By Regina Connell.
John Wiggers‘s wood work—meticulous, rigorous, luxuriously and sumptuously crafted—is an absolute embodiment of his obstinate sense of integrity and his inability to tolerate BS.
And it’s won him commissions throughout the world (currently: desks for executives in London and New York, a pyramid box in Australia) and has been featured in galleries and 5-star hotels like the Four Seasons and the Mandarin Oriental. Over the years, he’s also collaborated with Dakota Jackson and Lee Weitzman.
It’s also caused him to approach his business from a different perspective.
But it hasn’t always been this way. John’s career has traced the same trajectory that many high-end makers have faced over the years. In the old days (and for some today), marketing used to consist of making something fabulous, building up a portfolio, then getting onto the radar of gallerists or showrooms who had relationships with interior design clients and well-heeled customers—et voila: pieces would be sold and commissions would be undertaken. Along the way, the gallerists/showrooms and interior designers would take their cut. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Now, however, things are different, due in large part to that great leveler, the web. Galleries and showrooms struggle, and certainly aren’t as numerous as before. (As John says, the internet is the global virtual showroom.) Interior designers, while incredibly important, have learned to find different ways to work, too, collaborating more with clients and makers. “To the trade” has come to mean something different than it once did, though it’s not quite clear what yet.
What’s really changed, though, is the client. They have a wealth of information available to them, whether it’s research on products, makers, or price. They demand transparency. And the emerging luxury client (the new luxury client, as I like to think of them) demands engagement. They like to collaborate with makers, rather than to point, pay, and, upon coming home one day, find their new table/sofa/humidor waiting and vaguely remember having ordered it many months ago.
And while the shift has put businesses like John’s through a bit of a roller coaster (since he thrived under the gallery model), it hasn’t been all bad, especially since John seems to revel in the engagement side of things. Thoughtful, garrulous, opinionated, and deeply passionate about what he does, he sure loves a client that does their homework.
“I once had a client who I met at a show, and we got to talking about techniques. He seemed really knowledgeable and I didn’t realize that he wasn’t in the business. After the show, the conversation continued. He asked a lot of questions, and the conversation went back and forth over a span of 3-4 years. And finally, I did a commission with him. By this point I knew the look he liked, how he liked to work, etc. He gave me full artistic license, but we collaborated on the exact look, and that was good because it was a fine line he wanted to straddle: something impressive but not overbearing. And we got there.”
John sees this engagement as being good for both the client and the maker in subtle ways. “There are so many makers out there, and you have so many options, and so many different takes on quality: it’s almost imperative that a client understands the process and quality issues. Knowing more protects a client. At the same time, when a client comes to me after extensive research, I take that as such an honor or high compliment that I want to go out of my way to prove to them that they made the right choice.”
Now, John is creating his own mix of channels, as they say in the business world. He still works with galleries (though he’s choosier these days), but has increasingly been receiving commissions over the internet.
So how did we get here? It’s a refreshing story, given how in love we all seem to be with bold entrepreneurialism and a lack of reference to the past. Because this is a story about innovation and re-creation in the context of heritage and continuity.
John’s family has been in the woodworking world for generations, carrying on the rich craft traditions of Europe. The modern (20th century) part of the story begins with a man named Jan, who made wooden shoes. (Read John’s site for more rather incredible details. My mind’s already cogitating on the novelistic/HBO/Netflix series possibilities.) After the family’s emigration to Canada in the 1950s, woodworking became, initially, a side note, as Jan’s son Johan went into industry. But he started Wiggers Custom Furniture in 1967 and started building slowly. John, after entertaining thoughts of being a lawyer and then shelving them (smart man), started working with his father in 1981. And now John’s son, Kevin, is a talented designer and also part of the family business.
John’s sense of integrity has guided his part of the Wiggers legacy. Long interested in “green” and sustainability issues (John was at the forefront of environmental stewardship in the woodworking world), he decided to practice what he’d been (gently) preaching. He’d long been using “green” practices in his business, but he decided to take a look at the business itself, and didn’t like what he saw.
“To paraphrase Gandhi, I decided ‘to be the change that I wished to see in the world.’ By now, my shop had grown to roughly 12,000 square feet in size and at times, employed as many as 25 people. Although I was using green and sustainable materials and processes in my shop, I began to ask questions about how much was enough. How busy did I need to be? How much “stuff” was it necessary for me to push into an already glutted market before it was considered enough?
“I thought back to my days as a younger maker, in a smaller studio with fewer helpers and fewer sales and realized that even then I was able to earn my way, albeit with a smaller footprint. But the underlying theme of business is always about growth, and every year when you sit down with the accountant a comparison is made to the previous year in terms of sales and profitability. More = good and less = bad. If you tell people you are busy, the automatic reaction is that busy = good. But to what end? Is one busy for the sake of being busy, or is being busy to be measured in terms of money. If so, how much money and how much is enough?”
[Ah, the crack cocaine that is growth: How often have we heard people talk about that?]
So in January 2013, he sold his building and downsized his business into a smaller studio on a rural property. Overhead nearer to zero. “The physical transition of making this move turned out much easier than the emotional one. [Not that the physical one was that easy.] After decades of being conditioned to the premise that more growth for a business is better, it was quite a challenge to REALLY embrace the less is more concept. Philosophizing about it is one thing, putting the metaphorical rubber to the road is quite another.
“Plus, there were/are so many family, friends, and colleagues who have thought (and in some cases continue to think) that the cheese has slid off my proverbial cracker for making the decision to do this voluntarily.” (Fabulous phrase, one which I’ll have to remember.)
Today, John picks his clients and seeks out new ones who get his obsession with quality and engagement.
So what is quality? “Well, environmental sustainability is, of course, part of it, but so are some of the basics that people don’t seem to pay attention to any more. [That’s] something that makes me crazy when I see it—and some of the big, well-known, high end brand do this. They really skimp on quality.
“For me, a hallmark of quality is a finished back. So many people use MDF or particle board to save on cost. Clients would be shocked to discover how many high end brands are actually made offshore as little more than rebranded particle board and MDF. I believe in putting the same material on the front as on the back, with no screw heads to be seen. If that much effort is going into a surface that’s going against a wall, it makes sense that the same effort or more will go into everything else. For those seeking true quality, there’s a far greater likelihood of finding it with a small artisanal maker than with some of the more mainstream luxury brands who mostly subcontract out to the lowest bidder.”
Of course, one of the challenges of the internet is that it puts a huge emphasis on design and “eye candy” and makes it hard to really understand the quality of a piece. “Design is an integral element to any piece, but sometimes, it seems that designers will get so focussed on creating a look and figuring out the best margins they can make on a deal that their appreciation for the actual craft gets lost in the process. It’s sometimes all about the design and not the details…but it is the details that can make or break a piece.”
When asked what defines him, John answered:
“Coffee: I am both a caffeine junkie and a barista hobbyist who enjoys making espressos and cappuccinos at home on the weekends.
“Cigars are an occasional vice for me, and I have a particular fondness for Arturo Fuente Hemingway’s.
“My constantly inquiring mind. (As a student of history and the cycles of human nature I am well aware that the real workings of the world are rarely based on what we would call ‘conventional wisdom.’ This, in turn, has triggered more than a few serendipitous journeys).
“My hands. I’ve learned long ago that the tips of my fingers can see (through the touch of feel) details that are often invisible to the naked eye. All of us have this ability, but few are cognizant of it.
“My core stash of woods. Over the past 30+ years I have accumulated over 100,000 square feet of many species of beautiful and unusual woods, which I refer to as my core stash.”
John Wiggers: http://wiggerscustomfurniture.com