It seems simple in theory – head to the furniture store, find a sofa that’s comfortable and that matches your décor, and you’re good to go, right? Wrong! From lumpy cushions to the wrong scale for a room, the opportunities to blow it when buying a sofa abound.
Today we talk to Nashville interior designer Marcelle Guilbeau, who not only offers furniture selection as a service, but also has a book in the works called The Soulful Home that’s filled with advice about discovering your style and making selections for your home that reflect your authentic self. Here, she offers insight into five common furniture buying pitfalls — as well as solutions to avoid these costly mistakes.
5 Common Furniture Buying Mistakes You’re Probably Making
Pitfall #1: Buying Seating on the Internet
Sure, it looks beautiful in the photos. Yes, the reviews say it’s comfortable. But chances are, the details of that sofa’s construction aren’t explicitly spelled out. And when it comes to buying a comfortable sofa with – and this is key – staying power, it’s critical to pay attention not only to how it looks, but how it’s made. After all, who wants to pay $2,500 for a sofa only to need another sofa in less than five years? From the fabric to the frame to the seating deck, you want to pay for quality if you want your sofa to last.
“One thing people do that is so common, they’ll either walk into a store or even worse, look online, and they’ll fall in love with a look,” Marcelle says. “Then they may be smart enough to go into the store and say, ‘You know, I just don’t know what that feels like.’ They’ll print a picture and go to shop locally, or some people don’t go further than buying it on the internet.” And this is a mistake, Marcelle points out. Big-box furniture stores often hook customers by placing lower-priced items up front, but when it comes to a sofa, the lowest price often doesn’t equal the best choice. What that lower price tag generally means is lower-quality fabric, frame or fill. “Some have decent frames, but the cheapest version has cotton on it,” Marcelle explains. “The cotton fabric is going to ruin that sofa, and you’ll spend almost the same amount you spent on the sofa recovering it. It becomes easier just to press the reset button (and buy a new sofa). But if you care about the environment, that sofa’s going in the landfill.”
Another option is to buy vintage. “If you’re on a budget, or if you’re buying for a second home, purchasing vintage can be a great option,” Marcelle shares. “And it’s better for the environment.”
So, what’s the best way to approach sofa buying? Ask questions, Marcelle says. If a sofa is American-made, seek out kiln-dried hardwood that’s been properly joined for the frame. If you prefer a modern or platform look, metal frames are generally sound. Ask questions about the fabric’s fiber content and durability, which are facts a reputable seller knows or can easily find out. If you’re seeking American-style plush comfort, look for a deck with eight-way, hand-tied springs rather than synthetic webbing. And as for cushions, ask detailed questions about the fill. Though it is helpful to sit before buying, a sofa might feel very different on the showroom floor than it will in your living room after two years of daily use. Be sure you know what’s inside and how well it’s expected to hold up.
Pitfall #2: “Great Deal” Case Pieces
“You can easily find a $300 chest of drawers or bedside table or lamp table,” Marcelle says. “All day long you can find them on the internet – for even less than that. What I say is, that’s fine as long as you’re going to do nothing but look at it. It’s probably not going to have much in the way of dimensional stability.” And, as with sofas, Marcelle adds, the key to longevity in a piece of wood furniture is “the stuff you don’t see.”
If you’re planning to use a cabinet or chest with drawers on a daily basis, be sure the glides underneath the drawers are made of metal (or grooved wood, which generally applies to antiques), and not plastic. Dovetail joints at the drawer’s corners are superior to joints that are nailed and glued. The cheaper options often put form ahead of function. “Really, they’re mostly just for looks,” Marcelle says. “Those drawers are going to be rickety and hard to open and close. The first few times, they’ll open just fine, but at some point they won’t.”
The bottom line? If that internet-steal of a nightstand is destined for a guest room that’s only used twice a year, it might serve your purposes just fine. But if it’s going into your master bedroom and receiving daily use, be sure its construction is sound.
