How much does quality cost?
October 27, 2013 2:45 PM   Subscribe

Since moving cross-country several months ago, I've been gradually furnishing a small studio apartment. I decided that, for once, I'm not going to buy Ikea everything, and maybe try paying a little more for higher-quality quality items. Almost every one of my purchases has backfired. How much more should I be prepared to spend before I see reliable improvement in quality over Ikea and other lowest common denominator options?

  • I buy a well-reviewed dresser from Overstock that costs rather more than a comparable one from Ikea. The dresser comes with terrible instructions and dozens of tiny screws, bolts, and fasteners, and almost no pre-drilled holes. The blisters on my hands take weeks to heal.
  • I buy a wool carpet from Overstock. The carpet never stops shedding. Everything in my studio is covered in small bits of hair.
  • I buy a designer floor lamp that costs several hundred dollars. The counterweight on the horizontal arm isn't heavy enough to outweigh the shade. The knob that adjusts the joint is too smooth to tighten properly. The brass finish comes off on my hands. The lamp is too bulky to return.
  • I buy a hand-made table on Etsy. The table arrives after weeks of delays. The table has extremely primitive, shoddy construction. One leg is about 10 degrees off from straight. Another leg split while I was attaching it with the provided screw. The finish on the table top is already chipping.
  • I buy a not-inexpensive watch from Uniform Wares. After about two months of wear, the "quality leather" band starts peeling apart and needs to be replaced. It is not covered by the warranty.
These experiences make me wonder if "paying for quality" isn't really a matter of paying 50% to 100% more for an item and more of a matter of paying 5-10 times more. Am I wrong, or is there actually such a thing as "affordable quality" in the world of furniture and durable goods in particular?
posted by Nomyte to Shopping (52 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
The problem is that there's not a direct relationship between price and quality, and the only way to ascertain it is to do research (including being able to check the stuff out in person) and/or find trusted sources (like friends who seem to have a knack for buying stuff that lasts that they like).

Personally I would never buy furniture or carpet unless I could see it first.

I see a few problems here (and I'm glad you put in all the detail): is still bargain hunting - it's overstock - stuff that didn't sell, for one reason or another. Sometimes that reason is because 'whatever it was, wasn't all that great' and sadly, unless there are a lot of fairly detailed reviews for something, you have to take online reviews with a grain of salt.

That designer floor lamp? Rent a U-haul for $20 and return it - it's not too bulky to fit in a van and schlep to the store or somewhere you can ship it back.

Etsy can be a huge crap shoot.

How much would another leather band cost?
posted by canine epigram at 3:06 PM on October 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't think framing it as a percentage of cost to quality is the way to view it; lots of low quality goods have high cost.

All of the examples you've listed, except one, are online purchases. When it comes to furniture, it really helps to be able to feel and touch the item, and in the case of the table, other custom pieces.

This is an area where shopping local is a boon.

I've bought custom tables from acquaintances who make furniture for a living and have seen comfparable pieces for double what I paid. And paid flea market prices for some mid century furniture that's lasted years. But the only commonality between them is I saw them in the flesh before their purchase.
posted by furnace.heart at 3:08 PM on October 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I can't answer in general, but I used to know a custom artisan furniture maker who built extraordinarily beautiful pieces. I asked him once how much I had to spend on a dining room chair to get one that wouldn't go wobbly on me within a year, and he said "Three hundred dollars, per chair. A $200 chair will last you twice as long as a $100 chair, but a $300 chair will last a lifetime." That was twelve years ago, so prices have probably gone up.

On the other hand, I spent $200 on a solid oak mission-style coffee table fifteen years ago that has held up amazingly well, through all the depredations a household of four can possibly put it through. That thing has every joint still solid. But a coffee table is under many fewer stresses than a chair.

If you want my advice, buy antiques -- anything that has lasted fifty years in good condition is likely to continue doing so.
posted by KathrynT at 3:08 PM on October 27, 2013 [14 favorites]

Buying second-hand is the way to go to maximize your quality/dollar spent ratio, but it takes time and patience. And you need to see things in person first.
posted by oinopaponton at 3:10 PM on October 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

For larger pieces, "affordable quality" usually means "someone else owned it": estate sales, yard sales, thrift stores, Craigslist. But as others have said, you need to see it to get a sense of the construction and materials -- and you also need to know the signs of good work.

The watch band is easier: get a Hadley Roma replacement (or whatever style you want) from Strapped for Time.
posted by holgate at 3:12 PM on October 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: The lamp was also purchased online (from a brick-and-mortar designer lighting store that has an online storefront).

Given where I live, "shopping local" limits me to shopping at West Elm, Crate & Barrel, DWR, and so on.

I do know the signs of good construction. My grandfather was a carpenter in his spare time. But I've never seen a piece of furniture I actually wanted to buy at a garage sale, and time to trawl estate sales is definitely not something I have any of these days. Not to mention the fact that I don't have a car.

It sounds like a lifetime of Ikea furniture for me it is.
posted by Nomyte at 3:25 PM on October 27, 2013

The best way to do is is learn about how quality furniture is made and how to identify good construction. Quality and price are not necessarily related when you're not buying very pricey furniture. IKEA, for example, isn't necessarily poor quality. There are a lot of inexpensive, yet very well-made options there, but if you don't know how to recognize them, you could end up with cheap particle board nonsense. There are also a lot of mid-priced options around that look good from a distance but are made and finished with cheap materials.

I agree that buying second hand and learning some basic repair skills will yield you the best bang for your buck. See the furniture, look at construction and materials, and know how to take care of basic cosmetic issues and repairs. If you're going to buy items you have to assemble yourself, invest in proper tools so that you don't injure yourself during assembly.
posted by quince at 3:26 PM on October 27, 2013

Another option is wait for a while, then go somewhere not-very-local to you, rent a truck, and buy $5000 worth of furniture all at once. Most good furniture stores will store stuff for you for a couple months, so you could potentially have picked it out in advance.

