Most people set up house with a combination of store-bought items, early attic pieces and some flea market specials.The result is often more functional than esthetic. More furniture is picked up here and there, the mariage brings more, the children discriminate between what they will and will not attack and the great rotation begins -- the living room chair finds its way to the den or the playroom. The coffee table is in the attic. The dining room chairs are in the garage.
At every moving day the chair the dog chewed insists on being pitched out. Unrealistically it is saved, used every now and then as a step-stool to change a light bulb.
At some point pack-rat instincts must be controlled, and remodeling is a time when lasting furniture should be considered -- furniture that will never end up in the basement, garrage or attic. The pieces selected on these pages are just that: sturdy wooden constructions that can be used for many purposes. aAs one furniture salesman said recently, you can go two ways: "Buy this piece now for less and replace it in 10 years. Buy that piece and know it will end up in your children's children's home as an antique some day.
If you're wondering what to look for in a piece of furniture that will ensure its durability, start with clean, unadorned lines.Tastes change over the years; furniture of spare line and lack of pretension will adapt itself to time's passage and fit in with a variety of decorating styles.
In terms of construction, two of the area's leading furniture refinishers and reupholsterers have some sound advice to share. Joe Scopin of Scopin Brothers Furniture in Bethesda and Bill Boyd of El Mercado on Capitol Hill share a disdain for much -- not all -- of what is produced at the lower end of the price scale. They feel much of today's furniture is flimsy and will not hold up. The question then, is how, without being in the business, can the consumer judge the quality of furniture by someting other than its price tag?
"Stick to hardwoods like birch, maple and oak," advises Scopin, "or, if you have a little more money, look at pieces in walnut, mahogany or cherry."
Even with these woods, it's important to look at the quality of construction. Scopin feels chairs should have wooden corner blocks rather than metal braces with screws. Chair legs should have stringers, bars that tie adjacent legs together. Many contemporary chair designs, though, omit stringers. On such chairs you should look carefully at the underside to get a sense of the quality of construction. Dowels are better than screws for joining wood, but sometimes screws are capped with wooden plugs that look like dowel ends, so you can't always be sure. You can ask. You can even ask that it be put in writing, a valuable piece of commitment in small claims court. Reputable furniture sales people are informed and informative.
Much of today's furniture is veneered. Veneered furniture dates back to the 19th century and is not necessarily poor quality, but both Scopin and Boyd dislike furniture veneered over particleboard.
"It's not real wood -- it's just glue and sawdust pressed together," says Scopin.
Nonetheless, a lot of contemporary furniture is made this way. Depending on the quality of the composition board and the level of himidity, it can hold up for a number of years.
Bill Boyd warns of yet another pitfall. A new photographic process is being used on furniture so that a walnut grain can be applied to a pine surface, giving your furniture the appearance of a better grade of wood than is actually the case. The problem with this process is that a cigarette burn, a nick or a scratch may eliminate this "grain" beyond recovery. The burn or scratch may pierce the photograph to reveal the pine or lesser grade, coarse-grained wood beneath. The only way to detect this photographic finish is to examine the underside of the piece to see if the grains match. Look also for any scratches or nicks to determine if the grain beneath is similar to the look of the exterior.
If you're looking for upholstered pieces, the task of finding quality can be more difficult. Boyd suggests just trying to lift the sofa or chair to determine how heavy it is. A lightweight sofa may be great for the movers, but for you, it means that the basic framework is flimsy, may warp easily and probably won't hold up. The heavier a sofa, the more likely it is made of a good hardwood. Next, try to determine if the springs are coil springs and prperly set in the frame. You can feel the underside of the furniture but it's not always easy to tell what you're feeling.
Examine the fabric and the way it's sewn. Be certain the patterns match prperly, that the skirt of kickpleat on a sofa hangs properly all the way around and that it is lined but not stuffed with cardboard. When it comes to the cushions, Boyd recommends down and feather cushions. Unfortunately, their price is prohibitive for many. Next in line is a spring and down cushion, a cushion built up of small flexible springs, covered with muslin and then a cushion layer of down and feathers. Finally, Boyd suggests tryin polyurethane and Dacron-wrapped cushions. While the polyurethane cushions of a few years ago tended to crumble into powder, the newer ones are far more resilient.