Pitfall #3: Slipcover Faux Pas
A few more thoughts on sofa fabric. The word on the style street is that slipcovers are back – but beware. Marcelle worked with one client who came to her after buying a white slipcovered sofa. Because the client had children, she’d thought a slipcover was a safe bet. However, when she took the cover off and washed it per the manufacturer’s instructions, she was hit with a nasty surprise. “It was supposed to be washable, but it shrunk up and something in it leached out,” Marcelle said. “She put it back on, and the whole thing was just all wacky and out of shape. And the cushions were already getting lumpy and weird.” The slipcover in question was 100% cotton — a no-no for upholstery fabric.
Once again, the key is to ask questions about fiber content and durability/sustainability. “I’ve also seen where, with lower-cost cushions, somebody spilled something on a light-colored cushion and something leached out that had nothing to do with the spill,” Marcelle adds. “It came from inside the cushion and stained it.”
You don’t want to wind up with “sofa rage” – or even mild buyer’s remorse. “I’ve seen many lumpy sofas and people who want to take a bat and destroy it because they’re so mad,” Marcelle says. “They bought it off the internet, and they certainly didn’t sit in it and had no idea what was in it, and within a year it was just a wreck.”
Pitfall #4: Falling Victim to Trends
In her coming book, The Soulful Home, Marcelle walks readers through the steps to discovering their “soul style,” or their personal aesthetic. A first step in discovering your individual style is to seek out photos that speak to you and gather them together either on a virtual idea board, like Pinterest or Houzz, or a physical collage. “Looking at those pictures, that’s what I call the things that make you feel alive – that’s your aesthetic,” Marcelle says. “Figure out your aesthetic before you go hopping onto any trends. Trends are for you to play with, not to be defined by. Find your style first and then layer on the trends.”
This concept is especially important when it comes to investment pieces. Sure, farmhouse chic is all the rage right now, but unless you’re a bona-fide country gal who’s Joanna Gaines’ missing soul sister, you might want to think twice before investing in a farm-style table or rustic china cabinet your family will use for years, if not decades. Those pieces need to outlast the here and now. Instead, if you like the modern farmhouse look that’s so hot right now, layer rustic accessories onto a base that screams you. And doing this requires some legwork. “There’s something about getting out of your head that happens when you play with pictures physically and create a collage, an idea board – your own dream,” Marcelle says. “It gets you out of your head and into your heart.”
Pitfall #5: Not Seeking Readily Available Professional Advice
Whether you seek out an independent interior designer or approach the on-staff design team at a reputable furniture retailer, it’s smart to talk to the experts before making any furniture decision, big or small. Why? Because these professionals will ask questions to help you see the big picture and avoid getting lost in the small details. “A good designer will help you dial into your lifestyle, the parts hiding under the surface that tell you how durable of a sofa you should be looking for and whether or not you can have white linen,” Marcelle says. “Then they’ll take another pass and say, ‘What colors do you love? What textures? What materials? How do you want to put it together – a white room with pops of color, or saturated with rich colors and textures?’ That’s your aesthetic.”
For example, Marcelle recently helped three different clients – each with their own personalities, preferences and personal “soul styles” – interpret a sofa trend in three different ways. Each client wanted a Chesterfield, and Marcelle helped these clients turn a desire into a reality that suits both their aesthetic needs and lifestyle needs. “They all have very different personalities,” Marcelle says of her clients and their respective sofas. “One is elegant and feminine, one is very masculine and English, and the other one is somewhere in between — a luxurious family room. One has indigo fabric, one an olive velvet and the other a soft gray-blue velvet.”
Another benefit to working with a designer? They do the research for you when it comes to the above advice about knowing what’s inside your furniture. Says Marcelle, “It takes all of the painful, boring stuff off of your plate, in addition to the fact that we’re going to help you get good value for your money so you don’t have to buy the furniture again.”
To learn more about Marcelle Guilbeau Interior Design, visit marcelleguilbeau.com. All images provided by Marcelle Guilbeau.
This article is sponsored by Marcelle Guilbeau Interior Design.