Choosing Pieces that Last

by Lauren Chorpening Day

Choosing Pieces that Last | Design*Sponge

When I moved into my apartment last year, I loved that the change of scenery gave me an excuse to replace furniture that had seen better days. I wanted my money to go as far as possible and ordered pieces from online discount retailers, for the most part. A bed frame, headboard, dresser, media console, desk and two dining chairs later, I now have a different perspective on the pieces I want to buy and where I want to buy them from. The dresser and the chairs were the only pieces that came from local shops. These are also the pieces that will be in the best shape when it’s time to move again in a few years.

In the age of online shopping for just about everything, convenience can outweigh the quality assurance of buying in person. When my media console came, my husband and I carried it up to our 3rd-floor apartment, unpacked it from the tons of styrofoam and cardboard packaging and started assembling. As it came out of the box, it was immediately evident that the “solid wood” furniture we thought we had ordered was actually damaged particle board with a wood veneer. At that point, with the amount of packing material, effort of carrying it and the desire to have our living room set-up complete, it felt worth it just to keep it and jigger it to work rather than send it back. It’s not that there aren’t reputable online furniture stores — there are great sources online to find quality pieces — but there are also ones that promise low prices that are so enticing, we put the items in our virtual carts and hope for the best.

Choosing Pieces that Last | Design*Sponge

Images above: (1) Katie and Tim thrifted almost everything in their San Francisco living room. While it might take a long time to pull an entire room together with pre-owned pieces, the cost, quality and lack of packaging can make it worth it. (2) Wood and leather chairs in Karyn’s Salt Lake City dining room will stand up to constant use for years and years.

It’s unrealistic to stop buying online and to see all future furniture in person before purchasing (especially in Des Moines, IA). What is possible is to weigh quality, company reputation, materials and country of origin against convenience. The amount of packaging, freight and effort that goes into receiving a piece of poorly made furniture that may end up on the curb in a few years makes the choice easier for me: I’d rather go without for a while, save up my money, and feel confident in the things I bring into our home.

Another way to ensure the elements I invest in last is through timeless style and design. I’m on the lookout for gorgeous homes, new furniture trends and unique ways to decorate constantly. It’s hard not to feel the need to update, improve and purchase new interior pieces often for any of us that spend time online. The hard part is choosing what I truly love and what to pass on. When looking for furniture that will last more than a few years, I like to imagine it paired with different styles and accents before committing to it.

Choosing Pieces that Last | Design*Sponge

Image above: A campaign style chest of drawers in David and Rumaan’s Brooklyn home was passed down from David’s maternal grandfather. Campaign desks and drawers can be bought new or found in consignment shops.

Furniture is an investment. Super-low prices, convenience and trends used to drive my purchases. When those pieces were headed toward the landfill not long after assembly, it became important to me and my husband to collect items that could be useful for years to come and then useful to others once we were ready to update (consign, donate, pass down, etc.). Ideally we’d love to find these pieces locally or pre-owned, but when that’s not possible, we want to be financially, environmentally and ethically responsible with our purchases. –Lauren

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  • This is so incredibly important! Not just for the financial / annoyance value of having to replace things every few years, but the environmental impact of buying poor quality furniture that needs to be replaced every few years (with either trends or wear) rather than sourcing new / used furniture that will actually last.

    • @ Alyce; I like your grandfather in law :)
      This is maybe a family member of our saying for (small) indulgences: Life is too precious to drink bad wine/terrible coffee, etc….

  • I don’t understand this: “It’s unrealistic to stop buying online and to see all future furniture in person before purchasing,” because I’ve never bought furniture online. I don’t live in Des Moines, and maybe it’s a furniture desert, but for most of us it doesn’t seem unrealistic at all to not buy furniture online unless you’ve seen it in person first. Maybe my love for vintage, and a lot of patience for the hunt, is skewing my point of view, though. But local vintage really seems like the answer to most of the concerns expressed here, especially packaging, quality, and timelessness. Estate sales, garage sales, thrift stores, craigslist, vintage stores, and even curbs can be goldmines ;-)

    • Absolutely! As Des Moines grows, more options are popping up for particle board furniture or vintage pieces. So vintage finds are easier but for modern, it’s either choosing to buy quality pieces online or buying poor-quality in person. Hopefully that continues to change. And completely agree about the curb – two of my favorite pieces in my house were picked up from the side of the road and fixed up. :)

  • Another tip – respect your stuff. If you take care of it (and don’t treat it as disposable to begin with), even cheap furniture (IKEA included) can last a long time. It may not be heirloom quality, but it’s still yours.

    Growing up, my dad had a Yugo, which was a car most of us know from its less-than-great reputation. That car ended up being more reliable that many cars he’s had since! He reasoned that many people bought them thinking that because they were cheap, they were unworthy of the basic maintenance needed to keep them running.

