05 January 2010

the conundrum that is the special order...

I've long considered writing about clay folk and special/custom orders but it is a vast and controversial topic for artists and i just haven't been up the task. As another year dawns, though..the time has come to flesh out my thoughts a bit. This is a touch like a school assignment for me but I'll get through :)

I have said yes to the majority of special order requests over the last decade...most of which were items that fell well within my abilities/product line. I've made dozens of dinnerware sets..wedding platters..pasta plates..etc and mugs, mugs, mugs. I have worked hard to make people happy and have been fairly compensated for said products.

Along the way, I have had orders that have spawned new ideas/color combinations that I have incorporated into my everyday pots. Ideas that may never have surfaced if I had not taken that particular commission.

I know artists who covet the custom order...love to have them backed up for a year-guaranteed income and whatnot. Some of them believe that it is the best way to grow their business. In my opinion...these are often the more 'left hemisphered' people who are organized and timely with the rest of their lives and carry that over to their business. It is the way it should be...art as business is a damn serious operation and if you care to succeed...take note. That said...being serious and somewhat organized in our approach does not necessarily mean that we have to take on every order.

There is a difference between a 'custom order'and just an order for a said number of pots that I already make on a regular basis. For some reason...I classify them all in the 'special order' category. I believe that I need to change my thinking on this. In my head....they all weigh the same. Somebody waiting for me to make something that will inevitably take 3 tries (even if it is something I make all the time) and will probably take longer than I told them and cause me loads of guilt and often sheepish explanations.
I hate having to call people and tell them that their order bubbled, warped, cracked, or had kiln gropple fall on it. I always go into too much detail with tech talk that they don't understand and frankly are not interested in hearing. One thing that I have learned is that people are soooo nice. It doesn't make me feel any less guilt over taking too long but it is definitely the rare customer who raises a stink. I was mentioning to a friend the other day that maybe it would be easier if someone would just grab me and shake me and yell.

I'm really not a 'debbie downer' in general, but the special order is just tough for me..always has been. I'm sure that all mediums have their downfalls but pots usually have a turn around time of at least a week and a half. Sometimes I wish I worked with fabric or paint where I could immediately alter the piece as opposed to starting completely over. In my opinion..clay is only for the eternal optimist. You have to be a 'chin up' kind of soul to carry on with pottery. I believe the hurdle for me is starting the order immediately. My optimistic side often underestimates the time required to make said piece so I don't start it right away. Am I capable of changing my approach? I've been at this 10 years now...I'm thinking it's just not my forte. or is it that i need to work harder...get more organized? (I'm guessing the answer to that it yes) but do I have to? or can I run my business by carrying a substantial and varied selection on the shelf ready to go but not take the 'special order' i really don't have the answer. I am considering making this the year of no orders...maybe requests but no hard deadlines for one and two pieces.
Just keep my shelves full of options.

Having written the above over a week ago, I have been completely unable to say no to several more orders...napkin rings (with names..) for a great customer who definitely holds the record for largest dinnerware order. (how could I say no?) The January income could use the boost as well.. SIGH. After much rambling, I have a touch more clarity I suppose..I would love to hear how others approach this.


  1. I personally would not like a list of special orders looming over my head, it would take the fun out of creating and warp me into working too hard and thinking too much.. maybe that is not a good thing either - ha!
    I got Mae and Otto a book about a Potter today at the library and thought of you!

  2. I have to agree with you on the special orders. I really like requests because they take me in artistic directions I wouldn't have considered previously. However, jewelry (lampwork, now I'm switching to polymer clay due to switching apartments where I can't do lampwork) is still a hobby business for me and I'm not dependent on the income. One of the blogs I read has an approach you might consider. She only posts "custom orders" in her Etsy shop as she feels ready to take them and those are the only custom orders she does and they are with the proviso that she has some artistic latitude as she creates. Might give you some ideas to help you with your conundrum??? http://thenoisyplume.blogspot.com/

    BTW...your work is beautiful! I've been trying to expand my blog reading to other art work besides what I do in lampwork, chain maille, and misc. techniques.

  3. Wow have been down this road so many times and meeting with a client next week to go down this road again. ARghhhhh!
    The bells and whistles are ringing in my head as I write,
    Talk about a love hate relationship!
    To be a potter you really do need to be organized and self disciplined but special orders kicks this to a whole 'nother stratosphere.
    Special orders have always ended up costing me money and not the customer. Dinner set for 6, make 8 because I know one and half are going to have something abysmal happen.
    Some orders are just too lucrative to pass up........
    But then the seed catalogs are here and it's almost garden season...... what special order?
    and then I have a classic line.......... "I know that's what you want but you can't have that"........ LOL!