Shop Talk

John Dunnigan has an international reputation.

A professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, he heads the school’s furniture design department. RISD grad Nicholas Hollibaugh was the recipient of the Rhode Island State Council of the Arts 2007 Crafts Fellowship. Each artist’s work takes a different direction, but their dedication is identical. Both will tell you that working with clients — from the first drawing to the moment your dream table arrives at the door — affords great satisfaction because it’s a team effort. In the end, says Dunnigan, “the best commissions require a little faith and good, clear communication.” Here’s what we learned.

RIM: Where do we find furniture makers?
JD: Furniture and craft shows, museums and
galleries. Call RISD’s furniture design department and ask for recommendations. The American Furniture Society ( is another excellent avenue.

RIM: What’s next — a studio appointment? Okay to bring pictures of pieces we like?
JD: When you’ve been at it a long time, your work is known. Clients request, say, a chair and expect you to come up with something. Usually, designers visit new clients at home to get a better understanding of their surroundings. Pictures aren’t bad ideas. They illustrate your taste.
NH: The time for a studio appointment is usually later to see how the piece is progressing. I take photos of clients’ homes as reference.

RIM: Who chooses materials?
JD: We all do. I present samples and make recommendations. You tend to build a reservoir of possibilities.
NH: Materials must complement the design. If you use a wood that’s too decorative, it could draw attention away from that. We discuss this and look at options.

RIM: Is this when we talk money?
JD: Designers handle costs in various ways. It’s impossible to generalize. Furniture making is
labor intensive. But along with hours, there’s design and materials. Typically, I charge a design fee, a small percentage of the final cost. That fee is then applied toward the total.
NH: I generally work with clients to figure out a price or payment methods that are comfortable for them. Sometimes, I suggest alternative materials or reduce the amount of detail to make the cost affordable.

RIM: Do you present drawings or models?
JD: It depends. Usually sketches. There might be a model.
NH: Some people can’t visualize. I give them a model and drawings or CAD renderings.

RIM: How long until the piece is finished? Are there warranties?
JD: If the stars are in their usual alignment, I’d say about three or four months. For larger projects, six months to a year is not unreasonable. The term warranty doesn’t apply. There are no contracts, but work is guaranteed. If a problem develops — not from abuse, but something within reason — a furniture maker will want to remedy it. You stand behind your work. You make it once right because you can’t afford to make it twice.

RIM: Do you sign your pieces?
JD: Sign and number.
NH: Absolutely.

RIM: We have to ask: what inspires you?
JD: Everything. Naming one source seems too simple. I’m inspired by the history of furniture along with a set of ever-changing influences. When doing commissioned work, I pay close attention to a client’s needs.
NH: The connection I make with the legacy of building things by hand. I’m inspired by tools, fixtures, structures and landscapes that show the signs of many years of use.

Categories: At Home
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