And yeah, Ikea actually punches way above their cost for value. Their shoddiest stuff is still actually pretty good and usable, and typically dirt cheap. I am constantly disappointed in the price/performance ratio at more traditional furniture stores.
posted by contrarian at 3:40 PM on October 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have found some beautiful pieces on Craigslist-for instance, two leather Italian couches and two red leather swivel rockers, both well made, fabulous condition. I was shopping for new at the time but these were better quality than I could afford new. I'd just start stalking Craigslist, and if you find something that looks promising...get a ride from a friend or a taxi or something and check it out in person.

But I'm not sure that's really your question: are you looking for online sources of high quality furniture? Or are you wanting a magical price point where things change? I'm not sure that the latter is going to reliable for you.
posted by purenitrous at 3:41 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The dresser comes with terrible instructions and dozens of tiny screws, bolts, and fasteners, and almost no pre-drilled holes. The blisters on my hands take weeks to heal.

If you're putting it together yourself with an Allen wrench and instructions it's not going to be high quality. High quality furniture is not generally going to come to you flat-packed.
posted by Justinian at 3:42 PM on October 27, 2013 [26 favorites]

How were the reviews on those items?
- cheapish wool carpets from Overstock are almost guaranteed to shed forever. Did the reviews tell you otherwise? Carpets from Ikea and Overstock are virtually the same quality, unless you're paying quite a bit more and have evidence that it is a well-made and well-reviewed item.
- Etsy table - did that maker have previous reviews? What happened when you voiced your disappointment?
- Designer light - was this also from somewhere like Overstock? Have you written a very thorough email, complete with photos or other details, to their customer service rep? Have you called the head office? That is unacceptable.

I've had really good success buying online, but I can usually tell quality based on materials, previous reviews and detailed photos.
posted by barnone at 3:44 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

In my experience, if you're putting furniture together, ikea is much easier than other furniture at that price point. It's made and designed for simple home construction. Pieces you get off overstock or walmart may be better or worse in quality, but they're almost always harder to put together.

That being said, furniture that comes pre-assembled isn't always better made. A lot of it is simply pre-assembled in a warehouse somewhere (I had a friend who worked assembling furniture in a high-end furniture warehouse) and likewise made in China.

You can get better furniture in this price range, even from ikea, if you look for real wood rather than particle board. Actually, "real wood rather than particle board" is a good rule generally. I've found wonderful pieces at Pier 1 and world market and even found a great real wood crib at walmart. Otherwise, I'd adjust your expectations according to price point. For example, I wanted a white shag rug in my bedroom, but knew I couldn't afford something awesome so figured I should get something affordable and easily laundered. I got two small throw rugs for less than twenty dollars each at target. They're washable and if they need to be replaced, no skin off my nose. Likewise, the tiny, $17 ikea desk I got to hold my sewing machine. Not every piece needs to be expensive to do its job.

Regarding etsy, you should take a look at articles like this to figure out common scams. Generally, it's worth searching alibaba for the same items you're looking for from etsy. I've found many near-purchases on there at a fraction of the price--a sign that etsy sellers are reselling cheaply made Chinese items.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:59 PM on October 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

If you're shopping largely online, Pottery Barn is a step up and I've never been unhappy with the quality of what I've bought there. (Also if the Pottery Barn stuff you buy is adequately expensive, they COME TO YOUR HOUSE AND BUILD IT FOR YOU. Yay!)

Surely there is an actual furniture store near you that carries grown-up furniture. They almost all have a "scratch and dent" section where you can get nice stuff pretty cheap. I've bought three chairs from actual furniture stores and they've all been floor models, which are around 30% off. These are generally either local stores or else small regional chains, so we can't really tell you where to go but you can go peruse. Furniture stores deliver ... although sometimes it takes two weeks.

There's also usually one second-hand store in the area that carries nicer stuff. I don't bother with garage sales either, but I'll head to the nice second-hand furniture store when I'm in the market for something. I pay more than I would at a garage sale or Salvation Army, but they've already picked it over so it's only the good stuff. Ask around to find out which store it is. I just got the World's Sturdiest Desk Chair for $25 at mine; similar-style (but less well-built) chairs start around $80 at places like Target, so I'm pretty pleased even though I'm sure I could have paid $10 or $15 if I found it myself at a garage sale. I'm happy to pay a $10 premium to the guy at the used store who does all the scouting so I don't have to.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:01 PM on October 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Buying on Overstock isn't technically buying quality. (I have gotten some good deals on Overstock, but I'd never expect something super excellent from them.)

Given where I live, "shopping local" limits me to shopping at West Elm, Crate & Barrel, DWR, and so on.

I guess I don't get why this is a problem? West Elm and C&B will be nicer than Ikea for sure. Or is the issue that they still too pricy? If that's the case, keep an eye open because both will have great sales after the holidays. Sometimes, you just need to wait and save up and keep an eye on sales -- I seriously waited a YEAR for an arm chair at C&B to go on 20% off sale. It was still expensive, but it's really nice and will last me literally for the rest of my life.

Furniture is like anything else: you probably can't have fast, cheap, AND good. Cheap + good usually requires some work, whether it's waiting out a sale or going inside every Goodwill in the area to see what they've got every couple of weeks.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 4:02 PM on October 27, 2013

The trade-off is time. The best pieces are second hand unless you are buying directly from a quality craftsperson. An example would be going to an upholstery store, buying one of their salvaged furniture frames and then paying for custom upholstery. In that same vein, going to a yard sale and buying a bare chair frame and then going to the upholstery store to have it done the way you desire. Surprisingly, depending on your Metro area, then Craigslist is a definite option. The usual Craigslist best way to buy applies e.g, photos and non-sketchy behaviour. Another option is getting a "buyer" who knows your taste and budget and is in it for the thrill. Not many people know this, but certain thrift stores like ARC Value Village actually have buyer services.

