Photograph by Meredith Perdue
Don’t be intimidated: Customizing furniture to meet your needs involves less time, stress, and expense than you might think.
by Jennifer Van Allen
When Cyndi and Chris Smith went to Kennebunkport’s Huston & Company in search of a dining room table, they had reached a milestone in their lives. “We were starting from scratch,” Cyndi says. With two daughters in college and a son in high school, they had put their house on the market, gotten rid of most of their belongings, and built their forever home — a contemporary one-level retreat in Kennebunk with net-zero energy consumption and ceilings that peak at 14 feet. “We were ready to start investing in pieces that we never would have when the kids were young,” she says.
The Smiths loved Huston & Company’s Karu Signature Table (pictured above), a sturdy trestle-style piece in white oak with raw-steel legs and framing, created in collaboration with Portland designer Tyler Karu. But they wanted their table in rich walnut with sleeker polished metal accents to complement their home’s fir beams and clean white cabinets and countertops. Because Huston & Company handcrafts each piece to order — there’s no production line to interrupt — the special requests will not delay the turnaround time. The table will take the standard 10 to 12 weeks that it would have to get a piece ordered straight from the catalog. The only additional cost had to do with the use of walnut, which is about fifteen percent pricier than other American hardwoods. “That’s the best thing about custom furniture,” Cyndi says. “You can have whatever you want.”
And not necessarily with the accompanying hassle, and price tag, you might expect. “Often people feel intimidated by the idea of custom furniture,” says designer and workshop manager Saer Huston, whose father, Bill, founded the company in 1988. “People worry that they have to know something about furniture or dimensioning to work with us. But they don’t. They just have to know what they like, and we talk them through the process of designing each piece.” As for cost, Huston & Company’s custom prices are on par with other high-end furniture lines.
The Smiths learned how reasonable — and meaningful — the custom process can be.
Photographs by C.A. Smith Photography
Dream up your design. Usually a piece begins with one of nearly 100 items from the Huston & Company catalog. Then the tinkering commences. Customers can choose from one of five American hardwoods that the company sources from the Northeast — cherry, maple, oak, ash, and walnut. Dimensions frequently get tweaked. A bed might be adjusted to a certain height to accommodate a client’s bad back or a storage unit trimmed to fit into a tight corner. Chris Smith wanted the Shaker-inspired Davenport Tall Chest with six drawers (pictured above) instead of the standard eight. He knew where he wanted to store each item in his wardrobe, so the drawers were sized to his specifications. Other aesthetic options include custom-matching stains to a cherished heirloom or personal taste and exposing dovetail or butterfly joinery, which is typically hidden, to showcase the painstaking craftsmanship that went into a design. Although more involved than plucking a piece off a showroom floor, the initial time investment “is definitely worth it,” Cyndi says. “This is the furniture you’ll keep forever, and end up passing to the next generation.”
Photograph courtesy of Swans Island Company
Photograph by Matt Wargo
Photographs by Meredith Perdue
Work within your budget. Huston & Company has no standard upcharge for customization. Certain changes, like adding leaves to a table, cost extra because they require more materials and time to make. But in some cases, customizing can actually make a piece less expensive. For instance, because Chris wanted a Davenport Tall Chest that was smaller and had fewer drawers than the standard edition, he was able to shave nearly $1,000 off the price. For those who want to stay within a certain budget, “there are always ways we can get the cost down without sacrificing the function or aesthetic,” Saer says. Wood is the first candidate for change. Instead of walnut, for instance, a client might use less-expensive cherry with a walnut stain and forgo any complex inlay work. On storage pieces, substituting drawers with doors can bring down material and labor costs.
Know your craftsman. Typically clients meet with Saer or Bill to discuss the concept, materials, stain, and joinery, and they are sent final sketches within a few days. Clients may request photos of their furniture as it’s being made and they are invited to visit the workshop anytime. In most cases, a single craftsman works on a piece from the selection of the first boards until it’s ready for his signature. This forges a personal connection between artisan and client that endures long after the piece is delivered. “When you have something custom designed and you know the people who are making it, that furniture holds so much more meaning than something that was manufactured in China,” Chris says. “There’s a personal attachment.”