( Originally Published 1931 )
FURNITURE comprises the largest and most expensive item in house furnishings and is by no means the easiest thing to buy intelligently. Good pieces are built to last (consider the number of beds still extant in which George Washington is alleged to have slept!), yet they have a very small resale value unless they are genuine antiques. Hence a piece of furniture unwisely bought either will be a continuing source of irritation and regret, or will prove an expensive thing to replace.
Should the shopper be doubtful about the general decorative scheme in the furnishing of her home and lack the experience necessary for making the best choice within her means, she may employ some interior decorating firm; or she can go to any large store carrying an extensive stock of furniture and frankly submit her problem to the store's staff of interior decorators. The latter expedient will cost her nothing, for these advisory services are as readily available to the shopper of modest needs as to the more pretentious customer. Frequently the purchase of an odd chair or table may be a matter of real moment, for it will influence the ensemble effect of the entire room in which it is to be used. If the decorator is told just how the room is furnished he can then suggest the kind of odd piece which will prove the most effective addition. From the selection of single articles of this or any other kind to the furnishing of a room or an entire establishment, is the particular province of the interior decorator, and his advice and suggestions may be freely sought.
In the olden days furniture was made of solid wood. America of Colonial times was a pioneer country using easily available and workable woods: pine, cherry, and maple to a large extent. These woods continue to find use in the popular reproductions of Colonial pieces. The Old World contemporaneous with the starting of our nation was using walnut and oak from its hillsides and was importing mahogany in which such cabinet-makers as Chippendale and Sheraton created their masterpieces.
Having gone through such children's diseases as the mission furniture and golden oak phases, the American furniture industry is now coming of age. It is borrowing heavily from the old masters of cabinet design through "Chinese copies" of their creations, and through inspiration; at the same time it is feeling the influence of the French modernists and is beginning to design for modern American life.
One of the most important contacts with the past is in the widespread use of veneer, both for the opportunities it offers for decorative effects in surface design and for its structural resistance to the terrific atmospheric strain of steam-heated houses and apartments. This structural consideration has led also to a fuller development of the veneer principle in plywood construction.
Veneer is a slice of wood varying in thickness from about 3/32 to 1/32 of an inch. This is securely glued to some softer and more porous wood which forms the structural strength of the furniture so constructed. Two advantages are that the surfaces for several pieces of furniture can be sliced from one beautifully grained piece of wood, and that the gluing process makes a product which resists heat and moisture changes better than all but the oldest and most thoroughly seasoned pieces of solid wood. Walnut, mahogany, and oak are the most common veneers for large surfaces; and rose-wood and satinwood are frequently used for decorative inlays. Gumwood, sycamore, and tulip are the most used structural woods to carry these veneers.
Plywood is the general term applied to boards composed of several thin layers of wood glued together with the grain alternating with each layer. Lightness with strength, freedom from warping and economy are the chief features of plywood construction, which has become the most common material in the manufacture of furniture. It is as beautiful as the grain of the surface layer. Plywood is made in three, five, and seven ply. Five-ply is the generally accepted minimum, and where less is used it is done to save money.
Developments in mass production permit certain economies which help to offset the increased prices of the raw material. Furniture parts are usually manufactured in cuttings, which vary from 25 to 1,000 in quantity. These are then assembled into the completed pieces of furniture as the manufacturer receives orders for them, thus reducing costs for design and labor.
The trade divides furniture into two general classifications, case goods and upholstered furniture, the division being based on the extent to which fabrics are used.
Case Goods : These include tables, desks, bureaus, sideboards, etc. Even where the surfaces of these pieces are of a solid hardwood, the interiors (drawers, shelves, linings of cupboards, etc.) are generally of a cheaper wood.
It is obvious that well-made furniture of this type must hit a happy medium between too loose construction which will let dust in freely and too tight fitting which will make doors and drawers stick. Much depends on the seasoning of the wood, and this is a matter which the shopper cannot determine by any ready test. However, it is a general rule of human conduct that the careful workman will be careful about his materials. Thus the finish and general workmanship of a piece of furniture are at least rough indications of the quality of the materials. Here are some hints for use in selecting case goods.
1. Stand away from the object and get your impression of it as a whole. Generally speaking, a really workmanlike piece of furniture can be spotted at a glance. The surface will look smooth, the color will be even, the joints will appear clean and sturdy, the turnings will be well done.
2. Examine the surface closely to see whether it is checked or cracked. If it is a veneer, inspect the edges with special thoroughness for any indications that the gluing has been done carelessly.
3. Examine the upright supports. A continuous post construction is far stronger than a short leg which has been doweled into the main part of the furniture. If the object is a heavy piece and is designed to carry a heavy load, have it turned over so that you can inspect the bracing. If this seems too light, ask to see the bracing on other and more expensive pieces of similar type and make your own comparison. A chair, book-case, or cupboard which is not rugged enough to do what you want it to do is expensive at any price.
4. Swing all doors to see if they fit correctly and examine the hinges. If the hinges are too light for the weight of the door, it will sag.
5. Open all drawers. These should be constructed with dovetailed joints rather than the simple mortised joints. If there are partitions, see that they are securely joined. Above all, slide the drawers in and out to be sure that they run easily, and rub your finger along the top and sides. If the drawers have been properly sanded, there will be no splinters and the wood will be smooth to the touch.
6. Note whether the important braces used in the construction are nailed or screwed. Of course the latter are the sturdier construction.
Upholstered Furniture : Here much of the structural skeleton is completely hidden and the critical emphasis is necessarily on the texture of the fabric, its cut, and the way it is fastened. Inspect the evenness of the edges and the workmanship on the seams. In some cases braiding is tacked along the edges where the fabric joins the exposed wood of the furniture. Where possible raise the inside edge of this braid slightly to see whether the fabric goes well under and is firmly secured. See that the braid itself is well tacked down with round-headed tacks which will not catch in persons' clothes. Where there are cushions, see that they fit and that they are evenly stuffed. Descriptions of suitable materials for upholstering are given in the chapters on Textiles and on Leathers.