Have you walked into a furniture store lately?
Let me rephrase that: Have you been able to walk into a furniture store lately?
Until yesterday, it had been several years since I’d darkened the door of a place that sold wooden furniture. My last visit to a furniture store was an Arhaus here in Cincinnati. It’s a pretty high-end furniture store, a bit more casual than Baker and Ethan Allen.
After about 30 minutes, I thought that the employees were going to ask me to leave the store. While many of the pieces looked nice from a distance, I was just appalled by the wood selection and finishing jobs on these pieces, which became noticeable as you got closer.
There were tabletops glued up from boards that joined cathedral patterns to edge-grain patterns, over and over in the same top. I was most shocked because these could have been corrected easily by rearranging the same boards.
Doors had rails and stiles made using wood that had grain running every which way. And the panels in the center had the same problems as the tabletops. But the manufacturers had a solution: they obscured their poor wood selection with a dirty opaque stain/paint/gunk.
By this point, I must have sounded like I suffered from Tourette Syndrome because I was muttering to myself quite a bit.
My first thought was that the furniture was the result of slipping quality controls as furniture manufacturing moved overseas. But I don’t think that’s entirely it. I think that the vast majority of consumers cannot see the pieces the same way I see the piece. And this is probably the reason that many custom furniture makers struggle to make a living. Customers can see the overall form of a piece (which can be quite pleasing). They can see the smooth film finish (which is always pleasing). And they can see some construction details (“Oooh look, dovetailed drawers.”). And they can see the price.
I don’t think they can really see the grain or the particulars of the finish/sanding job, or the construction details that I see , such as a shiplapped solid-wood back. This is the curse shared by most woodworkers I know. We can build our projects to a much higher level of craftsmanship than a manufacturer because most of us don’t have to make a living making furniture.
But it sours us forever on buying commercial furniture.
So yesterday I walked into a Pottery Barn outlet store, and I hoped that maybe things had changed. But I only lasted about 15 minutes before I had to leave.