Commissions

The new commission was a little banner for a sloop. It would be divided into two. One part gets placed to the port of the rudder, and the other to the starboard side. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite balance at seven letters – Sea Lion – with Sea to port and Lion to starboard. Someone obsessed with bi-lateral symmetry would consider this an imposition on their sense of universal order. You compensated for this by clever placement of the letters on the banner and playing with spacing. You created a sense of balance, if not actual, balance—very much like life.

The customer was an artist who had told me, “I’d do it myself, but I’ve never carved, and I’m just too busy with commissions to take it on. By the way, make sure the design has some syncopation. I love movement.”

There were a few problems with designing for this lady. First, the boat was a traditional older sloop built in the 1930s and looked very much like its age. Something very Jazzy would look very out of place. Second, she shot down the three designs I put forward. A little banner like this only cost about $180.00 (plus the price of gold leaf) in those days. So every spring, I turned out bunches very rapidly: Pearl, Josey, Daiquiri Don, Phalarope, or Daisy. I had to carve fast or lose money.

Having failed to require change orders in writing and a redesign cost, I would lose on Sea Lion. I hesitated.

Two weeks later, guilt forced me back to the design. I balanced the left and right sides by carving a sea lion’s silhouette on the left and choosing a font with curving serifs on the leading capitals. I carved the design, varnished it, and added gold leaf. Lovely.

I shipped it out with some trepidation, but three weeks later, a letter arrived thanking me for executing the commission in such a piquant fashion. Included was the final payment on the banner.

I learned several lessons from this, primarily that change orders must be in writing, and you charge for excess design time.

While this little story is fictional, it is drawn from experience in my practice as a carver. Not everything gets carved in four-inch Palatino with gold leaf, and not all clients know what they want. Since then, I have found ways to better determine at the outset if I want to work with specific clients. Sometimes the challenge is refreshing, and you rush into it with great interest. And sometimes, you see great impositions and fights on the horizon – think twice before accepting.

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