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What do I need to keep in mind when buying new furniture?

Think about how much space is available. Take measurements and make a rough sketch. Make a list of the pieces you need. Prioritize what is more important to you: style, comfort, or functionality. Look at pictures of styles you like. Prepare a budget range that you are comfortable with.

How do I choose a decorating theme?

Make a list of favorite colors, patterns, or fabrics. Do you need child-friendly pieces? Do you need pet-friendly pieces? Have fun! Buying new furniture is one of the nicer things in life.

What if I like to redecorate often?

Choose furniture that is more flexible, like pieces with neutral colors that will blend with new decorating schemes later. Have fun and choose trendy pieces. Plan to spend a little less for less durable pieces.

What if I want my furniture decor to stay the same for years to come?

Choose less trendy pieces. Plan to spend a little more to get more durable pieces.

How long should my new furniture last?

It depends on your lifestyle. If you choose a light-colored sofa and your two-year-old spills cranberry juice on it, you may have a problem. The upkeep will be exhausting and repeated accidents will take its toll on the life of the sofa. Even with normal wear and tear, fabrics that are occasionally professionally steam-cleaned will last longer. Pay attention to the recommendations of the manufacturer, throw in an occasional professional steam cleaning, and your furniture should be good to go for years to come.

Do I have to give up style for functionality?

No. There are so many choices today that you really do not have to give up anything. Simply tell your sales representative what is critical, and what you like. He or she will guide you to something just right for you.

What should I look for when I'm in the store?

Jackie Hirschhaut, spokeswoman for the American Home Furnishings Alliance, recommends you shop for furniture the way you shop for a car. Here are her tips:

  • Kick the Tires - Not literally, of course. But do put likely pieces through your version of a quality test. Lift one corner of a sofa to see if the frame feels sturdy. Press gently outward on the arms to make sure there is no give. Ask what materials are used and how joints and stress points - such as arms - are reinforced. Frames made of link-dried hardwood and hardwood plywood hold pegs, screws, staples, and nails more firmly in place than do softwood plywood and strand board. If the sales associate cannot answer your questions, find another associate - or a store with a better-informed staff.
  • Look Under the Hood - Some stores have handy cutaways to show how upholstered pieces are assembled. But you probably will have to rely on the know-how of a well-trained sales associate to explain the hidden benefits of a piece. A variety of construction techniques offer comfort and durability but, in general, the number of springs in a foundation and the way they are reinforced determines the cost and quality level.
  • Take a Test Drive - Don't buy a sofa, chair, or recliner without sitting, slouching, or reclining in it - for at least a few minutes. Put your feet up. Put your head back. Settle into the piece the way you would at home. Furniture cushions may be constructed using springs, cotton, or polyester fiber or down, but most are made from some type of polyurethane foam. Generally, the higher the density the foam, the more durable (and expensive) the cushion. But the only way to tell if the piece is going to feel comfortable to you is to sit on it yourself.
  • Think Safety - Make sure the piece carries a gold UFAC tag, which indicates it was manufactured according to fire-safety standards developed by the Upholstered Furniture Action Council. Those standards reduce the likelihood of the furniture catching fire from a smoldering cigarette, which is the leading cause of upholstery fires in the home.

What are the different styles?