Online purchases are ALWAYS a crapshoot. Never buy furniture sight unseen unless you really know the source. Here is another option since you do not have a car, consider going to a cabinet maker or bare wood furniture. It is delivered and made to order. I am writing to you from a $100 custom wooden table built for laptop with room for equipment. Antiques stores will also drop off so lack of car is not necessarily a constraint.
posted by jadepearl at 4:05 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

PS -- shopping for lamps is absolute, utter bullshit and to get a sturdy lamp you must spend an absurd about of money. Either buy cheap ones at Target or BB&B or Ikea, or be prepared to spend AT LEAST four times that amount for lamps. We have put in or replaced four lamps in the past 18 months and I did exhaustive, exhaustive research online and in person and LAMPS SUCK. But seriously, if you can get a basic floor lamp for $50 at Bed, Bath, & Beyond, you're talking at least $200, probably closer to $300, to get one of good quality. Lamps are RIDICULOUS. $20 for a desk lamp at Target? At least $80 for a high-quality one that'll last, possibly $150.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:08 PM on October 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: But I'm not sure that's really your question: are you looking for online sources of high quality furniture? Or are you wanting a magical price point where things change?

Either one, really. Or a price guide to what "real furniture" made from actual solid wood costs? From the above, it sounds like "thousands of dollars."

Etsy table - did that maker have previous reviews?

Yes, many, over the course of several years. From what sounds like satisfied, corporate customers! I've written a complaint, but haven't received a response yet. Given that freight shipping for the item was over $100, I'm not hopeful that the resolution will be anything other than "either keep the item or return it to the seller at own expense."

No, the item is definitely hand-made and not a relabeled Chinese designer knockoff. At least give me some credit.

Generally, as a former top 50 reviewer on Amazon, I expect that online reviews are generally pure noise, regardless of how numerous or detailed or positive, but I was unpleasantly reminded of this in my latest shopping misadventures. I aimed for the things that seemed like the surest bets and I still got total crap.

Designer light - was this also from somewhere like Overstock?

No, it was from a place like DWR or YLighting.
posted by Nomyte at 4:09 PM on October 27, 2013

No, the item is definitely hand-made and not a relabeled Chinese designer knockoff. At least give me some credit.

It wasn't intended as an insult. Many "handmade" etsy items are cheaply made abroad. For example, this woman who outsourced pieces constructed in Bali (and also sold them on overstock). Many people don't actually know this.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:17 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Forgive me if you've thought of this, but the more expensive items at Ikea can be Quite Nice indeed (i.e. don't get a Billy Bookcase, get one of the solid wood ones that is 3-4 times as much) - nice enough that getting nicer furniture than that new would be a considerable expense.

I think, in some ways, you have been cruelled a bit by the category of items you bought - in that to be better than Ikea in those categories, you are looking at quite expensive stuff (cept maybe the table, that sounds like just plain ole bad luck).

For example, a good quality rug can be *really* expensive, esp if it's not contemporary, but like Turkish etc.

I can't speak to the American experience, but here in Australia, if you want really good furniture, you're buying something that someone made locally, preferably from local wood. That someone is if not an artist, an artisan, or qualified carpenter, and they are bloody, bloody expensive. My sister was looking at a dresser in an gallery/store that sells some of ceramics. It was lovely, wonderfully constructed and beautiful. It was also 1500 dollars.

I think the challenge is that Ikea punches so far above its weight re: price/performance, that to get something with better performance, you need to pay way more. i.e something that is 30% better could well cost you 300% more. But then, I love Ikea, so what do I know?
posted by smoke at 4:20 PM on October 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

I would suggest spending a little bit of time going around to various stores and just looking at their furniture--opening/closing doors, opening/shutting drawers, looking at the finish, wobbling it. You'll get an idea of what's high quality and what isn't. IKEA actually has some surprisingly sturdy and nice solid wood items, and sometimes higher end places have less-nice stuff. Look for solid wood, dovetail joints, wood instead of chipboard or cardboard inside drawers, smooth stitching on upholstered pieces (and use of natural materials instead of foam/Dacron in cushions), etc. DWR is probably a good place for this as some of their reproductions are made with higher quality than others. Room and Board is another chain that usually has well-made items that would be useful for acquainting yourself with the "tells" of high-quality furniture. Spending some time in person will give you keywords to look for online ("solid wood", "brass handles" instead of "brass finish" etc.)

You are correct that large items like dining sets, couches, dressers, media centers etc. do typically run in the low thousands of dollars if you are paying full price for solid wood and good construction. However, they last forever if cared for even minimally, which is why the secondhand market is so great for these items. Also, if you can wait a while, get on the mailing lists for sales at the stores you like.

Shopping for lamps is indeed utter bullshit. I have yet to find any place that has correlation between price and quality. I've given up and just started at Target/IKEA and working my way up until I find something I like.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 4:20 PM on October 27, 2013

Response by poster: I guess I don't get why this is a problem? West Elm and C&B will be nicer than Ikea for sure. Or is the issue that they still too pricy?

No, I'm perfectly happy with their price point. I just couldn't find the sort of thing I wanted after combing through the local showrooms, and the actual materials and craftsmanship didn't look like much of a step up from Ikea at all: same reliance on metal fasteners, same terrible (or non-existent) joinery, same shoddy attention to detail. If the material is actual solid wood, it's mostly unstained, unfinished, and "rustic."

Also, thank you, everyone, but I know what solid wood, good joinery, and quality upholstery look like.
posted by Nomyte at 4:25 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Take a trip up into SF, and visit the Room and Board store. It is much more expensive than Ikea, but to me, this is really good quality furniture. You can look at their prices online first to see what to expect. They deliver (and their delivery people are amazing - they arrive on time, they know the furniture inside out, will bring it right into your place and construct it in the room).