    I think we, as consumers, should stop equating cheap (or temporary) as disposable – while someone buys a BILLY bookcase with the hope that one day they can afford to replace it with a Vitsoe shelving unit, it can still be taken care of well enough to pass down to someone who may need or want one inexpensively. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve never felt bad receiving cheap furniture hand-me-downs from someone who no longer needed it, but I HAVE felt bad receiving things that were completely worn out and not taken care of at all.

    • I absolutely agree! My husband and I have purchased quite a few IKEA pieces over the years,and we tried to choose carefully and take good care of them. We’ve had a few misses, but overall we’ve been very happy and have no desire or need to replace.

    • Yup, it’s amazing how far a little bit of maintenance can go. Applying wax a couple times a year to solid wood furniture, cleaning wall hangings, oiling hinges, tightening handles…. little things but they create a home that feels loved, certainly for us but also in the atmosphere others sense in our home.

  • I have a sofa, its about 80-100 years old. it was rather broken when I got it and it was left in my old flat some 20 years ago, and yet it was still amazingly comfortable – its got a drop down arm so converts to a day-bed – when I was moving, I got it repaired and recovered and it was rather expensive but even the person repairing said it was worth it(but i am sure they would say that anyway), as ultimately it had a solid beech frame (with one bit broken). Anyway, that was about 10 years ago, and I still love the sofa and although repairing was the price of a ‘good’ sofa itself, I would never have gotten one with such good character.

  • Just YES YES YES to the above!
    Although having said YESSSSS I admit having some chairs I own because I just can’t say no to an old dearie (chair) needing a new home! I re-do the seating, make it presentable again and give it a place of honour – but having very often large numbers of friends/visitors – I had to save them from being sat on. That is NOT a good way of re-using old stuff. Apart from that I own Billy shelves in top condition and that after TWO removals including three countries! I DO take care of my belongings, as it was mentionned above – and that is important.

  • Thanks for sharing. Hopefully what you’ve learned that inspired your new approach of “quality over quantity” will prevent others from making what turns out to be an expensive mistake in the long run. When something seems expensive but is built to last a lifetime a good rule of thumb is to calculate the annual cost of owning an heirloom quality piece of furniture rather than focusing solely on the initial financial outlay.

  • Thank you Lauren Chorpening for this very interesting and helpful post. It’s really great article for all readers of this website) I think that Lauren Chorpening – high quality writer. good luck.

  • You make some great points, Lauren. As an interior decorator who sometimes works with people who insist on quick delivery and low prices, I have also found that when ordering from a bog box store, or even a furniture chain that promises quick delivery, there is an inevitable trade-off . You have far fewer choices in terms of finish or upholstery, and therefore can end up with the blandness of a middle-of-the-road solution. Using thrift shop, curb finds, and antiques, as well as custom furniture, allows you to choose from a huge variety of fabrics. In the case of custom furnishings, there is usually several available finishes to choose from. Yes, both old furniture and custom pieces are more expensive in the short run, but their high quality means you will have them for twenty years or more. Great design and quality workmanship allows furniture to work in a variety of settings as your taste changes over time. And you will avoid having your living room look like a furniture showroom or a page from a catalog.

  • Another option to consider is to seek out local craftsmen and custom furniture makers. This affords the opportunity to collaborate with creative individuals to make something unique to your design tastes, functional requirements, and space. If you are working with someone who has a reasonable skill set and experience, you should truly be getting heirloom furniture that will outlast you. The trade off of course is the cost which can shock some people who have been conditioned to expect box store prices and haven’t considered the value of superior materials and methods. I hope more folks come to the same personal realizations as you, but I don’t think the termite barf retailers are in danger any time soon.

  • Too true, Aaron. I have a couple of pieces made by craftspeople, and they are incredibly beautiful, and made to the highest quality standards. They are really works of art, and as such, they never go out of style and get more beautiful with age. It is rewarding and fun to collaborate with a craftsperson to make something uniquely yours.

  • These are the best tips to choose the pieces, I have been following a number of furniture blogs. read new posts, and listen to podcasts of experts they recommend tools, tactics, and maps how to make beautiful houses.

  • Hi Lauren, great article. I would like to say that I am in 100% agreement with you that quality should always be preferred instead of quantity specially when you are making important decisions like decorating your living space and choosing your furniture. I also find the concept of buying furniture online a far fetched idea, as there is always room for missing out on details whilst shopping online, mostly color schemes are the ones which are effected the most. Thank you for your valuable insight !!!

  • Hi Lauren, great article. I think I am in 100% agreement with you on this, quality always comes before quantity, specially when you are making important decisions like buying furniture. I think that online shopping also seems like a far fetched idea because its almost impossible to be detail oriented while shopping online specially you cannot be sure of the color schemes unless you see it from your own eyes. Thank for the great insight !!!