For years, you dreamed about the one furnishing or set of furniture that would make a memorable design statement in your home. Perhaps it was an ornately carved armoire to fill a space in the bedroom, a stately secretary to cozy up to the fireplace in the living room or an elegant dining-room set to replace your "starter" pieces. Now, you're ready to take the plunge.
This is more than just a potentially expensive purchase; it's an opportunity to bring timeless beauty to your home, to select an item that perhaps one day will be passed down to another family member. You want to know you're getting something that's well-made and well worth the expense.
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And you want to be sure you select a piece that you'll still be crazy about 20 or 30 years from now.
Suit Your Lifestyle
You can look through a design magazine and fall in love with a piece of furniture. But will it meld with your existing decor? A secretary with ornate carvings will probably look out of place in a room filled with sleek, streamlined pieces inspired by Mies van der Rohe, for example. "You can have individual pieces. But visually, the lines should tie in," says James Irving, an interior designer with Harrison's Fine Furniture & Interiors in Lakewood.
When determining which decor direction to go, start with the basics. "Know what color of wood you're comfortable with," advises Sally Kapcar, a designer with Brewster & Stroud in Chagrin Falls. "Don't switch to the other side [from dark to light, or vice versa] in a rash decision, because you can tire of it quickly." You can, however, mix woods that complement one another like cherry and mahogany or oak and pine to help individual pieces stand out and to create visual impact.
Scale is also important. "You have to be able to move around the room," Irving says. "Think moderate. You can get carried away in a furniture store."
Marsha Cappy, showroom manager for Designers Showroom in Warrensville Heights, suggests that you measure the area you want to fill and determine the focal point of the room where the piece you're buying will be shown off to maximum effect before you start shopping. To be sure that your choice will always be in style, Cappy recommends sticking with a traditional furnishing or one with some traditional elements, such as crown moldings or wood inlays.
Starting from Scratch
You may be taken by the beauty, massive size and ornate detailing of a piece. But you need to look beyond first appearances. Ask questions and examine the item from top to bottom, back to front, and inside and out.
Naturally, wood furniture begins as lumber. How the wood is treated before it's fashioned into a chair, desk or cabinet can affect its durability through the years. "Find out how the wood is cured," says Beverly Franks, an interior designer with Ethan Allen in Bainbridge. "Is it kiln-dried?" (Ideally, it should be.) "Will it warp?" (If it has been properly cured, it shouldn't.)
A quality piece of furniture should be constructed of solid wood, not particle board, according to Kapcar. "If it's solid, you can see the graining. There should be no seam lines," she says. The only exception might be the back of an armoire or other furnishing that is designed to be placed against a wall. Some high-end manufacturers, though, use solid wood on the whole piece, regardless of whether the back, top or underside will ever see the light of day.
Getting Down to Details
You might want to wear casual clothes when you go to the furniture store, because chances are you'll be kneeling, reaching on your tiptoes and poking your head inside cabinets and drawers. A designer or salesperson shouldn't be put off by this; in fact, he or she should welcome your in-depth investigation of the furniture.
Acquaint yourself with a few key elements of furniture manufacturing before you step into the store. Dovetailing, for example, refers to the process of interlocking the sides of a drawer so that they are tightly fastened. "Pull out the drawer and look at the sides," Franks suggests. "You should see zigzag cuts interlocking the pieces."
Something that is hand-doweled has been reinforced with a pin to ensure a snug fit. The legs of an armoire, for example, may feature dowel pins that fit into holes in the bottom of the piece, thereby securing them. Dining room chairs with stretchers wooden posts connecting the legs offer maximum durability. The stretchers can be in a box, "X" or "H" shape.
Cornices and crowns on the top of armoires and secretaries should not be fastened with sealed glue, which prevents breathing and could eventually force them to crack. And you shouldn't see any wood glue, staples or sawdust anywhere on a piece, says Franks. If you do, you should question the level of construction.
High-end furniture often comes with perks or special details that add to its aesthetic appeal or sturdy construction. Some features that you might want to have on your special piece include wooden glides on drawers (providing a smoother slide than metal or plastic), beveled glass on china-cabinet or secretary doors (it reflects light well), decorative painting or inlays, adjustable shelves on armoires and built-in silver storage in china cabinets.
An Excellent Finish
"If a finish is done well, the wood tends to glow a warm color. It should not look blotchy or like it's sitting on top of the piece," says Kapcar. Tables, chests and headboards should have a finish on every side, in case they are going to be used in the middle of a room.
Fine furniture should also have a protective coating. The last thing you want is for water rings to stain your dining-room table or sun to fade the rich color of your armoire. "A good piece should have a number of finish layers," notes Franks. "And there should be a UV finish on top. Some woods, like cherry, can get lamp rings and other marks without a UV finish."
What's in a Name?
A good rule of thumb when selecting high-end furniture is to seek out manufacturers with longstanding reputations. Lexington, Hickory Chair and Baker are a few of the companies that are well-known for quality. "I sold pieces by Hickory Chair 35 years ago, and the frames are absolutely perfect," Irving says.
However, even the most reputable manufacturer can produce a piece with a flaw or defect. That's why it's important to ask whether the store or the manufacturer itself offers a warranty, says Franks. Ethan Allen, for one, offers a five-year warranty on its furnishings.
Of course, good pieces take time to make, which means you might not be able to leave a store with your new secretary or armoire in tow. For example, a piece fashioned by Stickley, the 100-year-old manufacturer of Mission-style furniture, can take eight months to a year to come in, says Irving. "But it's all hand-doweled and hand-crafted. It's worth waiting for."
The lesson, then, is this: Quality means care, and care requires time. In the end, the piece that rolls out of the workshop or store and into your home will be something possessing lasting appeal and value.
"Finer furniture is pretty adaptable," says Kapcar. "If you're really in love with it, chances are you're going to be happy with it for a long time."