I have a mixture of Ikea, Room and Board, Crate and Barrel and CB2 pieces in my home. The Room and Board stuff is by far the best quality, but the other stuff is good enough. The only furniture I would ever buy online is designer stuff where you know exactly what you're getting (e.g. herman miller or whatever).

Room and Board have a sale every year that starts on December 26th btw.
posted by Joh at 4:26 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A friend of mine owns a nicer furniture store (not top-end, but nicer ... mid-career professionals making high five/low six figures is their general target market) and she priced a couch for me when I was couch shopping; with a discount for being friends, a standard 3-seat couch -- very simple, lower-tier fabric -- would have run $3500. I know her stuff lasts, as her family's owned the store for like 70 years, and most of the people I grew up with had at least one thing from there. It lasts 25 years with no problem, it's very well-made, you can reupholster the frame forever and ever, but a couch starts at $3500.

(PS, I did not buy the couch worth as much as my car)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:34 PM on October 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Given where I live, "shopping local" limits me to shopping at West Elm, Crate & Barrel, DWR, and so on.

Your profile says you live in Palo Alto. There are plenty of furniture stores nicer than those in the Bay Area. Based on the brands I have in my house and like, I personally would start at Flegels. But those brands are much more expensive.
posted by primethyme at 4:38 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you want something that's a step up from Ikea but you can't stomach the prices of West Elm or Crate & Barrel. Unfortunately, the place you want doesn't exist. Good furniture costs real money (yep, like in the low thousands) unless you buy it used. Keep in mind, though, that as obscene as those prices sound, they're for goods that will last for your lifetime. A Mac won't last for five years, yet some of them cost as much as a gorgeous armchair you'll have when you're 80. Just something to keep in mind for perspective.

Your cheap option is to scour Craigslist, Estate Sales, etc. I know it's annoying and time-intensive, but that's life. I got a sweet Crate and Barrel sofa on CL - had to rent a truck and everything, but five years later I'm still happy I did it. (Meanwhile, the Mac I got around the same time, that cost 4X what the sofa did, is completely dead.)

Your mid-tier option is to choose just one piece of furniture to splurge on (an armchair or sofa would be my choice) and spend $$$$ on that, but buy everything else at ikea or similar places. If you do that, I recommend making that pice one that will stand out (either through color or cool design elements) and then lean towards neutral in your other, cheaper furnishings.

Also, here are a few legitimately cheap things you can do to make your place look nice:
-Paint (if allowed by your landlord - mine deducted what I spent on paint from my rent)
-frame pictures or prints
-tablecloths and curtains make a big difference
-throw pillows and other looked visual accents can also help (just keep it simple)
posted by leitmotif at 4:40 PM on October 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

From the stores you've mentioned, I gather that you prefer mid-century modern style furniture.

The truth is, for these items, even used you are going to be paying a huge premium because of both their collectability and craftsmanship. For example, I love ekornes stressless chairs, but even old crappy ones go for about a thousand dollars used, and you often still have to pick them up or pay a high premium for shipping. I've had friends who managed to find awesome tricks for locating fairly priced used Hollywood Regency or mid-century modern stuff, but usually it was, like, tiny local ebay dealers or people on craigslist or the like. And yeah, estate sales are always an option, but you have to work to find furniture like that.

Otherwise, if you want quality and don't want to spend exorbitant amounts (like $4,500 for a real, new Eames lounge chair), your best bet is stuff that you probably think is butt ugly. Stuff from the antiques section on craigslist, for example. This table is probably better quality than anything I'd get at ikea, even if it's not to my taste, either.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:41 PM on October 27, 2013

I second Joh. I furnished our entire home with Room and Board. I didn't, however, set foot in a showroom - I bought it all online after ordering some swatches of the leather upholstery for the couches I wanted so I'd have a good idea of the true color.

It was an amazing experience - delivery was on time, everything was set up and assembled in short order. This was 8 years ago and every single piece is in good shape and still delights me. I love Room and Board.
posted by hilaryjade at 5:12 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: From the stores you've mentioned, I gather that you prefer mid-century modern style furniture.

One last comment: I don't care if it's certified authentic Mid-Century Modern™ or Second French Empire or whatever. I just want sturdy, functional furniture that:
    a) doesn't look like ass from up close, and
    b) isn't the frumpy, pastel-washed crap that appeals to people who read Colonial Homes and Southern Living.
Case in point: I live in a tiny studio. I want an accent piece to put in the middle of it — a square coffee table. Bonus: I want to be able to sit on the floor, put my laptop on the table, and code or play games. I bought this (look, there's an issue of Wallpaper on it!). It was shit.

I would settle for a similar, better-made table like this in the circa $1000 range.
posted by Nomyte at 5:35 PM on October 27, 2013

I would settle for a similar, better-made table like this in the circa $1000 range.

In terms of furniture, the difference between $800 and $1000 is trivial. That's really the same price range.

I understand that you don't think your tastes are mid-century modern, but a table labeled "mid century modern design" (as that one is!) is going to command a higher price even if the quality isn't appreciably higher. And, really, ikea is the budget option for mid-century modern design (the poang chair is a rip-off of something like this), followed by retailers like C&B and R&B.

High quality construction in mid-century design is expensive, is all I'm saying. If you want a really simple, nicely constructed square coffee table, an option might be to find a local furniture maker to make you a square parsons table, something like that. But otherwise I'd expect price points in the several thousands per piece, not a thousand or below.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:45 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might get some helpful advice if you send in a reader question to Apartment Therapy, though like any specialist website there are bound to be the usual responses that go something like "oh, it's totally easy, you can get great furniture for extremely cheap if you just spend all of your available time on it."
posted by en forme de poire at 5:51 PM on October 27, 2013

Best answer: You are right about west elm not being worth it. It isn't better than ikea, nor is anything from retailers like that who sell furniture that you assemble at home.
The "good" stuff at ikea is way way better than the things at crate and barrel, and much cheaper.
I have a solid wood coffeetable from ikea that is now 9 years old and doing great, and am glad I spent $250 for it instead of $80 for a particle board one that would have lasted maybe 2-3 years.

