Make the perfect purchases with this guide to style, size, arrangement, quality, and (if you must) assembly
Furniture provides comfort at home while letting us express our personal style, so it’s as much about form as function. As with clothing, we want it to work—and we also want it to wow. But while fashion is fickle, furniture is more of a commitment; we’ve got to make decisions we’ll literally live with. After all, those tables, chairs, sofas, et cetera aren’t cheap. Furniture and bedding sales in the U.S. amounted to an estimated 111.4 billion U.S. dollars in 2018, with the average consumer dropping about $518 per year on furniture and more affluent Americans spending more than twice as much, according to Statista.com.
Most of us begin acquiring furniture willy-nilly, often with family castoffs for first apartments. Once we become homeowners, however, we want more grownup—and gracious—furniture. So it helps to know the styles available, how to evaluate quality, and the basics of size, proportion, and arrangement ideal for each room. So, whether you’re looking to replace a couch that’s seen better days or furnish an entire house, read on for must-know info—plus some DIY projects you’ll be eager to tackle and proud to use every day.
Six Popular Furniture Styles
While manufacturers will forever be turning out new trends to refresh the market, certain specific furniture genres are largely available now.
Traditional: Aims to replicate classic, elegant European décor, with dark wood, plush upholstery, muted colors, and such fabrics as silk, velvet, and leather. Curved lines, floral patterns, and details like bun feet and carving may also come into play.
Farmhouse/Cottage: Evokes homespun, rustic living with sturdy construction, natural fibers, creamy colors, and distressed finishes. Native wood species like pine, oak, and cherry are often used, along with reclaimed wood.
Modern: Defined by clean simple lines, geometric shapes, and a mix of materials like metal, glass, plastic, and leather/vinyl, with few ornamental flourishes. Neutral colors and glossy finishes prevail. Mid-century modern, the architectural/interior design era of the 1930s through the 1960s, has been enjoying a renaissance for the past decade.
Contemporary: Developed in the latter half of the 20th century, featuring soft, rounded lines, smooth surfaces, light woods, glass, and metal, and neutral colors sparked with bold accent hues. There’s an overall emphasis on comfort and a casual vibe.
Transitional: Artfully combining elements of traditional and contemporary design, with a focus on simple, sophisticated silhouettes, curved and straight lines, soothing colors, and warm, inviting fabrics and textures.
Industrial: The urban equivalent of farmhouse style, celebrating distressed wood and metal pieces from factories and warehouses, either reclaimed or reproductions.
Size, Proportion, and Arrangement
An interior decorator helps clients pick furniture of the right scale for its room, and design a layout that suits the function of the space so that traffic and conversation will flow. But with fees starting at $100 an hour, many homeowners opt to buy furniture in sets or packages, knowing that the pieces will work together in style and size.
If, however, you’d prefer that your place doesn’t look plucked from the pages of a catalog, consider these tips for choosing and arranging individual pieces that will suit your space:
- Measure the room and note not just the square footage but the shape of the space, the height of the ceiling, width of the walls, and height of doors, windows, and window sills.
- Use your measurements to make a scale drawing of the floor plan (graph paper is helpful here), indicating the location of key features (windows, doorways, fireplace, etc.) It’s smart to make several photocopies of your floor plan before you take the next step, which is to pencil in where you might place different pieces. In an average-size living room, a sofa will most likely go close to a long wall with chairs on either side, and a coffee table in front. Opposite the sofa might be a media center or fireplace.
- Imagine the room’s horizon line and situate furniture to lie upon it, so that pieces (and people using them) can relate to each other. For instance, you’d avoid putting a tall cabinet next to a low loveseat.
- Room size and height dictate furniture size to a large degree. A huge overstuffed sectional won’t suit a small room, just as slim, dainty pieces would get lost in a large room. Rather than spread furniture throughout a large room, create intimate groupings where people can gather.
- Allow enough “white space” for people to move comfortably. No one should be tripping over an ottoman or banging a hip on a console.
- Select low-profile furniture in a room with low ceilings, and vice versa—a high-ceilinged bedroom, for instance, can accommodate a tall armoire and a four-poster bed.
- Place a dining table at least 36 inches from a wall to provide adequate space for chairs to push back. Low-back chairs work best in a small dining room, while taller chairs fill the space in a large, high-ceilinged room.
- Coordinating dining table and chair height is key to guests being able to move their limbs comfortably. There should be between nine and 13 inches between the surface of the table and the seat of the chair.
- Aim for symmetry. Balance two tall chairs on one side of a room with a hutch or armoire on the other.
- Choose main pieces first, accents second. So, for a bedroom, decide on the bed and dressers before debating bedside tables.
- Don’t forget a room’s true purpose. For example, if you want your child’s room to be conducive to study, you’ll want the desk and bookcase to be amply sized and functional.
- Edit for small rooms, indulge for larger ones. A small guest room may be best with one dresser and no dressing table, for instance. Got a great room? Well, then, wheel in that baby grand!
Judging Furniture Quality
You came, you saw, you sat on—and so far, so good. But before you plunk down your credit card, give each item closer scrutiny.
