An Interior Designer's Secret Tips for Buying Furniture

Finding the right furniture for you.
Buying Affordable Furniture

Numerous options exist when you’re purchasing home furniture at a major retailer, consignment or thrift store, trendy boutique or online. But, no matter where you buy, you want the best quality for the cost. So, how do you make the best selections?

Depending on what you’re buying for what purpose, it comes down to a few key characteristics and types of furniture. But, the best way to buy indoor furniture is to employ the strategies of interior designers and custom furniture makers. So, we asked one of each and here’s what they told us.

Don’t Buy On Price Alone

Interior designer, Elissa Grayer of Elissa Grayer Designs, says be careful when buying home furniture based on price. “Low price often means low quality. That can mean low-quality and toxic materials were used to make the pieces,” she explains.

She warned that chemicals found in home furniture can be dangerous to your health and that of your family. That includes flame retardants that emit potentially deadly and carcinogenic toxins when burning.

Grayer, who helps her affluent design clients buy luxury furniture on a budget, further warns to avoid furniture made by low-paid, offshore labor or mostly by machine. Custom furniture maker, Keith Jordan Constantino of Jordan & Nicholas, agrees. “Cheap furniture isn’t going to hold up well or last very long,” he says.

Conversely, says Grayer, “If you’re buying furniture you expect to replace anyway like family or kids room furniture, you may not want to spend as much on the furniture.” But, that doesn’t mean buy cheap furniture, which includes most furniture assembled at home.

If the price of a piece of furniture seems too low, even if it’s on clearance, you should ask why the price is so cheap. If the answer makes you uncomfortable, don’t buy that furniture. Apply the same standards to custom furniture makers.

Buy Furniture Based on Materials

Buy Furniture Based on Materials

Two types of home furniture represent the highest quality: wood and upholstered. Plastic, glass, Lucite and metal furniture are alternatives if you buy from the right sources but you’ll pay a premium for the highest quality. For a family home, wood and upholstered are best and most cost-effective so we’ll focus on those here.

But, whatever you buy, you should carefully examine the furniture you’re considering, preferably at a retail location. However, it doesn’t matter where you buy furniture—online or local retailer—the best furniture is constructed the same way. Here are some keys to selecting the best home furniture.

For solid furniture, including wood, metal, glass, Lucite and plastic indoor furniture, there are several considerations to make. But, both experts agree that the best quality home furniture for families is made from real, solid hardwoods or softwoods. Constantino says the difference between the two is the trees they come from, not their density or durability. Hardwoods like oak, maple, walnut, cherry, pine and mahogany are used to make the highest quality furniture. When buying, ask exactly what wood the furniture is built from and whether that it’s been treated with any chemicals.

The less pricey alternatives to solid wood may have health risks. Plywood, for example, is thin layers or “plies” of wood glued together and MDF (medium density fiberboard) is made from wood solids, resins, waxes and glues. Both are bonded together at high-pressure and temperature. These alternatives don’t make high quality furniture and both contain toxins like formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. These and other fiberboards should be avoided.

Remember, high quality wood furniture is not lightweight. “If it’s easily lifted, that’s a signal that’s it’s probably fiberboard, not solid wood,” Grayer states..

Veneers are usually low-quality wood alternatives with a thin layer of real wood glued on top. “Veneers can’t be sanded or refinished,” She continues, “so if you plan to do that with your furniture, don’t buy wood veneers.”

And, if you’re buying luxury furniture on a budget, you want to avoid most plastic or metal furniture because most is poor quality or may contain toxins depending on origin.

There fewer considerations to make for soft furniture materials but they are important. Soft furniture is usually upholstered and bedding on wood or metal frames. Similar to solid furniture, the origin of the furniture often determines its components and quality. Make sure the wood or metal frames are of solid wood and high-quality materials not made with toxins.

In addition to flame retardants and formaldehydes, if made cheaply, your family could be exposed to other toxins in the foam and fabrics of upholstered furniture. “It’s best to buy natural materials like real leather, cottons or hemp and organic latex for foam,” says Grayer. Know what types of dyes and chemicals are used fabric coverings and make sure they’re tightly woven and easy-to-clean. The greener your furniture, the safer.

Buy Furniture Based on Construction

Buy Furniture Based on Construction

Making sure solid furniture is sturdy is important. “Whatever the material it’s made from, it should be solidly constructed and not warped, bent or wobbly,” says Grayer.

With wood furniture, the joints should be dovetail or fit together like puzzle pieces. “That includes drawers, shelves, legs and feet. Legs on chairs, tables, headboards and storage pieces should have braced corners to stabilize them. “Stained wood pieces should be entirely stained, including backs. And, backs shouldn’t be plywood or other cheap materials, “adds Grayer.

Constantino agrees, saying, “Nails, staples and glue in joints and screws holding parts of the piece together also indicate poor construction. Pieces made this way should be avoided.” Test the quality of the wood finish by doing the fingernail test—press your nail in gently to see if it makes an indentation. The wood should remain solid.

And, drawer and shelf glides are important. They should be made of strong metal, fastened to the bottom of drawers and shelves, slide easily and close tightly. Wheels on gliders should be solid plastic. “Test the drawers and shelves. If they’re hard to slide open or closed, that’s a sign of poor construction,” Grayer says.

There are a few more considerations to make for soft or upholstered furniture which usually gets significant use. In addition to making sure materials are high quality and low in toxins, make sure fabrics are fastened tightly to frames with tacks or staples. Pillows should firm with no stuffing isn’t bulging or coming out.

According to Grayer, the gold standard for seat cushions are those with 8-way, hand-tied, coil springs covered in padding and wrapped with Dacron or down. It’s very important to sit on sofas to make sure you don’t feel the springs or any gaps between springs,” she says. Grayer recommends you lift up cushions and push down the sofa deck to make sure it’s secure and you don’t feel the wood frame.

Grayer further explains, “Back and seat cushions should have clear form and, inside the upholstery, they should be wrapped in strong fabric like self-contained pillows. They should never be bare under the upholstery.”

“Seat cushions should have padding on top and bottom. There should be no hard bottoms covered in cheap dark fabric,” she continues. She recommends complete fabric covering on both sides of all pillows so both sides can be used, if necessary. Back pillows should be baffled to contain stuffing.

Zippers should be high quality and fabric patterns should match at the seams. Pillows should be entirely upholstered in the same fabric; lighter weight fabric on one side represents low quality.

“Invest in good upholstered furniture and bedding if you want it to last,” she advises.

There are additional rules for buying antiques. But, the same ones apply for buying custom furniture or furniture from consignment shops, thrift stores and online.

Do your research, know where and how furniture was made and invest in the best you can afford. “One way to do that,” says Grayer, “is to do one room at a time and furnish your home over time.”

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