I just moved and decided to buy real, grown up bookcases. I was determined not to buy at ikea and get solid wood. The prices were so silly for them, and the designs so ugly that I ended up back at ikea, getting the solid wood hemnes shelves for less than what a higher end particle board bookcase cost on amazon.
So I guess my advice is to buck up and accept ikea as your store and embrace their excellent quality to price ratio for their higher end items.
posted by rmless at 6:05 PM on October 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Etsy is really the right place for this.

I'm sorry you had a bad experience, but I've bought dozens of things there and it's always been fantastic. You get hand-made, a choice of artisans from all over the world, and in general it's a community full of people dedicated to satisfying their customers.

As for cheap stuff, I find Target to be a *major* step up from Ikea- it exceeds Ikea's absurdly poor build quality, but mostly the design is just better to a staggering degree. I'm sitting on my $400 Target couch right now- got in 2007 and it's still fine-ish.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:12 PM on October 27, 2013


Craigslist, craigslist, craigslist. Wait for it, and be flexible on what you get - but craigslist. I get extraordinary stuff on craigslist by checking regularly (just have a search that you refresh regularly for new hits), making reasonable offers, and going and buying the things. Only look for items from nicer stores. I've outfitted my apartment with CL upper end finds for years - in fact, I JUST made my very first furniture store purchase last week (I'd been looking for XYZ bed in a certain finish in a certain size for 3 years and gave up) but if you're willing to be flexible (and you should) CRAIGSLIST.
posted by arnicae at 6:41 PM on October 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

Also, eBay?

I just bought a living room set that retails for $6500 for $300 on ebay. Yes, I have to drive 25 miles and haul it off myself, but there can be some great used finds on eBay as well.
posted by arnicae at 6:42 PM on October 27, 2013

These people , or others like them, will make you precisely the table you want. Depending on your materials choices and detail, expect to pay something in the low-mid four figures or more.

If you have a strong opinion about what you want, and shopping isn't doing it, just get your idea made for you.
posted by janell at 6:43 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree that it's a pain when you don't have a vehicle to drive around and shop for furniture. I don't have a vehicle, but I have had luck with online classifieds (Kijiji) and thrift shops. I've hired a 'man with a truck' online to go pick it up, once I've found something great. I think you can get far better value with used furniture than you can from anything from Ikea et al.

I've come to accept that having my home style the way I want is going to be a long project. I keep my eye out for key pieces here and there, and make sure I can pick stuff up (renting, hiring someone) when I need to. I've never bought something I absolutely loved from Ikea. I did, however, find an amazing antique tufted couch by the side of the road this year :)
posted by Pademelon at 6:51 PM on October 27, 2013

a price guide to what "real furniture" made from actual solid wood costs?

It costs what it takes to allow the maker to make a decent living, more or less. Factor in the cost of materials, tools, workshop space and keeping inventory, along with hours of labour, and there you go. If you buy used-but-not-antique, then you're getting a discount on a lot of that because you're buying furniture that was likely made in the US when there was lower-end domestic production, and the market wasn't split between high-end cabinetmakers and imported stuff.

Here's a piece from the NYT on Michael Dunbar, who's been making Windsor chairs for 40 years and teaches others how to do it. His chairs take 10 hours to make, and sold for $700 in 1999.

IKEA's solid wood pieces are really pretty decent for what they are, but you may be happier spending a four-figure sum on something designed to your own spec.
posted by holgate at 7:10 PM on October 27, 2013

I've actually had the opposite experience when furnishing my place. I visited about 10-20 different furniture shops, and I literally ended up buying each piece of furniture from a different shop, but nothing at all from Ikea - they simply weren't competitive in terms of price / quality.

Here's my summary of the experience: Ikea is the McDonalds or food court of the furniture world. If you want to do furniture shopping properly, you'll end up going to 4 different shops that only do beds, you go to 4 different shops that only do dining tables, you go to 4 different shops that only do couches, etc. While Ikea is a popular "one stop shop" jack of all trades master of none thing, that people do when they want to save time and only visit one shop, but it's inferior value in most cases. I think when it comes down to it, you really need to spend the time and effort pounding the pavement, looking at and feeling and using every piece of furniture by hand. Most of the problems you mention could be averted if you had seen the item and spent 10 minutes with it beforehand.

I'm not sure what price range you're looking at, but the couch I thought was the best came from Ikea ($3500) it didn't look that great initially but it really grows on you the more you sit on it, my neighbour has it, the quality of the leather is just top notch, I ended up with a cheaper $2500 couch from a local manufacturer and you can clearly tell the Ikea one is better (though, not so much better that I would pay an extra $1000).
posted by xdvesper at 7:12 PM on October 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree with everyone who says price doesn't always equal quality. Just because something costs $5 to manufacture, doesn't stop someone from charging $2,000 for it anyway (the wonders of the marketplace). Though if something costs $2,000 to manufacture, persay, it's not likely to be sold for $1,700, let alone $5. It's more difficult to find high quality things at cheap prices, than it is to find low quality items at high prices for sure.

Definitely see things in person before buying. I've learned not to buy off of Ebay, where it can be difficult to return things because of individual seller's policies, just because items look different in photos than they do in person. Prioritizing purchases is also a good strategy.

I wish quality was more easily had too...I'm waiting for a really good couch to come along. A good couch is amazing, but they are so expensive!
posted by tenlives at 7:24 PM on October 27, 2013

It sounds like you like to have a hand in building your furniture, but I can't take seriously furniture that comes in a box. The only furniture I would take assembled is a craftsman that has assembled it. Somebody who has put their mark in it because they care that much about it. That is the kind of quality you are looking for, I think.

