Designer Furniture: Where to Spend Your Money


Many of our clients are upgrading or furnishing a home for the second or third time and they have engaged our services because they “want to do it right” this time.  I have heard this phrase time and time again, and it is my pleasure to help identify what “right” means for each of them.  Some value incorporating the smart trends, while others are hoping to have a timeless look that lasts for many years to come.  The one thing I never find are folks who are looking for a quick fix that won’t last.  When it comes to furniture there are some pieces that are simply worth the investment, whether you are looking to be a trend setter or furnish your dream home for the last time. 

What are the different categories of furniture?

Interior designers categorize furniture largely on the types of furniture.  This may seem beyond basic for our clients who have previously shopped retail, but we do not necessarily categorize the type of furniture by the room that it belongs in.  I can’t tell you how many times I have used a “dining room” buffet as an entertainment console because it fit the space perfectly and we were able to get our cabling into the interior.  In my mind furniture can belong in any space we dream and thus we categorize into case goods and upholstery.  That’s it.  Is it hard or is it soft?

Case goods refer to anything that is constructed like cabinetry or are non-upholstered pieces such as desks, chairs, tables, bookcases, etc.  If it is of wood construction, whether or not is has moving parts and pieces, it is generally considered a case good.

Just as it sounds, upholstery is anything that is upholstered such as sofas, arm chairs, ottomans, benches, etc.  Several layers of construction go into making these pieces and they are finished with fabric.

We may also refer to any case good or upholstery piece as “occasional,” meaning that it is a secondary piece that does not get much use, or it sits to the side of the main arrangement in the room.

How to maximize your budget

Whether large or small, we work with our clients to establish a realistic budget for each new project prior to moving forward. Once we have the budget in hand, our job as designers is to allocate the budget appropriately to ensure that we are maximizing where necessary. Often times we need to make a few concessions to ensure that we stay under budget, but often once my clients understand the difference in the quality they are getting with designer furnishings they are willing to make a larger investment for the long term.

If we are working within a limit, I always encourage my clients to invest in the upholstery first, and then we work to allocate the remainder of the budget proportionately.  Upholstery are the pieces that are going to get used day in and day out.  Your children will bounce on it, your dog will sleep on it when you aren’t home, and you will spend many a movie night curled up under a blanket with someone you love. There are several layers of construction beyond the beautiful fabric on top that go into making this piece a dream to own rather than a nightmare, and the money you will spend will be worth every dime ten years from now.

The second most important allocation of the budget should go toward case goods with moving parts and pieces such as cabinet doors, drawers, etc.  Good craftsmanship will go a long way here, and there is nothing more annoying than having a credenza where the door on the left never seems to shut all the way. 

The next thing I typically consider on my furnishing projects is the quality of the area rugs (if they are in scope).  A well-made rug will last forever, can be cleaned easily, and will feel fabulous under your feet not to mention tie the entire space together visually. This piece will also likely be the brunt of wine spills, dirty shoes that weren’t taken off at the door, and your kitty sun-bathing and grooming as the light from the window moves across the room.

The remaining pieces in the room such as side tables, floor lamps, occasional items, etc. can be budgeted in with the remaining funds.  These items don’t get as much use and unless we are after a one-of-a-kind piece, no one will likely notice that it is out of last month’s retail catalog.

Designer Furniture vs. Retail Furniture

Some of our clients are new to working with a designer and have never been introduced to what we in the industry call “Trade Only” furniture.  So let me introduce you! There are 2 different supply chains for furniture, one is retail and this is what many people are used to shopping.  Restoration Hardware, Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, Room & Board, to name a few.  If you as a consumer can go in and purchase it at a cash register, then it falls under the “Retail” category.  These retailers have their own logistics infrastructure, meaning they control its travel from the factory to your front door and everyone in that process is an employee of the company you are ordering from.

Pros and cons of working with retailers: I hate to lead with the cons, but the quality is often not good at all.  Time and time again we get complaints about how these pieces fall apart after only one or two years.  I am not talking about just the inexpensive stuff, I am talking about that sofa that clients pay several thousand dollars for – the one of the front page of the catalog.  They are typically made in places like China, there are only several options of fabric to choose from, and nothing is backed by the manufacturer. They are mass-produced on an assembly line and shipped over on a containership where they may sit at port for months before being delivered to a central distributing warehouse where the piece will just sit until someone orders it. This type of production does mean that you can typically have your sofa at your door within a few weeks, and the limited number of fabric offerings makes it easy to avoid overwhelm and make a selection. In my opinion, this is a good place to buy filler items or occasional pieces that aren’t giong to get any use if we absolutely have to stick to a limited budget.

Enter the deisgner…

Design-trade furniture is a completely different world.  These manufacturers do not have store fronts, they rely on designers to come to market each year to learn so we can sell their products directly to our clients.  It is not uncommon for some of these manufacturers to also be manufacturing goods for some of the retailers that I mentioned above.  These manufacturers ask that we the designers manage getting the piece from their factory floor to your front door, and we contract with freight companies, local receiving warehouses, and delivery crews to get your furniture to you. This management is a service we provide to our clients and we are well-versed in the world of freight carriers, and receivers across the country.

Pros and cons of buying trade-only from a designer: We have accounts with thousands of manufacturers, so you not only get something unique but we can design any look.  Upholstery is often COM (customers own materials), which means we can pick out the sofa from Thayer Coggin, and we can have our favorite fabric from Stroheim sent over to them, for example.  When we order it they will ask us to specify every single detail of the piece right down to the piping, the placement of the fabric pattern on the seat cushion, and the finish of the feet.  It is then made for you in the USA (sometimes Europe), and a few talented craftsmen build it to specification.  No assembly line, no sitting in a warehouse for 8 months waiting for you to order it.  The con with designer trade furniture is that it takes longer, and if there are any damages in the freight process there isn’t another piece that can be sent right away. They either repair the damage at the expense of the freight company or they have it remade.

What is right for your project?

There is no right or wrong, but when we are begining a project we make sure to educate on the differences.  It is much easier to work with a designer and allow them to shop with trade only sources. We receive continuing education from the manufacturers year-round so we know the product inside and out, we get exclusive pricing, and we can curate a single space using a dozen different manufactures. We will always discuss this with you and find a way to incorportate your favorite brands when possible.

Ready to start your furniture project? Contact us today to scheudle a complimentary phone call.




Contemporary Interior Design Characteristics
Building a Home in Colorado? Avoid These 6 Mistakes
Hospitality Interior Design tips for your new space