10 Interior Design Terms That Will Help You Be a Savvier Buyer

published Feb 28, 2022
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Are you moving into your first-ever apartment and wondering how to even begin to fill it with furniture and decor you love (and won’t regret a few months from now)? Make your way through our starter pack. This content was created independently by our editorial team and generously underwritten by the Toyota Corolla Cross.

Sure, you know the difference between wool and velvet or a loveseat and a full sofa, but do you know how to tell apart vintage and antique? Or can you distinguish between wood finish and solid wood? 

You don’t need to be an interior design pro to separate good from great when it comes to furniture and home decor. But a basic understanding of certain common design terms can make you a much savvier buyer when you’re decorating your home — and help you choose pieces you’ll adore for years to come (all while hopefully saving you some cash in the process). 

Ahead, 10 interior design terms you should know about before you outfit your apartment, according to experts.

Credit: Viv Yapp

Terms About Quality

A few key differentiators separate nice-looking pieces from well-made furniture that’ll stand up to daily wear and tear. Cheap furniture is often more accessible if you’re on a low budget, but certain features ensure you’ll get your money’s worth when you choose to invest in higher-end pieces (even if they’re sourced secondhand). 

1. Dovetail Drawers

According to Kathleen Anderson, an interior designer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas, quality furniture usually has a specific type of drawers called dovetail drawers. Rather than relying on nails or staples to piece together drawers, dovetail construction involves pieces that fit together like a puzzle and are glued with wood glue, making for much sturdier construction. So next time you look for a dresser or end table, open the drawers before you buy. You should see the pieces glued together on the corners, rather than stapled or nailed together. 

2. Wood Finish 

Hardwood may be more expensive than laminate or veneer furniture, but it’s pricier because it’s built to last. Laminate is made of layers of heavy-duty paper and melamine, while veneer is constructed with thin layers of wood. Solid wood, on the other hand, is just what it sounds like. Any of these can have a wood grain pattern, which makes the real deal hard to distinguish. “When you’re furniture shopping, look for damage spots on the wood, especially on the edges and back of the piece,” suggests Anderson. “If the surface underneath is different, it’s probably not real wood.”

3. Double Rubs

Just like your bedsheets have a thread count that can indicate their softness, furniture fabric has a measure for the fabric’s durability: It’s called a double rub count. According to Larisa Barton, founder of Soeur Interiors, the higher the double rub count, the more durable a fabric is (i.e., how many rubs until you see a wear). “When selecting a sofa, you want a minimum of 20,000 rubs,” she says. 

A fabric’s rub count is usually on the manufacturer’s swatch sample, which you can sometimes order online or find at a showroom. You can always ask the manufacturer or a retail salesperson if you can’t find it.

Terms About Money

Whether you’re working with an interior designer or just shopping yourself at a furniture store or online, it can be confusing to navigate all the pricing phrases. Here are some of the most common ones you’ll encounter. 

4. Retail Pricing

You’re familiar with this phrase, whether you know it or not. “This is the cost you the consumer will pay if you order a piece online or buy it at a retail location,” says Chanae Richards, founder of oloro Interiors. Richards adds that, more often than not, you can expect good quality (and a low likelihood of damage) when you pay full retail price for an item. If you want, you can usually pay extra for delivery and assembly by the retailer. 

5. Trade Pricing

Sometimes, retailers offer discounts to members of various trades. For interior designers, Richards says this can mean a discount ranging on average from 10 to 30 percent of the retail cost. Some designers may extend this discount to you depending on your service agreement.

Other designers may order at the trade price and bill you at the retail price. The difference between the two costs, the arbitrage, is how some designers are paid. Not to worry: No matter what you pay, the quality of the piece is the same as if you bought it retail. 

6. Outlet Pricing

Big-box stores like Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware, and West Elm all have outlet stores, where you can purchase items for 25 to 75 percent off the original retail price. “Keep in mind, however, that many outlet stores price their items considerably cheaper than their retail counterparts because their quality is, at times, less than ideal,” Richards says. 

Another potential negative: You’ll never know exactly what you’ll find at an outlet. The inventory is constantly in flux. Historically, outlets have excess inventory and slightly damaged goods that retailers are unable to sell at regular retail stores. It could have been a floor model or a perfectly fine return. These pieces must be inspected with a keen eye to see if you can live with that scratch or dent. 

Another consideration is that most outlets don’t offer shipping, so you’ll have to have a vehicle large enough to haul away your new love interest and you’ll have to maneuver it inside — not so fun if you live in a fourth-floor walk-up. 

Credit: Viv Yapp

Terms About Age

Whether you’re scouting old-school pieces for aesthetic purposes or you’re thrifting to save money, knowing the difference between age terms can help you find what you’re looking for — and avoid dishing out cash on something that isn’t worth it. 

7. Antique

“When something is called ‘antique,’ that means it was made a long time ago and it’s still a sturdy and functional piece of furniture,” says California-based interior designer Kelly Finley. Typically, antiques are more than 100 years old, and as long as they’re in good condition, they may have a hefty price tag. You’ll definitely want to inspect and research antiques to make sure they’re the real deal and not reproductions advertised as antiques — more on that below.

8. Vintage

Typically, “vintage” is a term used to refer to something that’s between 20 and 99 years old, and these pieces usually refer to the era they come from, according to Ruby Lane, an online antique and vintage retailer. For example, you might immediately recognize 1950s or 1980s style, which makes furniture from those eras distinctly “vintage.” Yes, this also means that decor from the ’90s can be considered vintage!

9. Reproduction

According to Finley, reproductions are pieces made in a current style using the same dimensions as an older piece — in other words, they’re new but made to look antique or vintage. Since these pieces often carry less value, they are also generally more affordable than the authentic version. If you don’t have strong feelings about authenticity and it’s just the look that you’re going for, reproductions often come at a better price point than the real deal. 

10. Retro

Much like a reproduction, retro pieces simply reference styles of the recent past (like an IKEA credenza that looks like a mid-century modern piece) rather than originating from a certain time period. Reproductions emulate specific designs, while retro furniture references a general era. 

That said, “retro” can also be a fancy word for “pre-loved” — meaning it could be used to describe a killer piece that is simply lightly used, or something that was never really that great to begin with and likely won’t stand the test of time. Be careful with retro pieces, and make sure you do your research on what you’re actually buying. 

Additional reporting by Avery Matera