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Guide to Buying Good Furniture

Why is it so expensive? Materials, skill, and time! Still, you can mix good-enough pieces with reissues, future heirlooms, and antiques.
By Brian D.Coleman

    Drawers with hand-cut dovetail joints in a mahogany block-front chest by Doucette & Wolfe Furniture Makers. The piece was meticulously reproduced from an 18th-century Newport Chippendale block and shell chest made by John Townsend. A similar original sold at Christie’s for $4.7 million in 1998.

    Surveys tell us that readers are uncomfortable buying furniture. Many are confused, not just about style, but also what constitutes quality. After spending thousands on roofing, kitchens, and even rugs, homeowners are nevertheless shocked at furniture prices. The truth is, good furniture is fairly expensive and something to be purchased over time. If you buy poorly made furniture, you’ll buy it over and over again.

    What are hallmarks of good furniture construction?
    Bob Chiaviello, President of LeFort Furniture Makers, Hanover, Massachusetts: Furniture should be built from full-sized, furniture-grade lumber. Mass-produced pieces are usually made from small pieces of wood joined with unsightly finger joints. Turn a piece over and look at it from the back and inside; well-made furniture uses mortise-and-tenon joints, and dovetailed casework and drawers. Surfaces are hand-planed, hand-scraped, and might even have hand-carved ornamentation. A mellow finish completes a good piece.

    Stephen Hultberg, S. Hultberg Furniture Maker, Seattle, Washington: Grain pattern symmetry and placement of the wood components are the marks of a well-made piece. Grain patterns such as arches should point upwards, and not be laid sideways or mismatched. Finer cased furniture often has drawer liners—solid pieces of wood between the drawers to keep items from falling out between them—as well as slips, stops, and kickers.

    What are some bad signs?
    Stephen Hultberg: Nails and screws may be the first sign of a poorly made piece. Though small brads may be used to attach beads and moldings, good furniture is never nailed together. Visible glue, open joints, and mismatched veneers or grain patterns are all red flags. A particleboard or fiberboard core can fall apart and will easily swell and delaminate with water or liquid spills.

    A contemporary take on an early dining table and Windsor chairs by Warren Chair Works. The design is updated, but like the company’s Traditional collection, these are made using 18th-century joinery techniques.

    What’s a fair price for, say, a dining-room chair?
    Andrew Van Styn, decorative arts consultant and collector, Baltimore, Maryland:
    Let’s look at the desirable American Arts & Crafts high spindle-back dining side chair. One vintage Gustav Stickley chair with original finish and seat may sell for $3,000 or even more, depending on condition and provenance, at a collectors’ auction. Stickley’s same reissued (new) chairs sell for about $1,539 each at retail. You’re getting virtually the same object, newer and perhaps sturdier, but without the provenance or oxidized luster. Unlike antiques, you can buy as many as you want.

    Let’s look at a staple in many homes: the kitchen work table.
    Nancy Hiller, NR Hiller Design, Bloomington, Indiana: I produce custom, linoleum-top tables with mortise-and-tenon joinery, with or without drawers, starting at $1,500. You can find a sort of retro-industrial, zinc-top kitchen worktable at Pottery Barn for $899; what’s different about mine, aside from the joinery, is that I based the proportions, the taper of the legs, and the aluminum edging on actual vintage examples, so they feel like the real McCoy. Online, you can sometimes find enamel-topped kitchen tables dating to the ’40s and ’50s starting around $300. They’re simple and often well-worn, which gives them a great deal of charm.

    When do antiques make most sense?
    Andrew van Styn:
    Do you plan to use the dining chairs every day, or just for dinner parties? Antiques add history and personality to a room, but many times aren’t practical. A new piece doesn’t have to look out of place. Take chairs: It’s easy to mix and match antique with modern.

    Matt Doucette of Doucette and Wolfe Furniture Makers, Center Conway, New Hampshire: We make furniture that will become a future antique—a family heirloom you’ll pass on to your kids. If you’re buying something you know you’ll replace, look for a cheaper alternative. But do be careful. Many customers have no idea what constitutes quality in furniture. They buy according to “style” or for the color, and many times they get snookered because today the crap costs almost as much as the good stuff!  A lot of companies abuse words like “solid wood” and “handcrafted.” There is decent furniture available for mid-range prices; you shouldn’t have to settle for something poorly made.

    Stickley has reissued the 1904 Harvey Ellis-designed desk and side chair in quarter-sawn white oak with copper and hardwood inlays. An original desk sold at Christie’s for $74,000.

    Can you discuss general prices for an antique vs. a new piece?
    Aminy I. Audi, president and owner of L. & J.G. Stickley, Manlius, New York: Buying old or new should not be the first question. Rather, is the price of the object commensurate with its quality and design, based on comparison? There is little argument that newly made objects range in price, quality, and design expertise in the same way antiques do. Antique prices rise and fall with collector demand, while new pieces are priced as a factor of manufacturing costs.

    The majority of collectors we know are happy buying new objects to put alongside their antiques. The new object fills a need, such as when the rarity and value of the antique would exceed the comfort level of the owner, in a room where activity level may bring harm to the antique, thus devaluing it. Some new furniture pieces will command prices higher than their antique counterparts. Higher prices in new objects generally point the buyer to the best quality. Buyers should judge value based on an axiom used by antiques dealers: Buy what you need.

    And, when that vintage Morris chair of your dreams comes along, go ahead and collect what you love.

    Published in: Old-House Interiors January/February 2013

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