What can an 18th-century furniture maker teach us about design and marketing?

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Born of humble beginnings, Yorkshire cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale became the foremost furniture designer of the 18th century, whose designs were internationally sought-after. 

As our school name suggests, we are great fans of the pioneering furniture maker Thomas Chippendale. While Chippendale’s designs are iconic and remain legendary today, his huge international success can’t simply be attributed to his incredible design – Thomas Chippendale was an early master of design marketing, championing innovative techniques that are still relevant today.

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User experience – making your work accessible

As craftspeople and creators, we can sometimes bury our heads in the design process and forget that in order to be commercially successful, we need to showcase our products to potential customers.  Going ‘out there’ is for many of us very uncomfortable, but by doing it well, as Chippendale did, it can be hugely rewarding. 

We are fortunate today that we have many marketing channels to target potential customers and great examples of successful marketing campaigns that we can adapt to our own business.  However, in Chippendale’s time, things weren’t quite so simple. Furniture makers would be commissioned on reputation, and often, customers had no real way to visualise the furniture they would be purchasing. Imagine investing a lot of money into a piece of furniture that would last you a very long time, without being confident that you would even like it – that would make impulse purchasing a lot harder!

Chippendale recognised this problem, and how it was hindering his customers, when he created his famous design book, The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director. It is one of the earliest examples of a product design brochure or catalogue. With it, Chippendale was able to showcase his furniture before customers placed their orders. 

The Director illustrated a selection of the latest fashions for his customers and the wide range of styles that he could comfortably work in. It captured imaginations, as his customers could visualise how his designs might look in their homes, making what he was offering them a lot less abstract. Copies of The Director travelled all over the world, owned by Catherine the Great and producing hybrids and imitations in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and North America. His status as a reputable furniture designer was cemented, and his sales shot up as a result.

Making your work accessible is still so important – showcasing your designs in a way that your customers can engage with them before they make a purchase is crucial. Whether using Instagram, Shopify or an amazing website, helping your customers to get a feel for your designs is still so important, so that they can covet your work and be encouraged to make a purchase.

Accommodating your customers  

Designers always have their own distinctive point of view, and contemporary creatives often believe that they need to be unwavering in their aesthetic. But even Chippendale, whose classic furniture designs have made it into the British design cannon, was highly attuned to the commercial appetite of the day. He wasn’t above adapting to the whims of fashion, making changes to reflect what customers wanted in their homes. Although he had his own distinctive style, archives show he created furniture in the Rococo, Georgian and neoclassical styles too. This opened up his work to a huge range of customers across the UK and throughout the Americas.

The first edition of The Director included 38 different chair designs alone, ranging from the simple to the heavily ornate. Each of Chippendale’s designs was fluid, he took into account his clients’ preferences to create personalised pieces. For example, when the ‘antique’ style become popular in French and British furniture, he integrated rosettes and Greek motifs to appeal to customers.

Though many of us may worry about diluting our aesthetic with an overly diverse catalogue, Chippendale proves that it is possible to retain your distinctive style while experimenting with popular trends. Being adaptable has proven time and time again to be key to success for so many furniture makers and design houses.

Designing for function

Chippendale understood that his work was to be used day to day, and not just looked at. Every piece was crafted with an awareness of form and function, making his furniture an everyday staple in many households. Adolf Loos, a notable Austrian architect even went so far as to call classic Chippendale’s dining room chair ‘perfect’, suggesting it ‘cannot be surpassed’, not just because it was beautiful but because it fulfilled its purpose so completely. 

This is something that all designers can aspire to. We may strive to craft a product appreciated for its beauty, but it is a harder task to create an item that is both beautiful and practical. Being able to demonstrate functionality will be important for many creatives, no matter the form. From copywriters to graphic designers to product developers they must be able to show that their work is both appealing in a creative sense and also serving a practical purpose. 

If you’re a passionate craftsperson, you won’t regret seeking out a copy of The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director and familiarising yourself with Chippendale’s techniques. Today, we can still learn from his inventive approach to both design and marketing.

Author: Tom Fraser

Tom Fraser is Principal at The Chippendale International School of Furniture, an internationally renowned furniture making and design school in East Lothian, near Edinburgh.