For upholstered goods (anything with padded, fabric-covered cushions):
- Lift the piece off the floor by a corner. It should feel solid, and not creak, sag, or sway.
- Sit down, grip the arms, and wiggle. Arms and legs must feel sturdy.
- Bounce a bit. You don’t want springs that compress so much you can feel the frame with your posterior.
- Check the corners from underneath; they should be reinforced with glued-in, screwed-in blocks.
- Examine upholstery to ensure equal placement of padding throughout, with no lumps or hard spots.
- Check that fabric fits snugly around the frame and padding.
- Foam cushions should be solid; shredded foam is likely to lose shape.
- Unzip cushions to ensure that there’s a fabric liner or ticking to keep materials in place.
- Choose tightly woven fabric with a high thread count for longevity. Don’t pooh-pooh a quality polyester, which could wear better than some natural materials.
- Examine the workmanship for straight seams, neat piping, secure buttons, and tight, uniform stitching.
For tables, dressers, bookcases, and other case goods:
- Open and shut doors and drawers for smooth, silent operation and tight, complete closure.
- Examine the insides of drawers for quality joinery (ideally, dovetail joints). Press against the bottom to test for strength and stroke the inner sides and seams to ensure nothing will catch on clothing.
- Give a dresser, cabinet, armoire, or similar standing piece a hug to test for stability. It shouldn’t rock or wobble.
- Look for legs made of one solid piece of wood for strength and stability.
- Make sure that knobs, pulls, and other hardware is firmly bolted from the inside.
When and Where to Buy Furniture
If you want the latest styles in furniture, shop in spring and fall when new collections debut. If you hope to save money, wait till holiday sales—Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. Then the big question becomes: where to shop? Time was, purchasing furniture meant visiting a local showroom, but today you can also buy from reputable online retailers. Either way, be an informed customer.
The main advantage of a brick-and-mortar furniture store is the ability to see, feel, examine, and basically perform all the quality tests recommended above. Don’t be shy: scrutinize the heck out of stuff, and ask the salesperson plenty of questions. Take along a tape measure and your floor plan to measure not only the length but the width and depth of pieces that interest you.
One in-store downside may be a sense of pressure, either by time constraints (how long can you stay in the store without losing your patience or wearing out your welcome) or pushy salespeople after their 10 percent commission. You’re also limited to what’s available at the store on any given day.
Conversely, when shopping online, you can browse at your leisure—at three in the morning if you choose. You can devote hours, comparing a seemingly endless supply of brands, collections, and pieces from a host of retailers, downloading photos and specs, and compiling folders of your favorites. Got questions? Consult with a customer rep on the phone or via live chat. Another online asset: because e-tailers are so competitive, bargain hunters may be able to score great deals.
Of course, no amount of online activity will tell you if a chair is truly comfortable. And what you see isn’t always what you get: A sofa that seems a subtle mauve on your screen can be a much hotter pink in your parlor. Also, as with other types of online purchases, reviews can be misleading. Although it’s wise to confirm that reviewers actually own the furniture, your definition of “excellent quality” may not be the same as theirs.
Whether buying brick and mortar or online, compare shipping/delivery fees, return and refund policy, and assembly charges (more on that below). Because brick-and-mortar outlets tend to be local, shipping and delivery is often less than from a website with a warehouse located far from your home. Delivery can be to your front door or “white glove” service, where the item is brought to the room you want, unwrapped, and the packing materials removed. Damaged or otherwise “not right” items may be refundable, but the cost of shipping will likely be on you.
For many furniture shoppers, the best option is a furniture store that also has an online presence. This way you can visit the showroom for the hands-on, sit-down experience, then take your time making a final decision on the website.
Tips for Furniture Assembly
You order a handsome desk or bookcase online—and it arrives in a suspiciously slim package. While there’s a whole cottage industry comprised of folks who put together flat-pack furniture, fees for these pros range between $80 and $250, depending on the piece. If you’re up for DIY assembly, consider these guidelines:
- Clear a space for assembly in the room where you’ll use the piece. Assembling it elsewhere and then attempting to move it can be asking for trouble.
- Unpack the box carefully so as not to damage the contents. Check to ensure that all parts, tools, and directions are included. Group similar items together and keep track of easily lost small parts.
- Gather the hand tools and power tools you’ll need, beyond the basic implements provided.
- Read the instructions several times and be sure you understand them. Match the parts to the illustrations in the manual. Watch a few online videos (many companies make their own).
Build from the base up, following directions to the letter. Don’t skip any steps or take any shortcuts. After each step, refer back to the instructions to confirm you’ve got it right before continuing.
DIY Furniture Projects
Now that you know what it takes to find, judge, buy, and assemble furniture, you may just decide to build some of your own. Check out these four fun projects from the This Old House “Hammer It Out” series.
- Here’s to a beautiful bar, made of plywood and lauan (Philippine mahogany).
- Now you see it—a wall-hung TV cabinet with bi-fold doors.
- Build a chest to impress.
- Show off your collectibles on this cool coffee table.