  • TRADITIONAL: Simple. Homey. Neutral colors. Simple floral patterns. Colors are not shiny. Fabrics are usually smooth. Pieces are symmetrical.
  • CASUAL: Still traditional but with a little more modern look. these are sometimes overstuffed and even oversized. Definitely comfortable. Mostly neutral colors like gray, beige, browns, whites, and muted shades of blue. They often have a more chunky appearance.
  • CONTEMPORARY FURNITURE: A definite departure from traditional and casual looks. Contemporary furniture uses bold bright colors and uses a wide variety of materials including metal, glass, stone, and wood. Pieces may be asymmetrical. You will see fabrics with geometric designs and animal prints. But do not expect to see florals. Nor will you find ornate details. Sleek and modern is the rule here.
  • FORMAL: Details and lavish ornate decorations go with formal furniture. Fine dark hard woods are often used with a very shiny finish. Pieces are strictly symmetrical. Designs may be inspired from a specific historical style and period. Tassels, petals, and intricate carvings may all be a part of formal furniture.
  • MISSION: Harkens back to the furniture used in the California missions. The designs are simple and a signature element are repeating wood slats. Made with hard woods, they are beautiful and durable.
  • ASIAN: These pieces use exotic woods like ginko and kiri. The eminently renewable bamboo is used extensively as well. There are as many styles as there are countries in Asia. So the variety is immense. Many pieces have glossy lacquer coatings. Look for animal themes.
  • RETRO: A fun trend are pieces that emulate the American furniture styles of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Burnt orange, lime green, and avocado green are funky colors from the past. Sleek tables and dining sets signal the beginning of the space age.
  • FRENCH COUNTRY: Similar to traditional but incorporating patterns that specifically say France. Like toiles and fleur de lis and bold stripes or checks. Often the wood is distressed.
  • LEATHER: Leather transcends classification in that it is used in many different styles. It is certainly not restricted to the office or the den anymore! Many like leather because it is so easy to maintain and it always looks great.

What should I look for in wood furniture?

It is much easier to purchase wood furniture than upholstered because the materials and construction are visible, not hidden. Basically, what you see is what you get.

Still, there are things to look for and consider when buying wood furniture.

Different woods have different colors, knots, and grains. And different woods react differently to stain products and finishes. Even a matched set will have variations in color and grain. Finishes vary widely including distressed, antiqued, high-gloss, and painted. Complex finishes are the most expensive. And remember, a piece labeled as having a cherry finish may not be actually made of cherry wood.

Today furniture is often made with "engineered" woods like plywood and fiberboard. These woods usually are less expensive than real woods. Fiberboard is made from wood fibers and adhesive (glue). They are fused with intense heat and pressure. This creates a very strong product that resists warping and splitting. It also has no knots. Usually fiberboard is topped with a laminate made of plastic, foil, or paper (printed or engraved) to give the board a natural wood look.

Before You Purchase, The American Furniture Manufacturers Association recommends:

  • Operate all doors and drawers. Do they open and close easily? The fronts of higher-quality drawers should be attached with dovetail joints.
  • Check that hardware is attached securely and straight. Drawer interiors should be smooth. Higher-quality pieces should have support blocks on drawer bottoms and dust panels between drawers.
  • Dressers and chests-of-drawers should not wobble or creak.
  • Turn chairs upside-down and examine the joints, which should be snug and free of excess glue. Check under tables that the corners are reinforced and the legs securely attached. If a table has leaves, make sure the opening-closing mechanism works smoothly.
  • Measure the length of walls where furniture will be positioned and the width of doorways before purchasing pieces. For entertainment centers, measure the height, width, and depth of the TV and other components.

What are the best woods and surfaces for my furniture?

  • HARDWOOD: Cherry, oak, walnut, mahogany, teak, maple, and ash are typical hardwoods used to make furniture. These woods are strong and durable. Furniture made with these woods last longest and are heirloom quality.
  • SOFTWOOD: Cedar, pine, and fir. These are great pieces to paint or stain yourself. They are also good if you do not want to worry about the kids denting and scratching them.
  • SOLID WOOD: Furniture pieces made from either hardwood or softwood or a combination of the two.
  • VENEERS: Involves a thin piece of fine wood (like hardwood) attached to a lesser wood (like softwood, plywood, or particle board). These pieces have the look and feel of a fine wood but are not as expensive.
  • LAMINATES: Like veneers, but the thin top is not wood, but a product that looks like wood. These are a lot less expensive.
  • DETAILS & FINISHES: Elements that enhance the quality of the piece. Hardware, joints, styles, and finishes.