John Lee designs and makes bespoke furniture at his workshop in Co. Meath for private clients. He also exhibits in galleries from Dublin to Chicago. John is featured in the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland's (DCCoI) Irish Craft Portfolio programme.
John began his career in London, where he spent five years working with contemporary designer Andrew Varah and was first exposed to the art and business of high-end furniture making. On his return to London John took a job with Klimmek & Henderson, while also doing private work on the side. He says that starting his career by working in-house gave him invaluable experience in running a business in terms of timescales, overheads and professionalism.
Over a number of years John acquired and restored machinery in preparation for establishing his own workshop, which he opened in 2004. Having already been working evenings and weekends on pieces for private clients, his business began organically through previous jobs and word of mouth.
At the same time he began to exhibit in galleries and exhibitions; opportunities which came about as a result of his contacts at Letterfrack, where he studied, as well as by approaching exhibitions directly and through links with DCCoI. He has exhibited at COLLECT in London, SOFA Chicago, Design Basel in Switzerland and the Cheongju International Craft Biennale in South Korea.
As John’s business and confidence has grown, he has changed his approach. Instead of designing furniture based on what he can do, he has taken a design-first approach, coming up with an idea and then working out how it can be achieved. John still finds exhibitions extremely personal because he’s being judged as an artist, but positive feedback builds confidence and makes him push himself.
John has always continued to make speculative pieces that are more focused on developing his designs and skills than about selling. They’re not always immediately successful but pay off in the long run. Some of his most successful pieces have been designed on spec; such as his ‘Farriage’ cabinet that he designed for an exhibition in Chicago and that was eventually sold to a Swiss prince.
Building your reputation is about more than making them a bespoke piece of furniture. Small things make a difference: turning up on time, not leaving the place a mess and doing what you say you’re going to do.
You have to be really committed. It’s like professional sport rather than a nine-to-five job. The effort in the first couple of years is horrendous; it’s seriously hard work.
Keep note of the amount of time you spend on a project as it will train your mind to work out how long a project is going to take and the cost. It’s a balance; you don’t want to stunt creativity but it is a business at the end of the day.
Get the best photographer you can afford. Photographs will help you build up your website and give you something to send to magazines. With bespoke furniture it’s the only record you have.
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