I haven't read all of the comments here, but for metal furniture, welds rather than rivets. For wood furniture, tongue and groove rather than staples, screws rather than glue (at joints). Any furniture built with those kind of underpinnings is probably going to be good. For dishes, classics that can be dressed up, prints of art you like and has a timeless flavor (do you like countryside scenes - try Vermeer prints, do you like abstract, try Klee prints), for music, everybody is remaking the classics, so your favorite contemporary music and the classics they have patterned their music on.

Also classic styling. Furniture and clothing and architecture and art and culture all have a close relationship in our society. Look through some books to see what grabs you. Is it neo classical? Is it art noveau or art deco? Is it Early American? Minimalist? Find your voice in the styles that have excited people throughout the ages. They're called classics for a reason.

Even down to writing implements - a good, simple Parker pen is well made and a symbol of classic style. I think it is basically true that natural materials rather than synthetics are a mark of quality and last longest. So cotton curtains and sheets, soft woolen rugs and natural fabrics for upholstery. You can find these kind of quality items in droves at yard and garage sales. Also the names that have lasted through time are also good bets. Timex, Broyhill, Serta, Pfalzgraf. This isn't IKEA of the 2013 or Scandinavian Design of the 80s. Where is any of that stuff?
posted by CollectiveMind at 7:29 PM on October 27, 2013

One other thing. Consider enlisting the help of professionals for advice. Rug sellers, furniture repair shops, watchmakers and repair, cooking stores. These people live and breathe their stuff. They know what is good and what is crap and they can give you good advice on what to look for and what to avoid, and maybe even steer you to people they know selling good quality stuff that won't break your budget. They might give you that personal touch that will make scanning Craiglist or wandering through a consignment store a lot easier and more productive.
posted by CollectiveMind at 7:42 PM on October 27, 2013

Craigslist, craigslist, craigslist. Wait for it, and be flexible on what you get - but craigslist. I get extraordinary stuff on craigslist by checking regularly (just have a search that you refresh regularly for new hits), making reasonable offers, and going and buying the things. Only look for items from nicer stores. I've outfitted my apartment with CL upper end finds for years - in fact, I JUST made my very first furniture store purchase last week (I'd been looking for XYZ bed in a certain finish in a certain size for 3 years and gave up) but if you're willing to be flexible (and you should) CRAIGSLIST.

I'm basically just going to riff on this, but this is your answer. As soon as i saw this comment i went "THIS!!1!" in my head.

My entire house is outfitted with very nice stuff from craigslist. Stuff that, especially a couple pieces i have, regularly sell for >$1500 at local boutique "curated collection" furniture shops that have pickers/buyers and resell estate sale finds and such. My couch cost $150 and will probably last the rest of my life and i've gotten multiple compliments on it. My armchair, which is the most comfortable and nicest looking chair i've ever owned was around $5-600 including getting it recovered, but similar chairs are over 2 grand for one that doesn't look as nice. I have a nice desk, vintage office chair, another chair, awesome kitchen/dining room table, bed frame, foot of bed bench, dresser...

A lot of it is sort of B+ from up close, not like A appearance/condition wise if you really shove your face right up to it, but it all looks nice in my place and is very structurally sound and overall cosmetically good. If you hold out or are willing to pay to recover things you can shoot way up to the quality and condition ladder.

You can also hold out for stuff in nicer totally 100% shape, and most importantly you get to really look at the condition, overall appearance, and how it actually sits in a room(or how your laptop sits on a desk/coffee table, etc) before you pay for it.

Personally, i would never order a piece of furniture on the internet ever again. I have never, ever been totally happy with something i bought online. Even when i paid what seemed like a decent amount of money. I also don't think i'll ever buy anything that isn't either metal/glass or solid wood from a "take away and assemble" shop in general.

Start looking on craigslist, and be willing to really drive around or jump up and go get something on short notice that looks awesome. Get a zipvan membership if you don't have a fair-sized car. Look every single day for stuff you want, and look at stuff on neighboring cities craigslists that are a couple hours drive away.

I for instance, jumped up and went and got my couch early on a sunday and ended up tying it awkwardly to my cars roof, and picking up a friend to help me move it into my place. Be ready to just jump up and jam like that.

There's a lot of really, really nice stuff out there on craigslist. I really can't overstate that. Like stuff that's selling for sometimes as little as a sixth of retail or even less. I've seen tables like the one you linked too, but that are you know, actually old and not built like shit.

And yea, that's kinda the biggest benefit right there. You can very easily find and end up with the real deal stuff that modern clones are based off of.

Craigslist is the store you want, and the prices are often less than ikea.
posted by emptythought at 7:47 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just another vote for Craigslist and IKEA furniture made with actual wood (not the cheap veneer stuff). Our house is filled with sub-$400 pieces of furniture. (Sub $100, really, except for the bed from West Elm bought with a coupon, the bar cabinet originally from C&B, and the rug. And the piano, if you count that as furniture.) My couch is comfortable, leather, clean, works great with my living room, and $100 delivered!! Our huge 9'x11' carpet has held up well and looks gorgeous and was $170.
posted by ethidda at 8:03 PM on October 27, 2013

Do you have a friend who enjoys furniture shopping? I would, if I had the time, greatly enjoy searching through stores and online listings for a perfect coffee table for a friend. That sounds heavenly, shopping for someone else. Interior designers do this for a living, and you can go to one locally and ask them - their fee may be covered by the industry discounts they get - or if you have a friend who enjoys this, buy them dinner at a nice restaurant for their time. When we renovated our flat, we had a friend with amazing taste offer his help as something he truly enjoyed (he flips apartments for fun). We ended up using his recommendations for shops and people, and if I had to redo - actually, I do have a wall to redo, so I know who to invite for dinner this week!
posted by viggorlijah at 8:14 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might look into used office furniture stores. There are places where all they do is buy up lots of furniture from giant corporate office buildings, including some pretty nice stuff from executive suites, and resell it for often quite low prices.

