Design 101

What to Look for in a Chair

There should be more to buying a chair than meets your eye. Follow these eight questions when shopping for one.

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This modern bright orange chair is being moved by this couple.

1. Does it have a kiln-dried frame?

Kiln drying is a process whereby sap and other moisture are removed from the wood before construction. This process reduces the chances that the frame will crack or warp. The moisture content of the wood should be below 7 percent.

2. Is it double- or triple-doweled?

Dowels are small pegs that hold upholstery at the joints and are glued in place with white glue. The more dowels, the sturdier the chair.

3. Does it have corner blocks?

Corner blocks add stability. If the piece wobbles (particularly a dining chair) when you shake the corners, chances are it doesn’t have corner blocks. Look under the dining chair where the legs meet the seat for the blocks.

4. What kind of coils does it have?

Upper-end upholstery is usually made with eight-way hand-tied coils, which look like hourglasses tied in place. This coil system is more labor-intensive than other types and costs more upfront, but it lasts longer, therefore being cheaper in the long run. Fabric wears better on eight-way hand-tied pieces, and the ride (how it feels when you sit on the piece) is more luxurious. They can be restrung by a good upholsterer and should last 10 to 13 years before sagging is noticeable.

Another coil system is the zigzag. Many contemporary pieces can use only zigzag, as the eight-way hand-tied coils won’t fit in the lower-profile frames of contemporary designs (think about how little room there is inside your car seat). Expect about eight to 10 years of wear.

5. What is industrial webbing?

Industrial webbing construction consists of fabric straps crisscrossed in the bed of the piece. They are generally stapled to the wood frame. Expect eight to 10 years of wear from a chair with industrial webbing.

6. What kind of cushion fill does it have?

There are several fill options available for chair seat cushions. The type of cushion core you choose will have an impact on how long the piece lasts, what it looks like and its price. Cushion-fill options generally consist of the following:

  • Down — goose or other waterfowl feathers. It offers ultimate comfort and flattens easily.

  • Polyurethane foam — an entirely foam core. A good foam core will have a density of 1.5 to 1.8. (The lesser the density, the greater the amount of air pockets in the foam, which means it will crush sooner.)

  • Spring down — a combination of feathers, polyurethane foam and spring coils. This is an older form of cushion construction; upholstery today generally doesn’t have springs in the cushions.


Tip: Unzip the seat cushion to see if it’s wrapped in muslin, which helps foam keep its shape.

7. Is it ergonomically correct?

Have family members sit in the chair to see if it “fits” before you buy. A piece can look scrumptious in the catalog but turn out to be uncomfortable in the seat, the shoulders and the small of the back.

8. How well is the piece tailored?

To check the tailoring of the piece, answer these questions: Are the welts (strips of fabric that hide seams) straight? Does the skirt at the bottom lay flat? Are the seat cushions attached to the frame with small clips? Are all the wood corners of the piece padded to prevent the wood from poking through the fabric? The chair is well tailored if you answered “yes” to all the above.

Mark McCauley is author of Color Therapy at Home (Rockport Publishers) and Interior Design for Idiots (Great Quotations Publishing Co.).

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