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Why Some Furniture Stands The Test of Time

By Joseph F Carroll

The best details to look for are those that immediately catch the eye and evoke some sort of passion within us to want that piece of furniture

I recently received a call from a reporter who was writing an article for a luxury jewelry magazine. She said her editor had asked her to investigate what elements contributed to “timeless design” and why certain objects endure the test of time while others become just passing fads. She thought that since I had written some books on furniture styles that I might be able to come up with some insightful answers.

At first I was a bit taken aback. I’ve been in the industry more than four decades but I don’t consider myself an authority on style by any means, I asked her to send me the questions and I would contact more knowledgeable friends in the industry to get their opinions. I contacted about a dozen or so furniture designers, manufacturers and retailers whose opinions I respected.

Their responses were naturally varied and somewhat personal, but after reading them carefully some common themes developed.

What is good furniture design?
Good furniture design is a combination of function (which differentiates it from art) and it is always a pleasure to view. It must have longevity (which differentiates it from fads). Good design always exceeds one’s expectations of comfort and functionality. One furniture designer I know says that it is “balance, rhythm and unity that can be manufactured”. Most important, it must stand the test of time.

What specific elements in furniture design are consumers drawn to?
Consumers are drawn to furniture by its scale and proportion. They are enticed by the finish, the beauty of certain veneers and solid woods, carvings and moldings, as well as hardware detailing. The consumer is lured in various ways: a fantasy evoked by the product, the reflection of a pleasurable memory, a treasured period of time in their life, or an image that relates to someone loved or respected. The furniture piece must be of a scale that fits both the home and the user or meets either a functional or special need.

Today’s consumer is drawn to furniture that is straightforward and not overly ornate.

What inspires some of the top furniture designers?
No designer works in a vacuum. He or she takes the elements of an idea or a design and modifies it to fit another product. The creative excitement of furniture design comes from the discipline of translating good design to an alternative end. Some designers are inspired by a desire to improve the quality of life of the individual who uses their furniture.

Thinking of a best-selling style of furniture, what element of it causes the consumer to respond positively?
The Louis Philippe style has bridged several generations at all price points and demonstrated that it can be tastefully utilized in multiple decorating scenarios. Another example is classical Chinese accent furniture that blends so well with almost any décor style – from 18th century to start contemporary. Most consumers respond well to designs where they recognize the style.

What is about color, shape and texture that attracts the consumer?
No two people perceive color, sound or texture exactly alike, so the furniture industry seeks designs that please the targeted market. This is the reason most adults love the music of their youth and do not relate to the music of their children’s generation. In today’s home furnishings market, it is still the neutrals and earth tones, accented with pastels, that seem to generate the best response from the consumer. The more disposable a product is, the more one can take a risk with the latest fashion colors. As a general rule, the more the furniture costs the more conservative the buyer becomes when selecting the piece they put in their home.

What details should one look for in good design?
• Good design, or an appealing color combination, can be attractive without being expensive.
• Do not be a design snob. What is gaudy or pretentious to one person may be elegant to another.
• Remember that tastes and design preferences are usually in place before we reach the age of 25.

The best details to look for are those that immediately catch the eye and evoke some sort of passion within us to want that piece of furniture. Second guessing what the buyer wants often destroys a good decision. People have good basic instincts and if furniture “feels good” it is right for the owner.

All a retailer has to do is expand on the fantasies we already have with the proper accessories and presentation to give us that feeling of “I want to live like that”. This is a concept that Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and many other famous designers have understood and taken to a form of art unto itself.

Joseph F Carroll, is the former publisher of Furniture/Today and one of the original founders of the IAFP (International Alliance of Furnishing Publications). He is an international marketing consultant.