Sustainability? Let’s start with furniture.
When they made diapers disposable, we all rejoiced. When plastic bottles replaced glass ones, we thought it was progress. But now, with countless plastic bags and bottles creating problems in our oceans, it’s no wonder people are pushing back. Especially when our disposable culture has extended all the way to furniture.
It’s not just ready-to-assemble furniture we’re talking about. Few pieces are built to last the way they once did when furniture was passed down from generation to generation. But if you’re looking to create an heirloom of your own, it’s still possible. And there are practical reasons to do so – beyond bettering the planet and improving your quality of life in a way only better furniture can. You may actually save yourself money by buying a high-quality piece once instead of inexpensive furniture every few years.
First step: avoid cheap furniture.
These days, a lot of furniture is made overseas, and starts with cheap wood frames. Did you know that 90% of furniture quality is on the inside, where it can’t be seen? Many manufacturers cut corners, producing products with lower price points but equally low lifespans. It’s not until you take a piece of furniture apart that you can see where the shortcuts have been taken - but your local furniture store may balk if you ask to cut a sofa in two. So what do you do?
First, grab an arm and lift a leg off the ground a little. Good furniture starts with a good hardwood frame (mostly engineered hardwoods these days) so it’s hefty. Another thing you can do is to check the padding on the arm of an upholstered armchair or sofa – if you feel wood when you press down, that’s not good. Where chairs are covered in patterned fabric, there’s another subtle hint: stripes or florals may not line up from the chair cushion to the chair itself, or from the seat to the back. A good piece of furniture is pattern-matched, which gives it a very put-together look.
What makes good furniture good?
Beyond cheap wood construction, most inexpensive furniture is made like a futon, with wood slats to support a cushion that is made entirely of foam. Particularly where the foam is of so-so quality (there are grades of foam, from low to higher densities), this results in furniture that sits well initially, but quickly gets mushy with age. Better furniture is made with better foam, or foam layered with a down blanket on top, or best of all, a springdown cushion that combines foam with interior springs and a blanket of down and feathers.
The support systems for better furniture are also different. The traditional standard in foundations is the 8-way hand-tied base, where steel coil springs are set within the furniture frame and tied together in eight directions to produce amazing sit and support. Another support system in good quality furniture uses sinuous springs – “s”-shaped wire springs that are closely spaced to provide even support. Chairs with a sleeker profile often rely on a Pirelli web base, which is a very supportive basket-weave of webbing beneath the cushions.
But beyond superior interior quality, the thing that makes an heirloom piece feel truly special is that it was hand-crafted just for you in your choice of fabrics. And that’s only accomplished by buying something custom.
We asked George Jordan, from The MT Company in High Point, North Carolina, about how to spot quality furniture. The MT Company produces furniture for retailers like Calico, which offers some of the best custom furniture you can find.
What is custom furniture?
Custom furniture gives you the ultimate flexibility in making a piece your own. You can choose the frame style, the color of the legs, even small design details like nail heads or accent trim. But the blockbuster choices you make are when it comes to the fabric. With custom chairs, you not only have options you won’t find with off-the-shelf pieces, but you can choose multiple fabrics, like a solid velvet on the inside and a pattern on the back. Furniture you buy from a furniture showroom usually looks bland in comparison, because there’s a need to make it fit everyone’s taste. Custom furniture is all you.
Where do you go for the good stuff – without paying a fortune?
One of the best sources is Calico, one of the few stores that sells high-quality upholstery fabric nationwide, and that also sells heirloom-quality furniture.
Calico has more than 200 frame styles – from classic to contemporary – and over 5,000 fabrics to choose from, including some you can’t access elsewhere without an expensive interior designer in tow. To help you visualize frame and fabric combinations, there’s an application called C360 on the Calico website that renders pieces with near photo quality, and prices them for you automatically. Prices are reasonable, given the quality: each frame style has a base price, and you pay for fabric by the yard on top of that. The cost is competitive with better big box furniture stores, and the quality is probably better too.
Did we mention that at Calico, design help is free? Custom gives you countless options and most of us can use some advice – or at least a sounding board for our ideas. Calico design professionals are waiting for you in stores around the country. They are also available to come to your home to consult, absolutely free. In addition, Calico sells things like wallpaper and window treatments of every variety, so you don’t have to stop with furniture.