GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #20: When to Break the Rules

I’m back from the Westport Creative Arts Festival. It was a beautifully run show, well-managed and supported by the Westport Young Women’s League. They did everything right! Unfortunately, attendance was down, down, down and although I didn’t crash and burn, I did not do well enough to return.

It did give me a chance to see all kinds of booth set-ups, though. I’m here to report that sometimes it’s good to break the rules of good booth design.

One of my favorite booths was Riverstone Jewelry.
It was one that broke several “rules”, to great effect.

The tables were low and deep. There was barely enough room for more than three or four people to browse at a time. There was a lot of work on display.

But it worked.

I’ve been thinking why, and here is my theory:

She created an atmosphere of a true “trunk show”. It felt like she had just returned from a buying trip, set up her well-worn traveling cases in an exotic but peaceful tent in a bazaar, and invited you in to see her new wares.

The backdrops were simple, neutral-colored (sort of beige) but layered–some sort of matchstick blinds over similar-colored material (linen??), very “Thai” or “Bali” looking.

The cases seemed to be old wood cases or boxes, with the jewelry lined up attractively. The items that were laid out in great numbers still worked, too. Bracelets were aligned in rows, but each one was different. Your eye could quickly take in the one or two that jumped out at you, according to your taste. I don’t think they were displayed on black, either, although I now can’t recall the color. More neutral, I think.

And the reason I say “looked” and “seemed” is, all I could really focus on was the jewelry. Everything else was warm and attractive and blended into the theme, then fell away so you only saw the jewelry.

I overheard a little of her sales approach. She told a woman how, in the villages where she buys the components, a shaman consults with you when you are ailing.

Once the source of your ills is determined, special healing amulets are prescribed. You go to a amulet “pharmacy” and purchase the right amulets. The amulets are then made into jewelry for you to wear.

The entire effect was that you were participating in such a healing process. And, as we all feel the need for such care from time to time, it was a compelling notion. People were scouring for just the right piece for healing.

People felt justified in buying more jewelry–“It’s therapeutic!”

And because the experience also felt “exotic” and “traveling to faraway places” and “marketplace”, people seemed to tolerate the crowding better. It was part of the total adventure.

Perfect booth!

So why doesn’t this table set-up work for every booth?

Because here it recreated a specific atmosphere–exotic locale/shaman healing/ancient wisdom/community.

When misused, the recreated atmosphere is “yard sale.”

I also recant (a little) on the booth lighting thing. Sometimes the worst way to light a booth is what works best under the circumstances.

It is really hard to light a booth on 400 watts of electricity! I don’t know how you do it if the fair doesn’t provide any electricity. (There are batteries available for outdoor shows, but most indoor shows don’t allow them.)

My booth was way too dark. Of course, part of my problem is trying to display three different lines that demand three different display modes–2-D (walls), sculptures (shelves/table top) and jewelry (cases).

Under these circumstances, the best-lit booths were indeed the ones that had a rack of track lighting across the top front bar of the booth. Yes, when I turned around, I was blinded by the lights. But if I didn’t have jewelry, too, I would seriously consider doing that just to get enough light into my booth quickly and easily.

The one exception was a guy across from me who had the more-successful light set-up–track lighting on all three sides of his booth, with the track set up about a foot or two away from each wall (my recommended solution.)

But when I counted the lights, I saw he also had at least 9 lamps, and another bar of 4 lamps. Either he was using lower watt lamps or he simply ignored the 400 watt limit. I did find some on-line sources for low watt MR16 halogen bulbs so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. And I will consider these bulbs the next time I have limited electricity.

So remember, there are many good rules to making a great booth. But some rules are made to be broken.

The trick is to know when and how to break them and why.

p.s. Low voltage does not equal low wattage. Low voltage lamps are not the same as low wattage bulbs.

Some craftspeople (and I used to be one of them) think if we are using low-voltage lighting, we can use twice the number of lamps/bulbs in our booth. “I can buy 400 watts, and have 800 watts’ worth of low-voltage lamps in my booth!” we exclaim happily.


A common mistake we make is thinking low-voltage lamps use less energy. They do–but not in how much power you’re drawing. The BULBS use less energy, and last longer–and is safer to work with. That’s why low-voltage light systems are increasingly being used in outdoor residential lighting.

Think of electricity as a stream of water, like a hose, coming in your booth. If the nozzle has a wide-spread setting, the stream/current is wide, the power is diffused. If the setting is narrow, the water comes out harder and more powerfully.

But the amount of water coming through is the same.

To figure out how much wattage you’re using at a show, you still have to add the total wattage of your light bulbs. If you have bought 400 watts of power,the total wattage of your bulbs should not exceed 400.