Also, yes, lamps are in general bullshit. For a basic sturdy floor lamp, try Lowe's; I've gone through many floor lamps over the years, and the ones that have lasted have been the torchieres with thicker poles and a three-way switch of the kind sold at Lowe's and similar home-improvement stores (you can sometimes find them at office stores, too). For desk can't beat some of the stuff Target sells.

The best, longest-lasting furniture I have, though, was originally stuff owned by college students—furniture found in the alley during peak move-out periods, stuff found on a nearby college campus during move-out, stuff bought on the Facebook Marketplace from college kids, stuff bought from friends who were graduating... Talk to friends and relatives who are moving, too.
posted by limeonaire at 9:09 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

My house is outfitted entirely with antiques and stuff we built from plans on Even if you hire someone to build you furniture, these plans are very straightforward, sturdy, and fixable. I can't plug Ana White enough.
posted by Athene at 11:41 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The materials are what matter, and be prepared to put in some online-shopping time. I furnished my apartment almost entirely online and have been happy with the quality of the furniture, mostly because everything is made of natural materials so it's wearing well. However, it took a lot of half-watching-tv-half-browing-furniture-sites to do it and I still had some missteps. What I look most closely at are what the object is made of and what problems the reviewers ran into -- there's always something, but I wanted to see if anyone was griping about quality. My budget was much smaller than yours, but my goal was also "better than Ikea" and my mobility was also constrained (me + sub-compact car = nope, not hauling), so hopefully this will be helpful:

-- My rugs come from Overstock -- I also looked for 100% wool, and the larger one is a flat weave ($200?), so I haven't had a problem with shedding. You might have just had bad luck. Or maybe were punching above your weight, in that traditional wool rugs are family heirlooms and priced to match, so even what seem like fairly expensive ones are really considered "knock off" quality?

-- Most of the real wood furniture I could find was either hideous or hideously expensive so I actually went with a lot of metal. For example, I used a metal table from CB2 for my entertainment center ($180). My coffee-table is a metal Indian style tray table I got from Overstock ($120).

-- For the larger furniture that I really needed to be wood, I got my dining chairs from Overstock (all rubberwood, so not the highest quality in the world but high enough quality to look and feel solid) ($170), got my dining table secondhand, and otherwise I've only been happy with Ikea. I literally couldn't find things of comparable quality that I could order new except through them, when it came to larger solid wood pieces, and every time I tried it would turn out to be mislabeled particleboard (my bed, $300 from amazon, my china cabinet, $250 from Overstock).

-- For upholstered furniture, I wanted leather but it was out of my budget and second-hand upholstered stuff is something I avoid since the bedbug scare of I ended up shopping at Macy's. My mom worked there when I was growing up and I still think of it as the height of class and sophistication, so grain of salt, but I find their upholstered stuff to be much better quality you can get anywhere else for anything near that price. It seems like you can either pay about the same at Ikea or pay thousands and thousands at Pottery Barn. You probably won't be sitting on your sale-priced Macy's couch when you're 80 (unlike your stuff from Pottery Barn?), but they've got a good selection, white glove delivery, the furniture looks nice, and it's wonderful to lounge on. Huge step up from Ikea (I *hate* Ikea upholstered stuff. Slept on a second hand Ektorp love seat fold-out for a year and ugh I am Scarlette O'Hara holding a clump of dirt and saying "I'll never go hungry again" with that shit). I shopped the sales, so I ended up with a Lane recliner chair for about $250 and a three-seater couch for $800. If price isn't as much of a concern to you, one random rich guy I talked to at a party shocked me by saying that his sign of "having made it" was to buy a "real" couch and it was $5000. He probably bought it about 15 years ago? I embarrassed myself by being so visibly shocked and we kind of segued the conversation off to something else after that, so I can't get more specific.

-- For lamps and other household goods (pillows, glasses, etc), I always shop at Marshall's/Ross/TJMaxx. Those odds and ends can take a while to accumulate but a lot of the stuff there tends to be muuuuuch higher quality than what I see at stores like Target and Bed, Bath, and Beyond, it's cheap because they're trying to get rid of it, and sometimes you hit on stuff that is so uniquely weird/beautiful that it's mind-boggling someone decided to mass produce it. For a nice table lamp, I would expect to pay about $50 at a place like that. There are also some online stores that sell smaller pieces (end tables, etc) that might be worth trying -- I got a nice little solid wood table from Home Decorators for under $100, for example.
posted by rue72 at 1:17 AM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's no such fixed thing as "quality," but there are many qualities that people will pay more for -- durability, sure, but also styling, immediate availability, exclusivity or convenience might compel a particular customer to open their wallet wider than they would otherwise. If you're going to pay more, make sure you're getting your kind of quality and not someone else's.

If you live in a reasonably urban area, the local private secondhand market (garage, moving and estate sales and Craigslist) are the best way to get good stuff cheap because the sellers are typically trying to get rid of something they don't want around anymore, and there aren't all that many customers vying for a given item; if they don't sell it cheap, they don't sell it at all, which they don't want. Often the best items are the best deals, because they're being sold by someone who's relatively affluent, whose time is valuable and who therefore has highest opportunity cost of waiting around for a buyer willing to pay more. But yeah, it takes time to shop this way and it really helps to have a vehicle. Short of the occasional bit of luck, you'll have to pay for good stuff one way or another.
posted by jon1270 at 5:11 AM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Craigslist can be a mess if you don't have very narrow search terms. The grid view has helped a lot, but there's still a lot of junk and really ugly stuff amid the gems. So my recommendation would be to narrow down the specific brands and, if possible, items you are looking for, then craft a Craigslist search. You can set up an RSS feed or Google alert for your search so it lets you know when new items hit the site. I usually restrict my search terms to titles, because there is so much keyword spamming in the body of ads.

