October 16, 2022

Why so expensive?

Author: Dan Rieple

A few years ago I wrote a not-so-little blog that clarified why the things artists and artisans create are so expensive.  It was pretty good I guess since a few people responded with things like, “That never occurred to me” or “That makes total sense”.  Anyway, nowhere on my computer or in cyberspace can I find that blog.  So, I’ll write it again as nothing has changed in regard to the basic premise.

So why does a chair I make have a price tag of $3000.00?  Someone may say, “Why hell, all it has to do is keep your’s and my fat ass 15” to 18” above the floor.  Hell (again), I can get a nice wood chair down at Walmart that will do that for under a hundred bucks if I wait for a sale.”  Question: what is the cost of living in the country where that chair was made?  The answer or discussion is an economic game changer and also a bunny trail.  So let’s not go there.

So what is the real cost of a nice, and stylish wood chair or whatever, when you see it at a furniture store or on line somewhere?  First of all, let’s make it in the USA.  Large furniture manufacturers have designers they pay (either employed or contracted) to create new lines or one offs to be manufactured and sold.  The designer (usually a creative and imaginative person) first conceives an idea, then they draw it, then “the powers that be” decide if it will sell.  If they think it will, it is then sent off to be prototyped by a small shop  that is probably inside or near the plant.  At this time the piece is made by skilled craftsmen.  In aggregate, it may take days to: figure out how to make this piece, then to cut out the pieces, shape the pieces, pre sand the pieces, assemble the pieces, final sand the pieces, and finally finish (stain, seal and lacquer) the completed piece.  In addition, and perhaps most important to the manufacturer, is that all the while this piece is being made, it is being determined as to how it lends itself to being manufactured and what tooling and fixturing is required.  That is another story however, because functional art isn’t created in the plant.  It is only copied in the plant.  In this example, we are making the first one, the original if you will.

In some cases, a design never makes it to the plant because it has been determined (during prototyping), that cool and unique as it may be, it can’t be made inexpensively enough in order to be profitable.  But lets assume the piece does make it to the plant and is produced by the hundreds or even thousands.  Remember the days it took to make the prototype?  It may well have taken a couple weeks.  That’s only 80 hours.  That’s not long is it?  Except that two people were working on it.  That is now 160 highly skilled man hours or the same as four weeks for one person.  What is the hourly rate for the highly skilled?  As an employee in the USA, he or she needs to be paid $30-50 per hour in order to make a decent living.  But the cost to the company for those two employees is probably somewhere in the range of $70-80 per man hour.  FYI, the rate for a master plumber or master electrician at the low end is around $80 an hour.

Let’s do some arithmetic. Just the labor cost for the prototype is in the range of $12,000.  Add to that the cost of material and you might be somewhere closer to $15,000.00.  Yup that is some serious money for a piece of furniture.  Ahhh but wait, we forgot to pay the designer.  Their fee (if a contractor), may well have just doubled the cost of the protoype.  Artisans such as myself, are in essence, the designers and the people making the prototype, the one off.  When someone like Henredon or Thomasville cranks up and makes 1000 of those pieces in a couple weeks by semi skilled factory workers, and as much automation (which reduces labor cost) as can be implemented, that $15,000 (or $30k) has been expensed over all the manufactured pieces so that the end buyer is only paying $15 to $30 for the design fee and prototyping.

Don’t get me wrong, manufacturing and mass production is a great thing and we need it.  But remember, art, both fine and functional isn’t created in the plant.  It is only copied in the plant.