Furniture Unpacked

Find the best seat for the house by turning some of your thoughts on wood and upholstery upside down

Old Idea: You build the house and then buy the furniture.

New Idea: You plan both at the same time.

It’s the age-old chicken-and-egg question: Which comes first, the living room or the chair? Sometimes you buy a sofa to fit a space, but how about designing a space to fit the kind of sofa you want? It might seem backward to build a room around a sofa or a sectional, but it’s not as crazy as it sounds to do them in tandem.

“I start thinking about furniture the minute I start designing. For me they’re not separate,” says interior designer Laurel Brown, owner of the boutique architecture and interior design firm Brownhouse. “I’m thinking about where the furniture is going to go as I’m laying out the house.” Otherwise, she cautions, you might end up with a bedroom full of closet doors and windows but without a good wall to put a bed against.

So if you are building or remodeling, keep in mind that it’s never too early to think about furniture. There are a couple of other benefits, too.

Early planning ensures that budgets aren’t exhausted before it’s time to buy sofas and tables. It also ensures that built spaces can accommodate the type and size of furnishings that you are already envisioning. Layouts done without thought to furniture scale or placement can result in rooms that are too big, too small, or with wasted space or that never feel quite the way you imagined they would.

Old Idea: It can’t be that uncomfortable.

New Idea: I had better try to be sure.

Remember Goldilocks? The famed fairy-tale heroine had to try three of everything before she got it right, and it’s not a bad idea to take a cue from her playbook. After all, a lot goes into comfort. Cushion quality, fabrication, fabric and even scale can determine whether you’ll snuggle into your new sofa or sectional for years to come. So before you buy a chair, sofa or other piece of upholstered furniture, test a few to find the one that feels the best.

“You’ll only know by sitting in something whether it fits you and is comfortable,” says Debbie LaVenture, a designer with Stevens Design in Fitchburg.

Catalogs and online retailers can make things look great, and reviews can shed a lot of light about quirks—things like overly long legs on chairs or too-deep cushions on sofas—but you can’t really get a true feel for a piece of furniture without sitting on the seat or pulling open the drawers.

Old Idea: I’m too picky.

New Idea: I can get just what I want (and if I can’t find it on my own, there is someone out there who can help me).

Most of the pieces you see in fine furniture showrooms are examples that you can personalize. You can change the upholstery, the wood species on exposed arms or legs, the level of stain protection and more.

So if something is close but not quite right, be sure to talk to the designer or salesperson about it, suggests Kelly Hofmeister, manager of west side retailer Woodworks Furniture & Design. Anything is fair game. Some manufacturers offer different cushions (often at different price points) if you want something more or less firm than the standard model has, and you can sometimes even select finishes on the most minute of details, such as exposed nail head trim.

Brown points out that independent interior designers or decorators can help with custom furniture orders so that homeowners get exactly what they want—and it doesn’t always cost more.

“If you hire a professional to help you, your end product is not only going to look better, but it’s also going to be more comfortable and it’s going to have staying power,” she says. “There’s the perception that when you hire an interior designer that it’s going to cost you a lot more than if you do it yourself. That’s a huge misperception. That’s just simply not the case.”

Brown adds that many designers, herself included, do not charge for initial consultations, so there is no risk in talking to a professional or two to see what they have to say or offer.

Old Idea: Sectionals are casual.

New Idea: Sectionals are cool, comfortable and au courant.

Seeing a lot of sectionals lately? Hofmeister is, too, in all kinds of homes. Today’s sectionals might have clean, modern lines and leather upholstery. Or they might be pillow-backed corduroy or other plush fabrics. There seems to be a sectional for everyone.

“People have turned inward,” Hofmeister says, attributing Woodworks’ strong sectional sales to a nesting trend prompted by a struggling economy. “They want to be comfortable in and comforted by their homes. That translates into sectionals—big, comfy, cushy, cozy places where the whole family can sit together and watch a movie, play a game and just be together.”

Old Idea: Buy local.

New Idea: Keep buying local.

Okay, so this isn’t exactly a new idea but it’s a drum worth beating again. Working with local retailers and designers not only keeps money in the local economy, but it also offers a level of service that is hard to match with online or catalog sales. Not only can you touch and feel samples in showrooms, but you can also take advantage of free design services. Designers with Woodworks, Century House and Stevens Design will make house calls to measure spaces and consult on furniture and other finish choices. Also, pre-delivery inspection ensures that what you order arrives exactly as it should. If it doesn’t, reputable retailers will go to bat for you.

LaVenture has taken service a step further. She once delivered a floor-model chair to a customer’s home for a pre-order trial run. Most catalog or online retailers can’t—and don’t even try to—match that kind of service.

And it gets even a little more local when it comes to The Wood Shed. The Amish furniture and gifts retailer with stores in Cambridge and Augusta sells tables, chairs and other items made right here in Wisconsin. Much of the wood is shipped in from Pennsylvania and other states, but most of the pieces are crafted locally on family farms in nearby Amish country. The Wood Shed even organizes Amish country tours that include stops in some of the small-scale woodshops that produce the furniture the store sells.

Old Idea: I don’t need to shop around.

New Idea: I had better keep my options open.

Stickley is synonymous with high-end Arts and Crafts and Mission casework.

If you’ve got a bungalow, you can’t dream any higher than Stickley. But did you know that Stickley carries several different lines, including contemporary styles and upholstery? It all has the famed Stickley quality, but not all of it has the expected Stickley look.

“Customers are often surprised at the variety,” LaVenture says.

The Wood Shed’s owner Thomas Randall says his clients are also surprised at the variety available in Amish furniture as well. But that is the beauty of custom furniture. Individuals can bring in sketches, drawings or pictures of what they want—including style, wood species and stain color—and he can hire the project out to a local craftsman for a completely unique product with your style and Amish quality.

Even the Century House, well known for its extensive selections of fine European and Scandinavian furniture and gift lines, has significantly expanded its American-made offerings. The bottom line is that if you haven’t crossed the threshold lately, then you don’t know what’s inside.

Old Idea: I can’t afford to buy the good stuff now.

New Idea: I can’t afford not to buy the good stuff now.

One of the greenest things shoppers can do is buy investment furniture once and use it for a lifetime, says Century House manager Jacob Harlow. It cuts down on cast-off couches and tables that end up at the curb or in the landfill.

Today’s consumers are as value-conscious as they are price-sensitive. That means many of us are willing to pay more for assured quality.

Randall says the Amish reputation for workmanship is what brings most customers to the Wood Shed in the first place. “Our customers know that they’re getting good furniture, that they’re getting heirloom furniture. They’re not getting something they’re going to get rid of in three or four years. They’re going to hand it down,” he says, noting that the Wood Shed stands behind its offerings with lifetime warrantees on everything except pine (which is quite soft).

“We know that what we’re selling is good, and we’re proud to take it out the door.”

Harlow, though, understands that even the cost of investment furniture can vary widely within one showroom. Why does one sofa cost $1,000 more when it looks nearly identical to a cheaper one? He encourages customers to ask about different price points.

“A good salesperson can help to compare apples to apples and help you to understand the ‘hidden’ details,” Harlow says. “That way you know what you are getting and where you may want to invest more.”

– Jennifer Garrett


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