Furniture 101: 9 Designers Demystify the Furniture Buying Process

Furniture 101: 9 Designers Demystify the Furniture Buying Process

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Arlyn Hernandez
Jan 24, 2017
(Image credit: Arthur Garcia-Clemente)

Buying furniture can be intimidating, even if you know what you're looking for in terms of style (if you don't, that's an entirely different mountain to climb.) For instance, how do you really know what you're spending your valuable dollars on will last? What materials are best for wear-and-tear? What questions should you be asking a sales person before committing to a purchase? We turned to the pros (i.e., interior designers and furniture pundits) for guidance on the matter; after all, they probably buy and sell more furniture than anyone else, and definitely have valuable insight.

The pro roster:

Now, on to the important questions (and insights)...

What's the most crucial question to ask a sales person before buying furniture?

"Is there a warranty?" – Incorporated Architecture & Design

"What is the company policy regarding product guarantees?" – Alan Tanksley

"What are your return policies?" – Anne Hepfer

"'Why is this more expensive than that?' Ultimately, furniture buying is about choices, and you want to be informed to make the right one." – Mark Cutler

"How long will this take to get delivered/what's the cost of delivery?" – Marta Calle

"Where is this made?" – Stephan Jones

What should someone invest in vs. save on?

"Invest in pieces that take the most wear in tear on a daily basis: sofas, dining chairs, rugs and beds. A high-quality mattress is also something you shouldn't skimp on; your sleep is everything! Save your money on less expensive accent pieces like side tables, side chairs, consoles in hallways and mirrors." – Nicole Fuller

"Upholstery is always the thing to invest in. Having a comfortable chair or sofa is one of the greatest luxuries of life. Also, good art can be transformational and really take your mind to new places, and, as an aside, makes you feel very grown up! Save money on lighting. There are so many inexpensive options that you can still get great style without spending a ton." – Mark Cutler

"My philosophy is to buy fewer things but buy the best quality you can afford. Honestly, I would, and have, invested in upholstery and skimped on accessories. As your lifestyle evolves, so can your accessories." – Marta Calle

How do I know if I'm buying a quality item that will wear well?

"Look at sofa cushion corners to make sure they are properly stuffed. Sit on every chair and sofa you can. Look closely at seams to make sure they aren't puckering and are well-made. Ask the sales person where the products are made, which might be a good indication of longevity." – Anne Hepfer

"Here are some cheats: For casegoods, always open and close drawers and doors a few times and take a look at that mechanisms. Soft close glides, hardwood drawer interiors with dovetail corners, perfectly aligned doors/drawers, and finished interiors are all signs of higher quality goods. Turn a rug over to see if you can read the knotted pattern on the underside, this shows whether the rug is hand-knotted versus machine-tufted. And with upholstery, always ask for the fabric type and content of the fill. Natural materials tend to be signs of higher quality pieces, i.e. wool or pure linen are more valuable than polyester fabric, as feather/down fill is to foam fill." – Incorporated Architecture & Design

"When you can, touch it, feel it, sit on it, listen to it. If a sofa is creaky, it means the frame is not sturdy. Try to buy from a supplier with a knowledgeable staff that's well versed in the product. Ask questions!" – Alan Tanksley

"It's all about the questions you ask. If you're buying upholstery, ask about the construction and if the wood of the frame is kiln dried (which won't crack or split over time). Ask about the cushions and what the fill is (foam wrapped in down tends to hold shape better). For dressers, the drawer glide is key. Metal on metal is a red flag, as wood on wood is a better build. And for case goods, ask what it's made of. Is it solid wood? What kind of joints are in the drawers? If they tell you KD (knocked down), know you're not buying quality." – Mitchell Hill

"Always ask about the warranty, check for reviews online, ask friends who might have the same pieces. A good sofa should last 15+ years." – Stephan Jones

How do I know if I'm getting a good deal?

