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It took me more than a year to fully furnish my apartment. The final piece of furniture, which I just couldn’t seem to find, was a coffee table. I fell in love with many $10,000-plus designs unrealistically outside of my budget. I looked at a handful of generic, more affordable tables that would have worked but not added anything to my space. Nothing vintage was catching my eye, and I had come up with—and scratched—a handful of complicated DIY plans. 

Having exhausted all the traditional options, I started playing around with the idea of getting something custom-made, which was nerve-racking to say the least. Actually going through with it was a months-long ordeal filled with indecision, emails to potential designers, texts to friends…you get the picture. The good news: I’m head over heels for the bespoke coffee table currently sitting in my living room, and I’m here to share how to be a dream custom client—and in the process, get your perfect piece of furniture. (I even chatted with Sam Keene, the designer of my piece and owner of Sam Keene Studio, to get his perspective.) Despite what you might think, it’s not as intimidating as it sounds.

Find the Right Collaborator

Like anyone you’re working with to create something for your home—an interior designer, a contractor, an artist—you have to find a furniture fabricator that gets your vision. Research online, ask for referrals from other design-minded individuals you know, and peruse Instagram to find rising local talents. I was in touch with a few different designers who ended up not being the best fit—our collaborations weren’t seamless, the renderings not quite right. When I found Keene’s profile on Instagram and learned he takes on projects with a variety of aesthetics, I knew he might be game to create something cool with me. (I was right.)

Courtesy of Alyssa Clough

Do Your Homework

From my conversations with other designers, I learned what to send up front to give a clear picture of what I was looking for: photographs of my space, so they could get a feel for my personal style and the room that the piece of furniture would be living in; the approximate dimensions I was looking for (or the measurements of the space you’re looking to fill); an ideal budget range and timeline; shapes that I was attracted to (or a general mood board); and details on how the piece will function. If you’re getting a dining room table done, how many people do you want it to sit? Do you need it to be kidproof? 

“I have people who contact me with no idea of what they want, which is hard. It’s a lot of shooting in the dark at first,” says Keene. “The range that I receive is anything from a fully flushed-out design drawing to someone calling me saying, ‘I have no idea what is needed here, but something needs to happen.’” 

Bottom line: Any information is better than no information. Taking the time to compile the full scope of your project will help make the collaboration as smooth as possible. 

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Share Your Budget 

“I think a lot of people are hesitant to disclose a budget to someone trying to sell them something, for obvious reasons,” says Keene. 

However, Keene says designers who value repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals know those things hinge on creating and maintaining good client relationships and experiences. In other words, there’s no incentive to overcharge.

Being up front about cost can also help simplify the exchange. When Keene said my budget was a bit too low, we adjusted quickly, and he recommended materials and a design based on the final amount we agreed on. If I had been coy, he could have spent weeks coming up with grand designs that would’ve intimidated me out of the process. 

Courtesy of Alyssa Clough

Be Open to Collaboration

Expect to go through a few rounds of renderings, tweaked each time with your feedback. Remember: This is the fun part! The whole point of going custom is to create your dream piece, so don’t hesitate to throw out inspiration and ideas and see what you get in return.

Keene was on board with my aesthetic from the get-go, so we only had two rounds. First, he sent through two different leg options—I instantly gravitated toward the curvy legs and also gave notes on the tabletop waves aligning. The next iteration was spot-on.

Courtesy of Alyssa Clough

Respect Their Time 

Deposits ensure that designers are compensated for their time—creating rounds of renderings only for a client to back out and move on is not time well spent. After Keene and I had emailed a few times, I paid a deposit before proceeding to the rendering stage.

I also made sure to respond to Keene’s emails in a timely manner to keep the process moving forward. He estimates that at any one time, he normally has around three projects in the initial discussion phase, three in mid-production, and three in final assembly. Keep in mind that while your project is important, it isn’t the only project in the works. 

Courtesy of Alyssa Clough

You Won’t Get It Tomorrow

Or next week. While Keene says he is happy to accommodate a hard move-in date for clients, you should generally expect a longer lead time. He estimates a project, depending on the scope, could take anywhere from four to eight weeks. Even if you buy an already designed piece, it will be made to order, not waiting in a warehouse for shipping.

Thinking about your new piece of furniture as a work of art will help reframe how you view not only this item but each one you bring into your home.  

Have more questions about my experience? Ask in the comments section, below! 

Introducing Domino’s new podcast, Design Time, where we explore spaces with meaning. Each week, join editor-in-chief Jessica Romm Perez along with talented creatives and designers from our community to explore how to create a home that tells your story. Listen now and subscribe for new episodes every Thursday.