Lately, I have heard from a number of professional chairmakers who are very concerned with the economy and the effect it is having on their sales. They have good reasons for their concerns. It’s hard to sell chairs when your customers are paying $3.25 for gasoline, higher prices to heat their houses, and higher prices to feed their families. A set of handmade chairs moves to the back burner – a way back, back burner.
There is no doubt times are tough out there. I have run my chairmaking business through several recessions, beginning with the one in the 1970s. I survived them all by using the strategies we teach our students who go pro.
This time feels different to me, and this leads me to suspect we are in for a very tough time, for a very long time. Hard times change the way people act and the way they think. As a result, hard times often change the country and the culture. For example, my parents lived through the depression. It changed them. They were frugal all their lives. My sense is that another such change is taking place.
The last couple of decades created a culture of consumption. This was the era of the McMansion, of the Mercedes, of the second home, the expensive trips abroad. Lots of people lived large and financially, they lived on the edge. To buy more house than their incomes could support, they used sub prime mortgages. When they needed yet more money, they borrowed against the equity in the house, or put it on plastic. A lot of people partied and now all of us have to pay the piper, and suffer the hang over.
I think Americans are pulling in their horns for the long haul, perhaps another generation or more. If indeed, the country and the economy do change, we Windsor chairmakers need to change the way we sell chairs. In other words, we need to change our approach: the message and sales pitch we give our customers.
Two things have crossed my desk recently that have suggested to me a new marketing strategy. The first was an email I received from Dr. Chuck Pezeshki. I wrote about that email in another posting earlier this year. Chuck observed that “Windsors are Eco-design personified.” He explained to me that, “Eco-design considers the whole lifecycle of a product. A Windsor that lasts 200 years, and is painted with milk paint, lasts far longer than the tree takes to re-grow the wood, is made of mostly locally-grown wood (no transportation CO2), is manufactured by human hands, and has no toxic disposal cost at the end-of-life.”
The second item was an editorial in Maine Antiques Digest. The title was The Compact Market, and it was written by Sam Pennington, the publication’s editor. Sam began his editorial by describing a new trend called Compact Shopping. In explanation he wrote, “Subscribers to the compact shopping theory desire ‘to go beyond recycling in trying to counteract the negative global environmental and socioeconomic impacts of U.S. consumer culture…’ ” Furthermore according to Sam, compact shoppers seek to cut back on clutter and waste and to simplify their lives. Shopping local is important part of this trend.
The two items tie together very nicely. Windsor chairs, known commonly as “green chairs” in the 18th century, are the ultimate green chair of the 21st. As Dr. Chuck points out, Windsors are made of local woods and are generally purchased by people who live near the maker. Thus, they make use of a renewable resource, and there is little energy consumption or pollution associated with them. Think how much energy it takes to import those cheap chairs from southeast Asia that J. C. Penny had to recall. Because Windsor chairs are made by hand, a chairmaker produces his own energy, and he exhales the only green house gas he produces.
Windsor chairs are finished in milk paint, a non-toxic finish that dries without giving off polluting vapors. A handmade Windsor can be expected to last two of more centuries. As Chuck points out, the chair lasts far longer than it takes for replacement trees to grow and mature.
If I am right about this recession changing our consumer culture, Americans will begin to desire things that will last. They will be looking for things of quality, with permanent value. They will be shopping closer to home, and be more conscious of the impact their purchase has on the environment and the economy. No longer will furniture be thought of as disposable the way it has for the past 20 years; changed every time someone changed the decor. Consider for a moment how many trees were cut down to produce furniture that was put out at the curb for the rubbish pick up, as well as all the energy required to make, transport, and dispose of it.
As Americans simplify their lives and look for quality and permanency, Windsor chairs fit right in. Buying handmade Windsor chairs, a customer buys the only set of chairs he or she will own for a lifetime. Since handmade Windsors last far longer than people do, a set of Windsors purchased today will be passed on to the owner’s descendants. In other words, these chairs will become cherished family heirlooms.
There is no worry that by buying chairs that last 200 years customers will have to live the rest of their lives with something that has gone out of style. Windsors fit in with any décor. Those who subscribe to my monthly email newsletter will be receiving some old photos from The Institute’s collection. These pictures are of late 19th and early 20th century interiors, and show Windsors in use. When those photos were taken, the Windsors were already 100 years old, but remained part of the household’s furnishings.
Windsors were a product of the late Georgian and Federal periods. As those photos prove, they remained in use through the myriad of Victorian furniture styles, as well as the fin-de-siecle furniture styles. Why? Because they blended well with every style. There is no reason to assume that will change in the future. Windsor design is timeless.
My advice is for Windsor chairmakers is to incorporate these themes into their sale pitch. Use these talking points when speaking with a potential customer. Explain how your handmade Windsor chairs mesh with their new priorities and new shopping habits. Above all, use these talking points when speaking with the news media. These are important points, and you want them to appear in every article about you. In other words, make a little green by explaining that green chairs are green.
Perhaps you are not a professional Windsor chairmaker, and instead work wood for your own enjoyment. Or, perhaps you appreciate and share the same concerns as compact shoppers. Here is a suggestion for you. For the same reasons as described above, consider learning to make your own Windsors.
Starting in May the government will begin sending out rebate checks. Instead of spending the check on something transitory – something that will not last — invest it in yourself. Use it to develop a new skill. Take a Windsor chairmaking class at The Windsor Institute.
You will make a chair that will last 200 years and that you will pass on to your descendants. Instead of being a stranger to your great grand children, you will be kept alive in their memories every time they tell someone about you and the family heirloom you made for them. The handmade Windsor you make at The Windsor Institute will be your legacy.
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