Furniture is bad. Rather, there’s a lot of bad furniture being made right now. So when it comes to buying furniture, finding quality over quantity is much harder than it used to be. I was reading about why furniture got so bad in a recent article from The Washington Post. The horrors of cheap veneered particle board, flat-pack shipping, and Allen wrenches had me recoiling into my 1968 upholstered barrel chair (which will probably outlive any piece on the big-box store assembly line today). It’s no surprise that when it comes to buying furniture, most people are doing it wrong.
The Interior Designer’s Role in Buying Your Furniture
As I’ve said before, the interior design process is slow and complex. The craft is a unique blend of aesthetics and function, art and science, and it takes time for the two to come together. There is no fast and easy solution, only cheap furniture with two-day shipping that will surely disappoint after a few months of wear.
Folks new to the design process sometimes mistake interior designers for furniture salespeople. However, what we’re really “selling” is our expertise. We’re a service industry, and our service is knowledge. Sure, we ultimately provide the stuff that will fill your home, but only after we’ve used our brains to create functional living solutions and cultivate an aesthetic centered around your home and personality. Interior designers can help you plan a furniture layout, select paint colors, coordinate finishes, or review an architect’s plans. Design is so much more than shopping for sofas. When we do select furniture pieces, we focus on how each piece works within the design, budget, and client’s lifestyle.
Here’s where it gets interesting. At my Austin interior design firm, we like to propose items that will last our clients 30 years or more. You may have guessed that you won’t find that quality level from online retailers and big-box stores that require you to build the furniture yourself (and leave you questioning the extra pieces). However, you may be surprised that items from cute boutique-style chains aren’t much better. We’re not interested in fast, quick, trendy, or cheap. We want folks to pass down heirloom quality pieces through generations, reupholstering and repainting through the decades.
With the state of quality out there, folks need a guide.
What the Furniture Industry is Doing Wrong
It’s not your fault you’re choosing furniture that doesn’t last because many of the pieces out there today aren’t designed to. The furniture industry’s biggest mistake is putting quantity over quality. When it comes down to it, most furniture isn’t even designed for your comfort or your home. It’s designed to fit in a box.
Furniture is Made for Shipping, Not Sitting
I can spot a catalog room from a mile away. Rather than focusing on the quality of individual pieces, many retailers design for large-quantity shipments that can be moved at the cheapest rate possible. Instead of making furniture for humans, these companies make furniture for boxes. Big-box stores size their designs for shipping containers, sacrificing quality and style. Think about it. A thinner particle board means smaller packages, which means more furniture in a single container (and a table guaranteed to break). Once you receive your box of particle board, it’s your job to assemble it. Unless you’re a carpenter, you probably don’t have the skill set to turn your box into a sturdy piece. Quality aside, these furnishings are sized for boxes. So, they often look too small or too clunky for the rooms they inhabit. My biggest complaint, however, is that they have no interest and are just plain dull.
Marketing is Trending
Are you ready for the truth behind interior design trends? They have nothing to do with design and everything to do with marketing. Today, trends are moving faster than ever. Folks have been conditioned to replace their furnishings and decor almost yearly (if not monthly). If you haven’t figured it out by now, big-box stores love these tight trend cycles. The faster trends move, the quicker you’ll be pressured to replace, which further reduces the expectation for quality. Trends have no benefit to your home or your wallet. They exist for the sole purpose of selling magazines and products. So, toss the idea of keeping up with the trends altogether. I can promise you it’s a never-ending cycle that will lead to frustration and take you further and further away from a home you’ll actually enjoy. Ditching passing trends, my dear, is how we will keep the world from being designed by marketing.
How We Should Approach Buying Furniture Instead
While it might seem like we’re entering the dark age of furniture design, there are still quality pieces out there. Here’s how to find them.
1. Look for Quality Indicators
We look for locally or at least USA-made pieces constructed from quality materials. If it’s built locally, chances are the piece has been designed for your house and not a shipping box. Solid wood construction is always a good sign, especially from materials like oak, mahogany, and teak.
2. Go Custom
Custom furniture pieces give you complete control over the material, scale, and design process. With a custom piece, we can scale our furniture to the human form and room it will occupy rather than the dimensions of a flat-pack box. In my Design Oracles podcast, I interviewed Laura Daly of Mockingbird Made about the art of custom furniture design. While it may have a larger upfront cost, you’ll have a piece that will endure for generations.
3. Shop Vintage
There’s been a resurgence in the world of antiques as of late, with younger and younger folks taking to the hobby and furnishing their homes with vintage pieces. A new generation is collecting antiques, and I’d say this is the start of the backlash against big-box furnishings. While some antiques can fetch thousands at auction, others can be found at garage sales or even on the curb. One thing is for sure: the quality and character will far surpass anything from the big-box store.
Trade Your Allen Wrench in for an Heirloom
Put down your Allen wrench, get off the furniture assembly line, and join the revolution of investing in quality over quantity. I won’t lie. It is a long game that takes time, thought, care, and money. However, that single investment will bring the rewards of comfort, freedom from trends, and a home to be proud of.
Quality is all about value.
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.