Finding furniture you can live with

December 01, 1991|By Broderick Perkins | Broderick Perkins,Knight-Ridder News Service

I never thought much about buying furniture until an all-knowing architect friend mentioned her constitutional right to silence after I asked what she thought of my decor.

"Not much," she replied.

What I gave up in design, I told the arrogant architect, I made up in durability.

Conceding that my furniture could withstand automatic weapons fire better than a Kevlar bullet-proof vest, the big-shot architect says my flat is nevertheless a furniture showroom from hell.

The moral? Keep your home furnishings ego away from design types until you get a clue about shopping for furniture. Big-ticket stuff can put a significant dent in your pocketbook. You'll want to be able to live with it.

First, learn the rules of furniture shopping: 1) Shop around. Some stores beat their competitors by 30 percent on comparable items. 2) Despite the wide range of prices, remember, if a bargain appears too good to be true, it probably is.

*Get prepared. Work on complete rooms to provide harmony, otherwise you end up in showroom Hades. Speaking of which, cursed be the consumer who can't get that sofa to fit through the door or into the right room. Use a tape measure. Get ideas about design, color and fabrics from magazines, decorator show houses, trade shows and stores. Don't forget function.

Shop reputable dealers who not only back what they sell but also represent manufacturers who back their products. Shop for warranties, good return policies and knowledgeable salespeople, as well as sound furniture. Get a minimum two-year warranty against faulty materials and workmanship.

*Construction: Furniture is constructed by two or more methods: staples, nails, screws, joints and glue. Look for strong construction where a piece will bear the most weight or receive the most stress (legs, shelf braces, drawers). Quality framing is constructed of kiln-dried hardwood like alder or birch, with double-doweled joints. Double cone-coil springs hand-tied eight ways is the best internal construction, says Joseph Cammarata, an interior designer in Los Altos, who custom-builds furniture.

*Wood labeling: According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission "solid wood" (i.e., "solid oak") means exposed surfaces should be made of the wood named, without any veneer or plywood. Remember, wood is a product of nature. Imperfections are natural and give the wood its character. "Genuine" means that all exposed parts of the piece are made of a veneer of the named wood, set on top of hardwood plywood. The best veneers have matched patterns. Simply "wood" means that a piece has no major components of plastic, metal, other materials. "Man-made" materials refer to plastic-laminate panels printed to mimic wood.

*Cushion padding: Quality cushion padding is usually a continuous-filament fiber, fully encased inside the cushion. Goose down is the most luxurious filler, but flame-retardant latex and polyurethane foam make firmer seating and wear well. Soft, overstuffed pillows may also be filled with polyester fiber filling similar in comfort to goose down. Manufacturers are required by law to identify filling materials on the "Do-not-remove-under-penalty-of-law" tag.

* Test the furniture: Check for sturdiness by pushing on the arms and back. Lift a corner. There should be no give or wobbles. Sit on it. Make sure the seat is both deep and wide enough for the person most apt to use it. Test it for back support.

*Fabric: Check the fabric for patterns that line up properly with no puckering on the seams. Skirts should lie straight and flat.

*Finishes: Avoid cloudy, streaked, cracked or otherwise uneven finishes.

*Chairs: Turn chairs upside down and look for quality in the form of blocks in all four corners and double-doweled joints on the rails.

*Tables: Lean on tables to make sure they don't sway. If the table has leaves, look for an apron, ask about extension guides, table locks and clasps on the leaves. If it has a glass top, check for glass thick enough to resist chipping and cracking and check the table for grooves or ledges strong enough to hold the glass in place.

*Drawers and doors: Open and close drawers to be sure they move easily. Look for center or side guides, as well as automatic stops that prevent spilling. The best drawers have wood side and back panels approximately 1/2 -inch thick, joined by sturdy, tight-fitting joints. Make sure doors are level, easy to open and catch firmly when closed.

*Shelves: Check for sturdiness and ample support pins to hold the shelves in place. Adjustable shelves provide flexibility.

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