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Why some furniture stands the test of time PDF Print E-mail
Written by Joe Carroll   

ImageI recently received a telephone call from a reporter for a luxury jewelry magazine. She was investigating the elements that contribute to "timeless design" and why certain objects endured while others became passing fads. She thought because I have written a few books encompassing a number of furniture styles (the Perfect Home series) that I might be able to provide insightful answers.

At first, I was a taken aback. I've been in the industry more than four decades but don't consider myself an authority on style by any means. So, I asked if she would send me her 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 what 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 it is "balance, rhythm and unity that can be manufactured" and, most importantly, 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. She is lured in various ways: a fantasy evoked by the product, the reflection of a pleasurable memory, a treasured period of time in her or her family's life, or an image reminiscent of 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 furniture style,
what elements cause 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 attract the consumer?

No two people perceive color, sound or texture 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, the more one can risk using 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 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 the consumer's passion 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 the consumer already has - using the proper accessories and presentation to give her the 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 made into an art form of its own.

Joe Carroll, former publisher of Furniture/Today, is now president of McNeill Communications, a High Point based agency specializing in marketing, advertising and public relations. He can be reached at

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