How to find the right furniture for the job

Before you give your heart to a piece of upholstered furniture, make sure it's the real...
(SHNS photo courtesy Nell Hill's)
Story by Mary Carol Garrity
(Scripps Howard News Service)
Wed, Jun 19, 2013
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Before you give your heart to a piece of upholstered furniture, make sure it’s the real deal by asking yourself these four key questions.

1. What kind of relationship are you looking for?

The first step toward a happy match is to set some expectations for your relationship with your new furniture. Realistically, how long are the two of you going to be together? How you answer will determine what kind of frame you pick to go under all that lovely upholstery fabric. I know relationships can be complicated, but when it comes to saying “I do” to a piece of furniture, you really only have two options:

• A long-term marriage: Do you want a sofa or chair that will stand by you in good times and bad, never sagging or swaying, going lumpy or limp? Then pick a high-quality frame. That means one that’s kiln-dried with eight-way, hand-tied coil springs. If you’re looking at a sofa on a showroom floor, quiz the sales associate about how the piece is made. If they don’t know, that’s a bad sign.

Try this test: Pick up a corner of the sofa and see what the body does. If it stays really stiff and straight, with no twisting or sagging, it’s a quality frame.

Another test: See if the legs and arms of the sofa are made from the same piece of wood. It the legs screw into the base, that’s a sure sign of a lower-quality sofa or chair.

One more test: See if the pattern on the upholstery fabric lines up where the cushions rest against the back of the sofa. If it’s a stripe, for example, the stripe should run straight from the pillow up the back of the sofa without jogging out of alignment.

While top-quality frames aren’t cheap, they are a good investment. You can reupholster them time and again, saving you lots of money in the long run. A quick note on furniture reupholstering: I hear folks say that it costs just as much to have a piece re-covered as it does to buy a one new. I have not found that to be the case. With an affordable upholsterer and a midrange fabric, you can easily re-cover a sofa for less than you’d buy a lower-quality new one.

• A seven-year fling: Not everyone wants to spend decades with the same sofa. I can totally understand that. It may be a matter of changing tastes and styles, or of budget. On the plus side, you’ll pay considerably less for a lower-quality sofa -- $1,000 or more -- because of the time, skill and materials necessary to craft better furnishings. If you decide to go with a less-expensive piece, I’d recommend against having it reupholstered when the fabric starts to wear out. Most likely, the frame will be falling apart, too.

2. How will the furniture be used in your home?

Where your furniture will be placed and how it will be used are huge considerations when deciding what type of piece to get and what kind of fabric you want to cover it with. Is this the place where you will watch TV every night, or will it be more for show in a rarely used room? Are pets, kids or messy husbands going to be sitting in it? Where will the furniture be placed -- by a sunny window, for instance?

Your answers will determine how durable a fabric you’ll need. If the piece won’t get a lot of use, the sky is the limit on fabrics. You can pick the weight, pattern and texture you like best. But the more it’s used, the more durable, and camouflaging, the fabric has to be. Unfortunately, your choices begin to narrow a bit as you go up the durability scale.

Outdoor fabrics can be found in a wide array of colors and patterns, and the texture doesn’t feel scratchy and stiff like it used to back in the day. It’s an ideal option for seats where people will be eating or pets will be sleeping. I also recommend linen for people who want a fairly durable fabric. I had two printed linen chairs in my home for 12 years, which doubled as the dog’s bed, and finally replaced the fabric because I had grown tired of it, not because it looked bad.

One word of caution: Don’t assume that because a fabric you pick is more expensive that it is more durable. Some upholstery fabrics are higher-cost because they have a bigger pattern with a large repeat.

Another tip: Remember that solids can show spills more than patterns. If you spill a few drops of wine or juice on a solid-color sofa, it can leave a ring.

3. What kind of fabric fans your flame?

The color and style of your upholstery fabric is a very personal decision. Right now, at Neil Hill’s, customers are loving solid fabrics, from trendy brights to timeless classics like cream-and-navy. We’re also selling lots and lots of geometric prints and stripes. Another fun trend I’m seeing are traditional patterns, like a Williamsburg, reinvented using wild, bright colors, making them fresh and new, not stuck in the past. Floral fabric is back, too, but today’s florals are color-saturated with cleaner graphic elements.

If you are upholstering a big investment piece like a sofa, avoid a pattern you will grow tired of quickly. I recommend a solid or muted pattern in a classic color. Then, bring in color and pattern through accent pillows. I get a bit more daring on occasional chairs, maybe picking a graphic pattern, floral or plaid. For an upholstered ottoman, indulge in a bold, statement fabric. These pieces are the perfect place to experiment because they are inexpensive to re-cover if you ever grow tired of the look.

4. Do you want to trick up your furniture with trim?

People always forget about the role trim can play in taking furniture from ordinary to extraordinary. When you go with custom furniture, the sky is the limit.

A classic look is to trim your furniture in the same fabric used on the cushion. It looks clean and simple, and is always a safe choice.

Right now, nail-head trim is big. It’s a great way to add some sizzle to a piece of furniture.

Furniture, style
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