Here are some guidelines for buying home furnishings based on bloopers that others have made in their homes.
Text and homeowner photos by Mary Lynn Bruny
With spring in the air and the economy looking a bit better, you may want to buy a few new home furnishings you’ve been holding off on purchasing. Prices and financing have never been better, but you’ll still want to make smart choices. Here are eight basic guidelines that can help you avoid the ill-made buys homeowners and design pros shared with us.
➊ Buy What You Need
Start with what you need. Seems pretty obvious, right? But sometimes we lose sight of this, as Jim Smith, a furniture sales associate with Crate & Barrel in Denver, discovered. “When I was younger I used to find a piece and think I loved it and had to have it,” he explains. “Then I would bring it home and find it just didn’t work in my house. I had absolutely no place for it!” He adds, “I don’t do that anymore.”
Even when you know what you need, it’s important to make sure how big that “what” should be. Furniture stores are notoriously large and make one lose all sense of size and proportion, as Rob Picker, a sales executive from Superior, found out the painful way.
“About 10 years ago, during the Scandinavian furniture craze, we bought this heavy coffee table. When we got it home we realized it was much bigger than we thought and it overfilled the room,” he says. “Over the years I kept banging my shin on it. Everybody would bang their shins on it; my mother-in-law, my father-in-law would be bleeding. It was horrible!” he recalls with a laugh. “But this thing was so heavy and so big we didn’t know where to move it. Then one day last year I had just banged my leg on it once again and the phone rang. It was the Lupus Foundation asking if we had any furniture to donate. I said, ‘Yes!’ I was so thrilled to get rid of that thing.”
➋ Buy Quality
Everybody wants nice things, but price often makes us second-guess purchases, especially when inexpensive options seem so easy and attractive. But these shortcut choices may haunt you for a long time, as Boulder business owner Judy Amabile of Polar Bottle discovered.
“When I was young I bought a bunch of cheap stuff that I thought was just temporary. But I still have it all because I need it and never got around to replacing it.” She quips: “I think you should just get one thing you really love and sit on the floor until you can afford to get what you really want.”
➌ Buy the Real Deal
You want a specific type of piece, but you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for. A knockoff or reproduction seems like a good option. But, once again, Amabile made some purchases she regrets: “I bought a traditional dining room set that was ‘old style’ but not an antique. It just looks cheesy to me. I bought a fake marble coffee table…hate it! And it was expensive, too. I could have bought the real deal for the money I spent.”
➍ Buy Functional Pieces
Having functional furnishings seems like a blatantly obvious goal. However, when choosing and buying pieces, it’s easy to get caught up in other features, as Sanford Baran, a senior technical consultant in Boulder, found.
“We were trying, in theory, to maxi-mize the number of people able to sit in a really small [living room] space. We thought the simple lines of two white armless couches made sense,” he explains. “The couches are nice to look at, but when you go to sit on them they’re not comfortable. Turns out arms are a pretty important part of a couch,” he says with a chuckle. “You need them to smush into; you can’t lie down without them! The upshot is we don’t use the room very much, which is too bad.”
➎ Buy Comfortable Pieces
You walk into a home-furnishings store and a gorgeous piece catches your eye. You check the price tag and are thrilled to find it’s within your budget. But before you get too excited, stop, close your eyes and touch it. Once you get that piece home, how it feels will become just as important as how it looks. Boulder freelance graphic designer Samantha Jordan experienced this firsthand.
“I bought these cool pillows from a catalog that were a lovely golden wheat tone. When they arrived I loved the color so much that I kept them even though I knew they were a little scratchy,” she says. “But when a dinner guest made some comment about how he could use them as a loofah for the bottoms of his feet and he preferred to move to a different chair, I knew I made a mistake.”
Of all furnishings, a bed is probably the most important to have comfortable, as Debbie Keown, a nonprofit volunteer and Niwot resident, found out the hard way: “My husband Mike complained so badly when we had to sleep on our own guest-room bed. Everyone should always sleep on their guest-room’s bed to see if it’s comfortable…I guess, unless you don’t want your guests to come back!”
➏ Buy Pieces That Wear Well
You see a “look” in a magazine or catalog and think, “That’s what I want.” But it’s important to consider if those pieces will look the same after some normal wear and tear. Some materials are just not durable, as Keown now knows. “I wish I’d never bought glass-topped anything,” she states emphatically. “As a wedding gift we got a gift certificate to Marshall Field’s, so we went out and bought a glass dining table. After the first scratch it was ruined. A scratch in wood furniture makes it look antique; a scratch in a piece of glass makes it look like you picked it up from a Dumpster.”
Upholstery choices are especially important, as interior designer Laurie Sankey of Lauren Gray Design in Denver explains. “I had a client who really wanted a coastal look and insisted on stark-white upholstered chairs with skirts,” she says. “I knew it was going to be bad, but they said they’d be careful. Well, you can’t tell animals to be careful; you can’t tell guests to be careful. Life goes on. Between the shoe polish and the pet hair, those skirts got pretty ugly. After a while they couldn’t even be decently cleaned anymore. We ended up taking off the skirts and replacing them with a border.”
➐ Buy Low-Maintenance Pieces
Who wants to spend a lot of time cleaning? When picking out furnishings, cleaning requirements are rarely considered. And yet, when you live with a piece day in and day out, you become intimately aware of its cleaning needs, as Keown discovered.
“I once bought a coffee table with four glass panels,” she laments. “It should have just come straight from the factory with crumbs shellacked to the space between the glass and the wood, because I was never ever able to keep those free of crumbs.”
Interior designer Barbee James of Details Design Studio in Boulder shares this experience: “Lots of people like roller shades that have a shutter look,” she says. “But the thing is, when they’re open, sometimes bugs get inside them. Then, when you roll up the shades, you smush the bugs in there. So now you have widow coverings with dead bugs scattered throughout. The only way to get them out is with a vacuum attachment. And who wants to spend their time vacuuming dead bugs out of their window coverings?”
➑ Buy Pieces You’ll Love Now—and Forever
We all want to love what surrounds us, but will we love it in the future? You can’t know for sure what you’re going to like down the road, but there are ways to play it safe.
As Smith explains, “Lots of young people really want a look that is very ‘now’—like a hot, trendy color. When I see them buying an upholstered piece in a very striking color, I wonder if they’ll like it in five to 10 years. I think throw pillows or other accessories would be a better way to go with that color, but that’s me.”
As Baran summarizes, “Things are a mistake if you just don’t end up using them. Furniture is expensive, so you want to get it right. You try to get it right. But you make mistakes, and you live and learn.” Or you learn to live with them.