In selecting a style of courch, remember all its uses and that in years to come, you may want to reupholster it. If you pick a couch with loose cushions at the seat and back, you can expect to spend more on fabric when it is reupholstered. However, by removing the back cushions, you have an extra bed for an unexpected guest that is more comfortable than a sofa with a fixed upholstered back.
When you get something reupholstered, you should ask questions about what is going to be done beside recovering. Both Scopin and Boyd feel that a proper reupholstering job means replacing worn-out padding and worn springs and webbing, not just a cosmetic recovering.
Furniture costs more all the time, so it makes sense to buy something that will last. When you buy a piece of furniture, make sure that it's covered with material that will hold up and is appropriate to the location you have in mind. Silk or delicate materials like Haitian cottons, for example, don't belong in a family room. They are hard to clean and next to impossible to maintain. Boyd says Haitian cottons are so fragile and difficult to clean that furniture buyers should avoid them at all costs. If one decides on a cotton fabric, Boyd recommends one with a heavy thread count that shows some strength. If you want a more durable fabric, but one that is still not formal, ther are a number of wool-look Herculons on the market that wear well.
Finally, Boyd suggests getting a combination nylon and wool upholstery, or for a really lush look, pure wool. If you find the couch or chair you want, and it isn't available in the material you want at the moment you are ready to buy, most stores will order. Understand exactly how long you will have to wait for that special sofa or chair. Warehouse-like showrooms do as well as they do because many of us can't wait. On the other hand, if you do decide to wait, you can space out your payments until that wonderful new couch or chair of a lifetime turns up on your doorstep. CAPTION: Cover photo, no caption; Picture 1, Although butcher block tables requrie special care, a well-constructed piece of butcher-block furniture is likely to last a long time. The solid construction makes it possible to sand down the surface periodically and then refinish it with either oil or a polyurethane coating. This table could be used in a dining room, a kitchen, or even as a desk. It sells for $279 at the Door Store.; Picture 2, Space under a bed is too often reserved for bedroom slippers, dust balls and the dog. This captain's bed, or maple, is made by Country Workshop and sold by Woodworth & Co. in Falls Church. The price for the 30-inch-wide model is $195, with three or six drawers.; Picture 3, A classic bentwood armchair, this design, selected by the architect Le Corbusier in 1925, dates back to 1870. The beauty of the design (shown here in beech but available in walnut or a red aniline finish) is that it can blend in with period furnishings or a contemporary room. Manufactured by Stendig Inc., this version is available through designers for about $260.; Picture 4, Although the original Hitchcock chair is usually seen in a black finish, these oak-or walnut-stained chairs make a fine countrified addition to any house. The durable design has a rush seat and a firm back. The chair sells for $89 at the Door Store.; Picture 5, Table space can be hard to come by, especially in cramped kitchens. Sico, a manufacturer of institutional furnishings, offers this table that cantilevers out from a wall with ease. Available in a variety of finishes, it is called the "floating fold wall table" and sells for about $235 from Sico Incorporated, Box 1169, Minneapolis, Minn. 55440.; Picture 6, A nest of tables can be used for a broad range of purposes. This set, from Scan, is priced at $179 for three, seen here in teak. The tables are great for a buffet dinner party, as end tables in the living room, or even spread throughout the house as night tables.; Picture 7, One of architect Alvar Aalto's lasting contributions to furniture design is this set of bentwood stools. Distributed by ICF Inc., they can be used as seats or as end tables and are extraordinarily durable. Other versions come with four legs, a back, and with varying leg lengths. As shown they sell for $57 each.; Picture 8, The Windsor chair is one of those durable designs that fits in well with either contemporary or period settings. This one, made in oak, comes from the Door Store, where it sells for $119 with arms, $109 without.; Picture 9, This comfortable dining chair can be coordinated with a country antique dining room or with contemporary furnishings. It comes with a rush seat or a vinyl finish in natural tones or with a glossy aniline finish. As pictured, it's $162. Called the Padova dining chair, it can be ordered through Theodore's on Wisconsin Avenue. Photos by Breton Littlehales