The word “custom” gets stuck on virtually anything these days, often as little more than a marketing device. Sometimes it means personalized, as with the socks in the illustration above; sometimes it’s intended to connote exclusivity, as a result of which the object in question will seem more desirable (at least, to those who want to feel special). But when you consider some of the stuff that’s sold as “custom,” you may find yourself questioning the meaning of the word.
What, for example, is custom drywall? Sure, drywall can be finished in a variety of textures, but that variety has been part of the mudder’s art for most of the six-plus decades during which drywall has been North America’s go-to covering for interior walls and ceilings. This historical fact has not kept drywall businesses around the country from incorporating “custom” into their names. Custom vans? I thought this referred to automobiles (you know how some people customize their vans with vinyl racing stripes or naked lady/man stickers or family-and-pet decals, or hang a pair of, um, “rocks” from the trailer hitch), but Google set me straight; it also refers to the shoe brand Vans, which now offers the option to mix and match shoe “style, colors, patterns, laces & more.” It seems you can customize practically anything today, from candy and candy wrappers to underwear and toilet tissue–even condoms.
All such uses of “custom” are legit based on the widespread understanding of the word, which Langenscheidt’s New College Merriam-Webster English Dictionary (1998) defines as “made according to personal order.” Before the mass production of practically everything we use in our homes and workplaces, it was commonplace to have clothing, toys, tools, household furniture—even houses themselves—and many other objects of daily use made by members of one’s family or community, if not to make them oneself. Since the early 19th century, more and more of this stuff has been made in factories, where the rigorous application of scientific management principles and subsequent revolutions in efficiency decreased unit costs by such dramatic orders of magnitude that it no longer made sense to make most things anywhere else. The word “custom,” at least in this sense, came into widespread use against the backdrop of overwhelming standardization resulting from mass production.
Most custom goods you’ll find through internet searches are produced by means of computerized design and manufacturing, which make changing the color of a shoelace or the logo on a label (or dog portrait on a pair of socks) as simple as pressing a button to switch from blue dye to red, or uploading an image file to a screen.
So much for a basic definition. But if you want to get serious, the examples above are what truly custom-anything is not.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary* “custom” is derived from the Latin noun consuetudo, a custom or habit, and the verb consuescere, to grow accustomed. Note the implication of a repeated or habitual practice; this is not the world of one-time transactions.
Until 1681, custom was also a verb–let that sink in a minute–meaning to frequent a business. So one who commissions work or buys from a business repeatedly is a custom-er—i.e., one who customs. Integral to the nuance of these Latin roots is that to be a customer is to be part of a relationship in which, as with any relationship, you and the merchant or service provider learn about each other and develop mutual respect (a word that in turn essentially means giving the other person a degree of consideration, as distinct from just thinking about yourself).
One more dimension of this word is worth mentioning in this excavation of nuance. It’s related to the French “costume,” derived from the same Latin roots. According to the O.E.D., a costume relates to “fashion proper to the time and locality in which a scene [in a play, for example]” is set. In other words, custom work takes into account the context for which it is done.
More on this in Part 2. Clearly any serious take on custom cabinetry (or custom anything) exists within a different universe from the one where you can just key your preferences into a digital order form.
This post relates to the book about kitchens I am currently writing for Lost Art Press.
*The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973)