In the world of furniture craftsmanship, the perception of durability and craftsmanship has taken a significant shift over the years. Gone are the days when people regarded their furniture as lifelong companions, pieces that would accompany them through various stages of life. The idea of a dresser serving a grown kid throughout college or a dining table destined for Thanksgiving dinners with future grandchildren has evolved into something quite different today.
Modern consumers often embrace a disposable mindset, readily replacing last year’s Wayfair acquisitions with whatever trend floods their social media feeds. This consumer behavior is deeply intertwined with an industry that prioritizes cheap labor and lightweight materials to bolster profit margins and maintain competitive prices.
Even upscale furniture retailers aren’t always a guarantee of quality. An acquaintance of mine, who once designed for several of these giants, recently ventured out to establish his own studio. Reflecting on his previous employers, he remarks, “Without revealing any trade secrets, their profit margins are high, but the quality is sorely lacking. I enjoyed substantial discounts as an employee, and even then, I refrained from making any purchases.”
To grasp the decline in furniture quality, it’s essential to understand what most furniture comprises today. In the mid-20th century, more affordable pieces were typically crafted from American plywood, with pricier options made from solid cherry or oak, often produced domestically or imported from European countries like Italy or Denmark. Nowadays, the market predominantly features Chinese-manufactured particleboard and plywood. Products advertised as “solid wood” might turn out to be rubberwood with veneer glued onto them.
These changes stem from a common motivation: cost reduction. Rubberwood, for instance, is cost-effective due to its status as a byproduct of latex manufacturing, but it’s vulnerable to decay. Chinese-made wood products, while inexpensive, exhibit considerable quality variations.
The entire industry has undergone such a profound transformation.
Today’s emphasis on cheaper materials and construction coincides with the global journey most new furniture undertakes. Container shipping’s widespread adoption in the 1970s eliminated distance as a significant manufacturing concern. It became incredibly efficient and cost-effective to transport goods worldwide.
China and Southeast Asia offer the cheapest labor, making them prime locations for mega furniture companies to produce their goods. To further reduce expenses, they strive to pack as many products as possible into each shipping container, resulting in “flat-pack” furniture that consumers must assemble at home, often amidst a sea of Allen wrenches and screws. Every inch and every pound counts when you’re shipping things. Consequently, lighter and thinner materials become preferable, even if solid oak were plentiful and affordable, because they facilitate efficient shipping. Moreover, designing items that can be disassembled and reassembled while retaining longevity proves to be a formidable challenge.
This situation perpetuates itself in a continuous cycle. Cheap manufacturing practices have conditioned consumers to expect low-priced furniture with a short lifespan. Consequently, only a few shoppers are willing to invest in high-quality items even when they are available.
Designers are understandably disheartened by this trend. Social media plays a significant role in perpetuating this disposable culture. Rather than viewing furniture as an investment and seeking timeless styles, consumers often gravitate toward trendy pieces that match the current online aesthetic. Items like a bright fuchsia “Barbiecore” sofa might lose their appeal before the release of a movie sequel, and the cost of reupholstering them could surpass that of purchasing an entirely new couch.
This cycle, in turn, contributes to a significant waste problem. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly 10 million tons of furniture ended up in landfills in 2018.
If you wish to avoid discarding your furniture after each move, there are ways to identify products that will endure. Price alone does not necessarily indicate quality. Fully assembled or domestically made pieces are good indicators of longevity. Furniture constructed from solid woods like walnut, oak, or cherry, known for their durability, will almost certainly stand the test of time.
While custom furniture guarantees quality, it often remains beyond the reach of most due to its cost. Board & Bolt, is currently handcrafting a dining table according to precise specifications for a client in Boulder. This table, made of solid maple, will cost the client $10,500 and require 90 hours of our labor. The customer’s goal is for the table to become a cherished heirloom for her family and loves the idea that she is creating a lasting legacy through her furniture choice.