Select Furniture Like a Pro

Great style and long-lasting livability — we expect both from our furnishings. But how do you choose pieces that will look fabulous in your space and stand up to years of loving use? We asked the experts for their top tips on buying and arranging furniture like a design pro.
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January 26, 2016
By: Amanda Lecky

Photo By: Chandos Dodson Epley, Chandos Interiors; Julie Soefer

Photo By: Betsy Burnham and Max Humphrey, Burnham Design; Photo by Tria Giovan

Photo By: Shirley Meisels, Mhouse, Inc.; Stephani Buchman

Photo By: Julie Soefer

Photo By: Leslie Arnold Architecture; Scott Hargis

Photo By: Tim Barber LTD; Karyn Millet

Photo By: Nelly Reffet, Twinkle and Whistle; Heather Robbins of Red Images Fine Photography

Photo By: Amy Lau Design; Kim Sargent

Photo By: Kristen Rivoli Interior Design; Greg Premru Photography

Photo By: Thomas Kuoh

Photo By: MJCohen photography

Photo By: Photography by Thomas Kuoh

Photo By: Jarret Yoshida

Consider Custom Options

If you're outfitting a space that's small or has awkward design features, custom-made furnishings may be the best option. Case in point: this elegant guest room. "The bed was designed for a room that had door locations that inhibited twin beds from being placed side by side as they typically are," explains designer Chandos Dodson Epley. "We went with the corner-style headboard to provide more floor space and a walkway in the bedroom. It also created a cozy nook for the clients' two young granddaughters."

Select Fabrics With Durability Built-In

When choosing upholstery for a beachfront house belonging to an active family, designers Betsy Burnham and Max Humphrey opted to upholster all the furniture in indoor-outdoor fabric. "Every piece is covered in Sunbrella fabric — even the pillows and the custom area rug underneath. Outdoor fabric was the perfect choice for this room, which is 'command central' for TV-watching and game playing." And, they note, "In terms of the furniture plan, sometimes it's dramatic to do fewer pieces and keep the scale of each large and bold; that's the case here. We selected the largest sectional we could fit in the space and made sure it was super deep and comfy. We paired it with a large upholstered ottoman, which serves double duty as a coffee table and a great place for everyone to kick up their feet."

Catalogs Can Be Your Budget's Best Friend

For a project that called for a sleek luxurious look — on a tight budget — designer Shirley Meisels shopped carefully. "You can create a great look without going custom," says the designer, who turned to major retailers and online sources, choosing a bed, table and linens from West Elm, a rug from Dwell Studio, and a lamp from Restoration Hardware. Of course, designer know-how is what pulls it all together: "To create warmth in such a spare and simple setting it's important to add texture. That's where the fur rug and cushion come into play."

Match Your Furniture's Scale to the Space

"Choosing furniture that's proportionate to the room and to each of the other furniture pieces in the space is very important for a successful design," say the designers of Laura U, Inc. "This is a very large room, the bed is custom and overscale, and the bedside chests are the perfect size for our colossal bed and generous room. A custom bed also means custom bedding. Ours is thoughtfully detailed with a Moroccan motif in a neutral tone as the embroidery with a complimentary arctic blue on the accent pillows."

Small Space? Show Some Leg

Keep in mind that your furnishings should be in proportion not only to the actual size of the space but also to the perceived size — which can be affected by such elements as paint color or extensive areas of glass. In this project, the latter came into play. "The floor-to-ceiling windows make this small space feel larger, and to keep that open feeling the furniture needed to be scaled appropriately," says architect Leslie Arnold. "Choosing furniture that was open at the bottom — i.e. pieces that do not go all the way to the floor — 'enlarges' the room by allowing the entire floor to be visually unbroken. The simple, solid colored upholstery allows the brightly colored rug and wall art to be the main focus of the room."

Old Chair + New Upholstery = New Chair

In a master bedroom that's all about cozy luxury, designer Lauren Macer created an inviting seating area using existing pieces from her client's collection. "The armchairs are vintage pieces, however they were upholstered in black leather that was damaged. I reupholstered them in a beautiful soft linen fabric for a completely different look," she says. “When looking for vintage furniture pieces, the most important element is shape. The upholstery, wood color and condition of the filling can all be changed — so keep an open mind and don't let a strong pattern or color distract you."

