This article is part of our latest Design special section, which is about getting personal with customization.
How many French factory workers does it take to screw in 220 light bulbs?
Just one, according to Jérôme de Lavergnolle, chief executive of the crystal company Saint-Louis, describing the final step in making a bespoke chandelier for a client in Russia.
But it took 25 craftsmen to shape and cut the stupendous metal structure with its 3,000 mouth-blown crystal pieces, Mr. de Lavergnolle said. The glittering behemoth, designed for the stairwell of a private home, was 30 feet high with 12 tiers and weighed more than 5,500 pounds.
In a world of well-oiled factory production, affluent consumers routinely challenge designers and fabricators to break the mold. Made-to-order — or, in Mr. de Lavergnolle’s phrase, “made-to-dream” — objects are emblems of singularity that astonish the beholder and almost throb with personal meaning.
In France, the seat of savoir-faire, tales of custom commissions can take your breath away. Puiforcat, whose silversmithing lineage goes back nearly 200 years, recently produced a gold-plated serving set to celebrate the birth of an infant prince (no names, of course).
The set, which included a porridge bowl and egg cup, among other gummable things, was based on a 17th-century fluted goblet in the Louvre that was said to have belonged to Anne of Austria, the mother of King Louis XIV of France. It took 60 hours just to engrave the floral motif on a cup, said Amélie de Cagny, director of marketing and communications for the French company.
For Rinck, a Paris-based interior architecture and fabrication studio, the source material for a custom commission was a late-18th-century inlaid table at Versailles, known as the Table des Muses. A client asked for a reproduction, with some modifications: He wanted a round version of the original square, and rather than two muses asked for three — representing the faces of his daughters.
“The daughters didn’t come to the studio, of course,” said Valentin Goux, Rinck’s vice president. (The artisans worked from pictures.) And what did the final piece — a concoction of fruitwood-and-sycamore marquetry and bronze ornament, with an estimated price of $56,000 — look like? “We would be sued in one second if a photo were published,” Mr. Goux said.
Procurers of custom pieces frequently savor them in private. Adam Hunter, a Los Angeles interior designer with a sparkling list of household-name clients, recounted commissioning the world’s most beautiful door to a panic room for a couple who live on a gated 450-acre property in Nashville.
The clients wanted to carry an overall theme of Jules Verne-inspired steampunk into the lower level, next to a corner occupied by a replica of the robot from the 1960s sci-fi television series “Lost in Space.” Working with the metal furniture and fabrication company Amuneal, Mr. Hunter designed a shiny portal in the style of an old-fashioned bank vault door, with a steering-wheel handle and artfully placed bolts. Inside are a refrigerator and a bar with stools, in case the owners want to use the space for wine tastings.
Often designers relish the particularity — and peculiarity — of bespoke assignments, even those that trigger anxiety.
“We assumed we would get a beautifully groomed horsetail,” Mr. Hendifar recalled. “It came in a Ziploc bag.”
The production team set up an impromptu horsehair salon “and conditioned and straightened and conditioned and straightened and got it looking its best,” Mr. Hendifar continued. “We made the fixture and sent it to the clients and they were over the moon.”
Aaron Aujla described a time shortly after he and Benjamin Bloomstein founded their New York design studio Green River Project three years ago that a very big celebrity (so big Mr. Aujla would not disclose his industry) commissioned a metal bench that would run around the perimeter of his apartment like an old radiator. The tricky part was measuring the bench so that it wrapped perfectly around a floor-to-ceiling circular column. “It was just half an inch off,” Mr. Aujla recalled. “So close.”
The partners dragged the bench out to the client’s tiny, windy patio, 30 floors up, and shaved off the offending length.
The architect Tom Kundig performed a high-wire act less than a decade ago, when he designed a house in the San Juan Islands in Washington that was sunk into a rocky outcropping and partly composed of the excavated stones. Though common in ancient times, “building into rock is hardly ever done anymore,” Mr. Kundig said. It takes extra work to make the structure waterproof, temperate and stable. He and his contractor learned on the job and later marveled that they pulled it off, unaware that their client was listening to them gloat. “You mean you guys didn’t know what the hell you were doing?” she asked.
On the whole, designers who customize must see around corners and help clients do the same.
Seth Rolland, a woodworker in Port Townsend, Wash., used hand tools and fancy software and hardware to produce a $34,000 cherry wood desk that met the specific needs of his client, an environmental lawyer. After noting that she elevated her monitor on a stack of books, he sculpted a pedestal on the desktop. And seeing that she liked to tilt her keyboard for improved ergonomics, he built a slanted, retractable tray. Her work surface is routinely littered with paper, so he made the base of the new desk the beauty zone.
Joa Studholme, a color consultant with the British paint company Farrow & Ball, is extraordinarily good at walking into a home and telling the occupants which colors will make them happy. But it sometimes takes convincing. The most fraught moments, she said, come in selecting among the large variety of whites. Clients will interrogate Ms. Studholme about why she favors a particular light shade and insist that she “discuss the other 18 options.” Invariably, they pick her first choice.
For the New York interior designer Kristine Greenblatt, the most ambitious adventures in customization are inspired by repeat clients and an escalating bar of wonder. “I want these people’s friends to come over and say, ‘What? Who did that?’” she said.
While a partner at the interiors firm Pembrooke & Ives, she designed a circular dining table for a longtime client’s house in Palm Beach, Fla., that looked as if gold paint had spilled over the top and was dripping down the edges. To complicate matters, the table was expandable, with wedge-shaped leaves. Large or small, the surface had to appear elegantly disarrayed.
After four attempts by the fabricators in California, the table “turned out to be a knockout,” Ms. Greenblatt said.
The Milan-based designer and creative director Patricia Urquiola does both production and custom projects but hesitates to assign them to separate buckets. Buyers can select the colors of the fabric layers making up each of her Gender chairs for Cassina, and she routinely tweaks standardized furniture to fit the settings of her bespoke hotel interiors. Her idea of a one-off was using a robotic arm to 3-D-print a terrazzolike floor last year for the BMW Welt showroom in Munich.
“When we speak of customization, it is not connected to the customer or luxury,” she said. “It is an instrument to give us more possibilities.”