My electrician tried to explain about dividing the total number of watts into the total number of volts in the system for figuring out the actual “draw” on the system, but he lost me several times along the way. When I repeated the above to him, he said, “Yeah, just stick with that.”

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

11 thoughts on “GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #20: When to Break the Rules”

  1. Thanks for your visit and comment ( you made me laugh!), and thanks for your blog .. I am learning everyday thanks to you … You are a very generous person to share your experience this way … Thanks to you I don’t look at booths the same way, and I’m also getting an idea of my “dream booth” … well once I get passed the fear factor … well and I also should have added that I absolutly love your jewelry and sculptures … in fact I’m going to add this to my post the link to your site if you don’t mind ! 🙂


  2. Do you have any thoughts on the low energy IKEA lightbulbs? The ones that are 11W but look like they give out 60W of light?

    I use them for my booth (and throughout the house) but now I’m a little confused as to whether they would be ok when trying to stay within a certain wattage for shows.

    Thanks! Love your blog and all your advice 🙂


  3. I’m not an electrician–I just nod my head thoughtfully when they tell me stuff and say, “mmmmmmm….”
    But I think as long as you add up the actual WATTAGE, you should be okay.
    How do they look like they give out 60 watts? Are they reflective, like halogens? Do you have an url we can look at? I want some! :^)


  4. Thanks for sharing your experiences and your expertise! I’m sorry your show was not up to your expectations. I know how disappointing that can be.

    Are you familiar with this polymer clay artist? She does delightful work and she currently has pictures of her booth on her blog. Thought you might be interested.

    Mary Perry


  5. I was courious about the attendance of the show. I do not live in your area but I have noticed through out most of the year not as many people were attending the shows. My last show in the Chicago area the attendance on a scale of 1-10 was close to a 2-3 being very low.
    It is hard to figure out if it is just the economy finally taking its toll from the high fuel prices or people are just tired of the too many shows out there. There will never probably be a way to tell that. Even with low attendance I have done better this year than last but I did have some real dogs especially the 4 day show up in the Chicago area where I was hoping on my best show of the year and it will end up as the worse show of the year. It would only be busy for maybe an hour or so and then then almost nothing.

    I use the low voltage light system and find it works very well. I carry 2 large dc batteries and it has work okay I just can not use as many lights as I would like to. They are a much less current draw amps on a battery then regular line voltage lights due to the transformer that steps the current down. They also are suppose to give at least twice the brightness of line voltage lights. My problem has been I have clamp light that clamp to top of my riser and lights are about 15″ above my jewelry. The low voltage lights the bulbs just sets out there and get very hot. It has not happen yet but people alwasy pick up the dichroic pieces and put it close to the light and turn them at different angles to see what all color will show. I am afraid that someone will possibly get burn from touching the bulb. As I redesign my booth next year I will probably think about going with track lighting that is higher up but will not put the light as close to the jewelry as I would like. There is track lights with felixible necks (I think) that would lower the lights a bit.

    There are some electrican where i work I will ask them about the low voltage versus the line voltage power draw but I am not sure if it something that they will know much about.

    The best lights to get right now are the LED but the prices are way too high right now but will come down most likely in the next couple of years or so as the demand increase and production for these ramp up they are like $35 each and the power useage is like 3 watts but the price makes them unaffordable for now. The differnce in low voltage if the transformer steps the power down from 120 volts to 12 volts that is a large decrease in power used it is a much lower amps used
    if you took amps used my low volts transformer are .42amps x 12 volts = 5 watts where as if you took the .42 amps went by line voltage of 120 you are looking at 50 watts

    It may all sound confusing but what I will do after my last show I will hook up 3 line voltage lights and run them on my battery and see how long they last and then I will take 3 low voltage lights and run them on my other battery and see how long they last. A good project for next month.



  6. I took Geeky Acorn’s comments to heart, and bought some 20-watt and 35-watt halogens for my clamp-on lighting. They seem to work fine for close-up lighting. I’m going to try them at my next show where I won’t be displaying much of my fiber work. I’m hoping they’ll light up my jewelry work, and keep me under the 250 watt restrictions.

    Kirsten, years ago I would have said avoid fluorescent lighting like the plague. But with all the new developments–steady light, spectrum-adjusted/daylight equivalent light, etc.–I’d say, try it! Maybe do the experiment at home before doing an actual show. Set up two mini-displays, and light one with your regular bulbs and the other with the fluorescent coils. See if you like one over the other.

    My only concern would be the ability to focus or highlight a specific area, because most bulbs like that tend to simply light everything. But that might also be affected by your fixture.

    Be sure to report back & let us know what you found! :^)


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