Choose Pieces That Are Movable

To create a multifunctional seating area in an attorney's home office, designer Tim Barber chose a flexible mix of vintage and reproduction pieces. "For a room versatile enough to prepare a legal brief, host tea with friends, steer fundraising projects, help with homework and occasionally accommodate overflow guests, we designed a plan with pieces light enough to be moved easily — and durable enough to survive frequent rearranging (nothing too precious here)," he says. "The sofa is a Lino Comfort sleeper from Design Within Reach, which makes the office a convertible guest bedroom in a pinch. We love the deep seat cushions and low flat arms: perfect for a power nap. The chairs are vintage 1957 Knoll Saarinen armchairs, reupholstered in Kravet fabric. The Saarinen cocktail table is a reproduction from Room & Board."

Get Thrifty

In the bedroom of a beach house on the Indian Ocean, designer Nelly Reffret took a creative approach to the project's extremely tight budget. She says: "I searched for bargains and only selected items that I knew would work perfectly in the space. The headboard is a discontinued Ikea style, which I painted in a sandy color. I found the suitcases on the curb during trash collection (you know that saying about someone's trash being someone's treasure...)." When combining a variety of furniture styles, she advises allowing size and scale to guide your choices. "Before deciding on a look, it's important to determine what will fit in the space: width and depth matter. Scale is another important factor. Too many large pieces and the room will look cluttered; too many small pieces, and there will be no sense of cohesion, no sense of 'grounding'. Having one item of large scale next to smaller items can create an interesting focal point to the room, just like the headboard does in this bedroom."

Modern Style? Opt for Streamlined Shapes

For a masculine and modern bedroom, choose a bed with presence and a strong, geometric shape, like this contemporary four-poster style. "A mix of geometric and organic patterns and shapes in the same deep color palette creates a sense of calm in this space and helps to ground and unify the various patterns in the rug, bedding and Fantoni lamps," says designer Amy Lau of this elegant retreat.  

Take Inspiration From Your Location

Sometimes, the architecture of your home is the best guide for the style of the furnishings you fill it with; other times, its surroundings will direct you. When choosing furniture for this living room, designer Kristen Rivoli took the latter tack. "This space is in a building right next to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in New York City, so our inspiration was the classic midcentury modern furniture you might find at the museum," she says. "We found the side table at a vintage furniture store, but the sofa is new — it's available through KRID but has the lines of a classic tuxedo-style sofa. The Brittania light fixture is also new but adds to the midcentury style, and the toss pillows are custom-made in a mellow color palette typical of the '50s and '60s."

Coordinate Wood Tones

"We opted for a durable, solid wood dining table from Crate & Barrel for this casual eat-in kitchen nook. It's perfect for family meals and works equally well for homework or crafts," says the designer of this project by Niche Interiors. When matching table and chairs, she says, "always consider the leg finish of your dining chairs: They should be in the same tone family as your dining table. A few shades lighter or darker is fine, as long as the underlying wood tone is similar."  

Consider How It Will Fit Together

The right furniture configuration can mediate any number of design challenges, creating multiple zones in a large, open space, for example. "This open-concept family room/kitchen has a long, narrow configuration," say the designers of Niche Interiors. "We created a cozy seating area near the TV and opted for smaller-scale furniture to keep the space from feeling cramped. The airy lightweight coffee table from Blu Dot is easy to move aside for train or Lego marathons." Tip for tight spaces: "If you are squeezing a lot of furniture into a smaller space, choose pieces that your eye can see under. This helps make the room feel visually lighter. Higher furniture legs or box frame tables like this one are both great options."

Choose Pieces With the Right Height

To ensure that your nightstand suits your space and is easy to reach from bed, "Be sure to select one that's level with the height of your mattress, or at the most 3 to 4 inches taller. It will look proportional and provide the most functionality," say the designers at Niche Interiors. To create this cozy master retreat, they used a mix of cool tones and clean-lined, contemporary furniture, pairing a tailored upholstered bed from Pottery Barn with a reclaimed wood side table from Vivaterra. A patterned rug from Emma Gardner Designs and custom pillows provide just the right amount of pattern without overwhelming the space. 

Built-In Functionality = Easy Entertaining

To create a party-friendly focal point for a large dining room, Susana Simonpietri of Chango & Co. specified a large round dining table, complete with a lazy Susan. "Both the chandelier and round dining table were custom made for this space," she says. "The simplicity of the original architecture creates a natural ebb and flow while gauzy curtains soften the natural light."

Add Interest With Contrast

A cocktail table can offer the perfect opportunity to introduce an unexpected design note. Here, designer Jarrett Yoshida accented a sleek, contemporary living room with an oversized rustic table. Dark and weighty in the pale, delicate space, it stands out and adds sculptural interest to an otherwise simple interior.

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