I very strongly agree with the Room & Board suggestion above. Their website has a clearance section and customer reviews. Crate & Barrel also makes nice stuff for the price, particularly their upholstered furniture (sofas, chairs), which used to be made by Mitchell Gold (I'm not sure if that's the case any more). I think these and Pottery Barn are steps above from IKEA but worth the prices they charge, hitting that sweet spot you're looking for. They are ubiquitous so relatively easy to find on Craigslist especially if you are patient.

I've also had good luck with Stickley, Baker, and Henredon. The former is Mission-style and the latter two tend to be a bit old-fashioned, but they also offer more modern and streamlined designs. The quality is impeccable.

Amish-made furniture may be another option, along with custom carpentry. For example, in Chicago I've used a cabinet shop that makes beautiful hardwood bookcases, cabinets, and tables. Surely there are excellent custom options in your area who could hook you up if you're looking for a simple table with a $1000 budget.
posted by payoto at 5:25 AM on October 28, 2013

I have been thinking about this whole question (even though you've marked it answered! It's such an interesting one.)

First, I wanted to recommend some bookcases: these folding stacking ones. You can get them from many vendors (the Container Store has them in a dark finish) but I think they're all made by the same factory, as I got some from Crate and Barrel and some from a random internet vendor that had the same maker's stamp. They're solid wood, they stack and they last. Don't get the "mission" style ones with the extra dowels, or any kind with fiddly bits - those tend to have particle board pieces and the construction isn't as good. Just get the basic hardwood kind. I have literally ten of these shelves purchased at different times over the past twelve years. All have been moved at least twice, some four or five times. They are in great shape. They really do stack easily and stay stacked - they come with metal plates to hold the bookcases together, but I usually just let the grooves in the wood and the weight of the shelves do it. Mine have all been stacked relatively heavily with books for years. IMO, the natural finish ones are best - the dark finish can get a little dinged up (but not badly; I'm happy with the ones I have).

Here are the ones from the Container Store. These are some of the few things that I think are both good and cheap. It's true that you'll pay $160 plus shipping for a (two shelf-unit) bookcase, but that's not actually so bad - it's real wood and good quality and not hideous.

If I were furnishing an apartment from scratch on a budget and literally had no access to antique stores or decent thrift shops or small vendors, what I'd do is this:

Up front, I'd spend my money on:

- the best Ikea table top and legs I could find (we got a glass table top and metal legs about seven years ago and it's a really pretty attractive and durable table, much nicer than you'd think). This will be a keeper table.

- three stools for the table and one chair with a back, probably also from Ikea.

- folding stacking bookcases

- a couple of those poang bentwood Ikea chairs - they're attractive, classic and pretty comfortable

- a mid-range twin futon mattress (probably one of those with springs inside the foam), mattress cover in an attractive color and bolsters, plus plywood - I would make a daybed/sofa out of these because that will be cheap and will double as a guest bed.

I would also look at Ikea for an end table and possibly for a big wooden blanket box. (We got a couple a few years ago - they aren't easy to find on the website, but I think they are still in production. They have a lid and are sort of a wooden lattice so you can use them as a bench or a table.) Also, the "Stockholm" products are pretty okay.

Things I would not buy:
- any kind of cheap dresser. Dressers require a lot of work to build and a lot of parts to fit together. Cheap ones are still pretty expensive and tend not to work well. I would buy some reasonably attractive bins to keep on the closet floor for my socks and tee shirts and so on, and hang my other clothes. I'd save up for a nice dresser from (assuming you only have access to mass market) Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware or Design Within Reach in solid wood.

-cheap upholstered furniture. Again, upholstered furniture takes a lot of work and a lot of parts. I would sit in my poang armchair, probably with my feet on an accompanying poang ottoman, and contemplate saving up for a couple of nice club chairs, maybe from Design Within Reach. I would also look at DWR's cheaper, smaller sofas, of which this is one. You'll still need to spend ~$2500, but it will last.

-cheap wool rugs (I recognize that it's a little too late on this front). I would either go rugless or get rustic-looking cotton rugs, maybe the nicest ones at Ikea. Alternatively, you can spend ~$300 on Ebay and get a nice, small older and used Chinese or middle Eastern wool rug. I know, because I've done it. The key is to look for an older mid-market piece, like something that a solidly well-off family might have bought from a good department store in 1960, not something that a really rich person might have bought from a specialist importer that is perfect and beautiful.

The simpler a thing is and the more you can be sure that it's made of honest materials - real wood of decent quality, cotton, wool, linen, even good-quality resin, plastic or glass - the easier it is to spot quality. Something with few working parts, like a table, can probably be gotten cheaply if you look carefully. Something with a lot of working parts, like a dresser, probably can't be gotten cheaply unless you luck out or spend a lot of time hunting for the perfect secondhand thing. I am fortunate - I got a good vintage dresser at the Salvation Army a few years ago before bedbugs were really an issue. I hope against hope that I will never need to replace it.
posted by Frowner at 7:24 AM on October 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Alternatively, outdoor furniture can sometimes be gotten at high quality on sale at the end of the season. I wouldn't see any reason that the linked chairs couldn't be used indoors, honestly, and they're pretty decent.
posted by Frowner at 7:28 AM on October 28, 2013

Is there an "unfinished wood furniture"-type store near you?

There are a couple near me in New England, and they sell surprisingly nice stuff; they make their money by offering the finish work as an up-sell. There are display pieces they finished, and I know they would do a better job then I would -- but sometimes my own humble work is worth the savings.

- - -
Somewhere -- probably MetaFiter -- I read the idea that "You don't always get what you pay for, but you always pay for what you get." I took that to mean that "more expensive" doesn't always mean "better," but "better" almost always means "more expensive."
posted by wenestvedt at 9:19 AM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

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