving artists instructions,’ she says. ‘If you are too specific, you may get a horrible, contrived bit of work.’

For craft, unpredictability is part of the charm. ‘Materials behave and react in unexpected ways and it’s up to the skill of the maker to anticipate and try to control that behaviour,’ Ford says. ‘There is beauty in letting that material be and embracing the unexpected.’ She reminds us that craft is done by a human, and that practical challenges can also occur. ‘Quirks and unexpected happenings will arise and everyone needs to be patient when they do – materials not arriving in time and when they may not behave the way they normally would; a kiln can break, a maker can fall ill.' Agree a realistic lead time and how often you expect to be updated.

Adds Wolde: ‘Time makes for an excellent piece - certain things can’t be rushed.’

Flow by Fenella Elms in walnut frame she commissioned Tom Trimmins to make

Have an open mind

Every artist is different and you will only get an idea of how flexible an artist is from recommendations and personal experience. Chudley likes to work with craftspeople who have an adventurous attitude. ‘Our regular collaborators are people who have said “why not try?”.’

But, of course, craft can’t simply adhere to technical specifications – artworks develop, evolve and come into their own as they are made, so some flexibility is essential. ‘You may have a clear idea of what you want, but an artist who has experience working in that medium can elevate an initial concept, if they are given the flexibility to do so,’ Chudley says.

Ford suggests that a first-time commissioner might find it easier to start with something familiar – tableware or a piece of jewellery – before moving on to more complex and ambitious works.

Bespoke bed made by historical lacquer specialist and furniture designer Pedro da Costa Felgueiras, commissioned by architecture practice Studio Ulanowski and Yelena Ford of The New Craftsmen

Remember why you are commissioning and not just buying

The collaborative nature of commissioning is ultimately the best reason for doing it. ‘It’s an incredible immersion into the working practice and creativity of a maker – an insight into their mind, process and soul,’ Ford says. You may even put an artist onto a new track. ‘This is why craft patrons are so important – individuals who take a leap of faith in a maker and help them go on a journey they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.’

The result is a work like no other. ‘It’s a unique piece that nobody else has – it’s one work made for one person,’ Kang says. ‘When I create a commissioned work I think about the person who commissioned me and the space – it’s a joyful process and the work is priceless.’

Jewellery is inherently very personal, Wolde says, and even more so when it’s made just for you. ‘You get to ask an artist to make you your very own piece and you have control over what you want – and to go wherever your imagination takes you. You’ll have a story and history to go with that jewellery forever.’ She adds: ‘Enjoy the journey.’

Crafts magazine is launching a campaign to encourage people to commission craft. Over the next few weeks we will be asked a range of makers and commissioners to tell us about their favourite craft commissions. We also want to hear from you: post images of bespoke work you’ve made or commissioned – from small tabletop works to large-scale installations – on Instagram using the hashtag #CommissionCraft and we will share our favourites

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