"It might sound simple, but kindly ask a store manager if there are any upcoming sales. You may not always get a straight answer, but you'd be surprised how often they will let you know…if you ask." – Anne Hepfer

"Spend some time online and research the brand, the different methods of construction, because to get the best deal, you need to educate yourself first so you are not making a choice based on price but rather on value." – Mark Cutler

"If you're shopping for new pieces, do your research on where the item is made and what it's made of. Check out reviews on the store itself (not just the item), as well. Sometimes a good deal doesn't turn out to actually be a deal at all." – Stephan Jones

What are your favorite tools to map out furniture in order to plan proportions properly?

"Take a measuring tape and painter's blue tape and mark out on your floor the dimensions. Measurements don't lie. You can walk around the taped areas to get a feel for scale and proportion. It's a great tool to visualize." – Anne Hepfer

"Graph paper, a pencil and a good eraser can't be beat." – Marta Calle

"We like to print out each item being purchased or placed in a room on a separate piece of paper and scale them each in relation to each other. Seeing these cards on the table shows the overall picture pretty clearly." – Incorporated Architecture & Design

"Google SketchUp, Room Styler and some furniture online stores provide basic layout tools." – Stephan Jones

When buying a sofa, what's better? Down-filled or foam cushions?

"I prefer seat cushions with a high density foam center—it helps a seat maintain its shape—which is then wrapped with down and feathers for softness and comfort." – Anne Hepfer

"I always go with down fill. It takes more work to maintain but the comfort far outweighs the effort." – Mark Cutler

"It depends on the 'sit' you're looking for. One important aspect to buying upholstery is how you care for the sofa. If you vacuum, rotate and fluff your cushions regularly, down might be a good choice." – Marta Calle

"Natural filler materials are always going to be the most resilient, so down, if you consistently plump up the cushions, will last a long time." – Stephan Jones

"Down-filled sofas are great and beautiful, but they need maintenance. Unless you have the time to put in the effort, go with a high-density foam." – Alan Tanksley

"A mix is the best combination. The down is what makes a cushion really squishy and comfortable, but it will slump over time. So mixing in foam will give enough structure to last." – Incorporated Architecture & Design

What upholstery fabrics hold up the longest?

"Fabrics all have a rub count, which you can ask your sales rep about. The more 'rubs' a fabric has, the more durable it is and the longer before it shows wear and tear." – Nicole Fuller

"There are a ton of synthetic fabrics out there that mimic the look of natural fibers such as silk and linen, but have been developed to maximize durability. Solution-dyed fabrics, usually intended for outdoor use, will not fade over time, and so these are perfect for situations with constant cleaning and scrubbing. The color is steadfast!" – Incorporated Architecture & Design

"Natural materials age and patina well and are easy to care for. Wool, in particular, is great upholstery fabric. It's simple to clean and it feels good to sit on." – Lauren Geremia

"I'm a fan of thick woven, durable linen and love the look of natural fibers. That being said, if the textile is a synthetic blend, it won't fade as easily. In terms of rub count, look for a minimum of 30,000 rubs." – Anne Hepfer

"It really depends on your budget. If money is not a constraint, mohair will last a lifetime and wear beautifully. If you are on a tighter budget, there are some beautiful synthetic velvets. A good retailer of sofas can steer you in the right direction." – Marta Calle

How many sofa cushions are ideal? 1, 2, 3…?

"This is purely a personal preference, we like two. For example, if you choose one cushion on a sofa used regularly, the bench seat rolls and the fabric twists more easily. Smaller, more cushions hold shape and fabric better." – Mitchell Hill

"It depends on the size of the sofa and your style. The less cushions, the cleaner the look. If the sofa is over seven feet (84 inches), two to three cushions work best." – Marta Calle

"In almost all aspects of design, I go for odd numbers, though a single cushion is great for napping on!" – Mark Cutler

"Though it depends on the sofa style, length and proportion, I do like the look of two longer cushions over three smaller ones, but that means if there are three people sitting, someone will be stuck where the cushions meet, which isn't always comfortable." – Alan Tanklsey

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