Many people ask me if they get what they pay for when they spend large sums of money on furniture, and if good quality can be found at reasonable prices. Buying from some of the high-quality furniture manufacturers will usually guarantee a certain amount of quality, but I encourage everyone to learn some general guidelines for what to look for when shopping for new, used and antique pieces.
Consider how much an item will be used. For example, a sofa in a family room that active children sit on every day will need to be more solidly built than a decorative sofa in a rarely used living room. For upholstered seating such as sofas and lounge chairs, a kiln-dried, hardwood frame that has glued joints connected with dowels and screws will be the most stable. For heavily used items, particle board frames that are stapled together should be avoided, since they are not built to take much abuse and can easily split.
The legs should be an integral part of the frame and not merely screwed on. Additional wood blocks in the corners indicate that the frame has been reinforced and will provide added strength.
The support system is equally important, with eight-way, hand-tied springs the preferable option over a webbed suspension or sinuous spring system, which offers less support.
Also consider the textile options for upholstered pieces, which can include natural cotton, canvas, silk, linen or wool, as well as man-made materials such as vinyl, polyester and nylon. Natural materials tend to cost more than synthetic, but some are delicate and don't hold up under heavy use.
Typically, tightly woven textiles wear better than loose weaves. Furniture that may fade in the sun, come into contact with moisture or be susceptible to stains may be limited to man-made upholstery or washable slipcovers for the easiest maintenance.
For wood furniture such as tables and cabinets, there are two primary types of construction: solid wood and veneered. A veneer is a thin layer of a finished woodgrain over a durable and less expensive material, often particle board or plywood. Both have their benefits and drawbacks. Veneered furniture is considerably cheaper than solid wood and can be much more stable. It also may have decorative inlays and patterns because different species of wood are used to create patterns.
While solid wood furniture can be elaborate and detailed, it is prone to splitting in dry climates or when exposed to direct sunlight. Depending on the style of interior, both types may be appropriate solutions.
Robert Reid is a professor of architecture, art and design at the American University of Sharjah.