No one expects an Ikea bookcase or West Elm sofa to last for generations, or maybe even to survive another move. But walk into a vintage furniture store and you’ll find all types of old pieces that were inexpensive and mass-produced in their day, yet have still managed to achieve heirloom status.
Furniture isn’t what it used to be. Fifty or 60 years ago, people thought of it as something they’d have for life – a dresser that a grown kid could take to college, a dining table where future grandchildren would have Thanksgiving. Today? Not so much.
Modern consumers are often all too happy to ditch last year’s Wayfair shipment for whatever new trend is sweeping their social media feeds. At the other end of that cycle is an industry relying on cheap labor and flimsy materials to fatten profit margins and keep prices down.
Even higher-end chains aren’t always a safe bet. Michael Brotman has designed for several of them, but he recently quit Big Furniture to open his own studio. Of one past employer, he says: “Without giving away any secrets, their margins are high and their quality is not good at all. I had a big discount working there – I didn’t buy anything.”
To understand the decline in quality, first consider what most furniture is actually made of. In the mid-20th century, the more affordable stuff was typically made domestically of American plywood – i.e., thin layers of wood glued together – while fancier pieces might be solid cherry or oak, and could be made in the United States or come from Italy or Denmark. Today, most of what’s on the market consists of Chinese-made press board and plywood, while pieces marketed as “solid wood” might be rubber wood with glued-on veneer.
These changes result from the same directive: “Everyone is just trying to reduce cost,” says CoCo Ree Lemery, a furniture designer who has worked for brands such as Pottery Barn and West Elm, and is currently a visiting professor of furniture design at Purdue University. Rubber wood, for example, is less expensive than most other lumber because it’s a byproduct of latex manufacturing, but it’s prone to decay. Chinese-made wood products are similarly cheap, but the quality is wildly inconsistent.
“The whole industry has just changed so dramatically,” Lemery says. She describes the constant grind of the design process for major retailers as “soul crushing.” When she dared to create pieces that cost more to make, and thus were more expensive for consumers, she says her employers would take them out of production quickly. “My most successful products, sadly, have always had the biggest margin, so they’ve had the lowest cost.”
Today’s cheaper materials and construction go hand-in-hand with the voyage that most new furniture takes across the ocean. The mainstreaming of container shipping in the 1970s “effectively erased distance” as a manufacturing concern, says Christopher Mims, author of “Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door.” “It’s just so mind-bogglingly efficient and cheap” to transport goods around the world.
Labor is cheapest in China and Southeast Asia, so those are the places mega furniture companies tend to make their products. To drive costs down even more, they aim to cram as many of those products into as few containers as they possibly can. The result: “flat-pack” furniture that you, the lucky consumer, get to assemble at home, amid a mess of Allen wrenches and screws.
“Every inch and every pound counts when you’re shipping things,” Mims says. If you’re trying to transport a container filled with disassembled desks, reducing the thickness of each package by just a fraction of an inch can amount to squeezing in dozens more of them. But that calculus comes at the expense of quality.
For starters, lighter, thinner materials work much better for these purposes – so even if solid oak was plentiful and inexpensive, furniture makers would still probably opt for press board. On top of that, Lemery says, “It’s very hard to design something that can disassemble and assemble and have the same level of longevity that a fully assembled piece can have.”
And now we’re just kind of stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle. Cheap manufacturing practices have conditioned consumers to expect that furniture should be inexpensive and fall apart in a few years. So not many shoppers are willing to pay for good quality even when it is available.
Designers, not surprisingly, find this distressing.
Lemery says the never-ending pressure to keep costs down meant she and her colleagues were constantly making compromises and revising their ideas.
“You are working so ruthlessly to keep the price, that initial cost, low,” she says. “When you get back the drawing from overseas, whether that’s India or China or Indonesia, you’re reworking the drawings to make them cheaper or you are saying, ‘Can we substitute this for this?’ . . . so that I can get this product into a price point that the consumer is willing to pay.”
Brotman laments that some people are willing to shell out “thousands of dollars on jewelry” while balking at spending the same amount “for a piece of furniture that their family sits around and eats around every single day.”
As seems to be the case with most things, much of the blame falls on social media. Rather than seeing furniture as an investment – and seeking more timeless styles – customers often look for trendier pieces that fit the online micro-aesthetic of the moment. A fuchsia “Barbiecore” sofa, for example, might wear out its welcome before the movie’s sequel, and reupholstering it would cost more than simply buying a whole new couch.
“Factories are so much more nimble and they can be retooled very quickly to make a new thing in a new shape,” Mims says. “And then those things are communicated to us more quickly through the internet. It has created a material culture which is just more and more disposable.”
And this, in turn, creates a huge amount of waste. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly 10 million tons of furniture ended up in landfills in 2018.
If you don’t want to trash your coffee table after your next move, designers say there are some ways to know you’re getting a product that will last. High price alone does not determine quality. But buying something that comes fully assembled or that was made domestically are good signs. A piece made “out of solid wood . . . that you’ve heard of,” such as walnut, oak or cherry, will almost certainly endure for the long haul, Brotman says.
He spent more than a dozen years working for Room & Board, and says that “as far as bigger retailers go, I think they’re probably the ones doing it the most, quote-unquote, ‘right'” – as in, they charge fair prices for items crafted in the United States.
One way to guarantee quality is to buy custom furniture, although the expense means it’s out of reach for most. Brotman is currently making a dining table by hand for a client of his new business, Ogden House Studio + Design. He is crafting it to her precise specifications, which include making it 11 feet long so that it easily seats a dozen people. A similarly sized table at a chain retailer might cost about $2,000, and Brotman estimates it would take about a day to make in a factory. This one will run the client $10,500, including the solid maple used to build it, and require 90 hours of Brotman’s labor.
He says the customer told him “her goal is for us to create a table that her kids fight over when she’s gone. And I mean, I don’t want any fighting, but I also love the idea that she’s creating this heirloom.”