Retail vs. Custom High End Furnishings

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Jul 25, 2012 | Linda Merrill

High end carpentry furniture by Thos. Moser via Thosmoser.comWe’re all aware of the plethora of stores out in the marketplace that carry a wide range of furnishings at many price points. For the vast majority of consumers, furniture is purchased in a big box retail outlet on an as needed basis. Many of us also scour flea markets, antiques and vintage shops and our parent’s attics to help stretch the budget.  Beyond the standard retail stores such as Crate and Barrel, Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn, there are also stores that serve a higher-end “luxury” consumer such as Roche Bobois, specializing in modern French upholstered furniture and accessories, and Thos. Moser, a custom carpentry company with shops in Philadelphia and other cities, who specializes in fine wood furnishings handmade using traditional methods.

Generally speaking, furnishings that are available to the retail market are to varying extents mass-produced in order to be able to deliver the finished piece in a reasonable amount of time. Depending on the store, the popularity of the piece itself and the price point, some pieces are fully made and sitting in a warehouse ready to be shipped, while others are assembled to order from components that are mass-produced. In order to maintain cost efficiencies and timeliness of delivery, most stores have limited design options available. For example, Crate and Barrel usually offers a sofa or upholstered chair with a choice of 3 or 4 “Stock Color” fabrics that are available immediately. Their “Stock Plus” option features a broader choice of color ways in the same fabric and at the same price point, however the piece will take longer to ship as the final upholstery is done to order.

For an up-charge customers can also select fabrics from other lines and in some cases the customer can bring in their own fabric to be used on the piece, known as COM or Customer’s Own Material. Customers pay a base rate for the un-upholstered piece plus labor to do the upholstery work, plus they are paying for the cost of the fabric coming from a third party. While this is usually the most expensive option, it’s one that offers a wide array of choice when it comes to the final look of a piece.

What is generally not an option for retail purchases is the size of the piece.  If you’re very tall or very short, the depth of a sofa or chair can make or break the comfort you will experience. A few years ago, I was sofa shopping with a client, and we both really liked the look of a Restoration Hardware roll arm sofa. At that time, they were only selling 48” deep sofas, which is about a foot deeper than the average sofa. Both my client and her husband are short people, as am I, and we looked like little kids sitting in the super deep RH sofa, our legs literally stretched out in front of us.  Needless to say, we had to seek other options. And this is the case with nearly all furniture purchased at retail – the options are limited to what is available, any changes cost more money and significant change, such as to size or finish, may not be available at all.

Beyond the standard retail options available in the marketplace are furnishings that are available through the “trade only”, meaning a design professional such as an interior designer or architect. These furnishings are sold at reduced prices to the designer, or design shop, which marks them up to the consumer in order to make a profit. These furnishings are often highly customizable, especially when it comes to fabrics, wood finishes and finish details such as nail head or ribbon trims. In some cases, pieces can be ordered with special sizing for depth of a chair or height of a table, but not in all cases.

If having total and complete choice over the design, size and materials is important, the best way to achieve this is to go the full custom route with a fine craftsman. Most very good upholsters not only re-upholster Grandma’s armchair or dining chair slip seats, they can build custom furniture to order. Of course, this is not a budget option. Building a quality piece of furniture that is solid and comfortable takes quite a bit of experience. I worked for a time for a custom upholstery firm and the owner was regularly asked to reupholster a chair or sofa that he had originally built for the client ten or even twenty years prior. Because the piece was made to order, to the exact requirements of the homeowner and their house, they were happy with it for much longer than one might be with a piece that wasn’t custom built. The fabric may have needed to be “refreshed” but the underlying piece was still perfect.

A less expensive retail piece might not make it to the ten or twenty year mark and over time, but the replacement costs might add up to or even exceed the price of the custom piece. In some cases, you simply might not be able to find what you’re looking for out in the marketplace and having a piece custom built is your only option. A few years ago, I did a living room remodeling and decor project and envisioned a Parson’s style side table that fit perfectly in the space between the sofa and side chair and I wanted it to come in an embossed leather, or faux leather, in either white or blue/green. Of course, this was a very specific design and needless to say, I couldn’t find it, or a suitable substitute anywhere. I drew up a plan and got pricing from my upholsterer. The final cost to my client was less than $1,000, which in the custom world is very reasonable, especially as the result was completely one-of-a-kind and perfect for the setting.

As with all things, you get what you pay for. Custom furniture made by a true craftsman is just that: custom. It’s also transparent in that you will know exactly what goes into the piece, the quality of the materials and labor practices of the maker. Mass produced retail furniture, which is what fills the vast majority of our homes, comes with relatively few options, but does come with more budget friendly pricing. The choice, as they say, is yours.

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