Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Recap: Kravet Chair Build Event

This will be a long one guys but the information here will be really useful, I promise, so stick with me! 

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a midday event at my local Kravet showroom. Susan Lorenz, the VP of Furniture Sales and Steve (sorry I don't have your last name, Steve!) a third-generation, master upholsterer were on hand to talk about what goes into making Kravet upholstery such a high quality product.

In addition to what makes Kravet special, I want to also focus today on what distinguishes any high quality piece of upholstery from lesser, mass market products. Throughout the process of building and upholstering this chair, Susan and Steve pointed out several signs that consumers should look for when shopping. 

From time to time I'll hear people, online and in person, say things like "There's no way I'd ever pay $3000 for a SOFA! That's ridiculous!".  If you have never seen a chair, fabric completely removed and stripped down to the guts, it is hard to fathom how there could be much difference at all between a $1000 sofa and one that cost 3 times as much. I've worked for a major, U.S. furniture manufacturer/retailer and I can tell you that after yesterday's demonstration there IS a difference. It would be easier to tell you to save your money and buy the more affordable options. That the designer brands are running a big scam on all of us and you're only paying for a label.  The reality is higher priced upholstery costs more because (in most cases) it is better made.

With my shoddy quality phone pictures (can't believe I forgot my camera!) I'll show you some Kravet methods and tell you exactly what you should be looking for when seeking out a quality piece of upholstery. Along the way I'll point out some helpful Shopping Tips in bold.

A quick FYI: the chair Kravet built for us retails for around $2300. Here's why:

Factor #1.

That frame is made of 14-ply laminated hardwoods.  NOT to be confused with plywood. Laminated hardwoods are incredibly strong, sturdy and stable. According to master upholster Steve, it can fall out of the back of a truck and it will not break. At one point he had to swap staple guns because the one he started with ran out of steam and didn't have enough strength to drive the staples into the wood! He told a story about how something similar had happened at another one of these demos.  They ran out to the big orange box store and got a new gun.  That mass market staple gun wasn't strong enough for their wood frame so they had to find a local workroom who was kind enough to lend him their heavy-duty gun and noisy generator to power the thing.  If that's not a testament to the strength of a wood frame, I don't know what is!

SHOPPING TIP: Try to get a feel for the weight of the piece. According to Steve and Susan, it should be heavy and feel substantial.  If not, the frame is probably made of thinner layers of wood or even cardboard.

The shape of the arms is formed entirely of this heavy duty hardwood whereas cheaper options are often formed with cardboard. Yes, cardboard. Kravet guarantees their frames for life. Not "life" (which in some companies can mean 7 years) but the actual lifetime of the purchaser. 

SHOPPING TIP: Always ask your furniture retailer how long their "Lifetime Warranty" really is and what exactly is covered.

Factor #2.

The supports under the cushions of cheaper brands usually look a little something like this:

These S-shaped wires are what's called "Sinuous Spring Construction". The wire is usually stretched from the front to the back of the sofa and tied together in a few places for added support. Over time, these springs get stretched out and sag. If after about a year of use, your sofa is starting to  sit lower and lower, you probably have sinuous springs underneath.

Higher quality brands use what upholsterer Steve called "the Cadillac of springs": the eight-way hand-tied method. 


Instead of the wires of sinuous springs, eight-way hand-tied seats are made of coils that are each tied in eight places to ensure a better distribution of weight. This method also provides a more supportive, long-lasting and comfortable sit. This process is time-consuming and can only be done by hand. Usually it is performed by someone specially trained in hand-tying.

Steve showed us the underside of his chair and you can see the heavy duty staples where the coils are attached:

SHOPPING TIP: Feel underneath upholstered pieces to determine whether there are coils or S-shaped wires.

Factor #3.

The standard cushion at Kravet is a high-density, foam cushion wrapped around inner springs. Most mass market have a standard cushion that is all foam, no extra-cushy and supportive springs inside. This is an important distinction because with regular use, those cheapy foam cushions will inevitably flatten and become incredibly uncomfortable. No matter how many times you flip and rotate, they just cannot perform as well. On a side note, if you have a particularly large guest who sits on that foam cushion for an extended period of time, you will notice afterward the cushion is just not the same. I know this is a touchy subject and I'm not trying to be cute or funny - just informative. 

With Kravet (and most likely other high end manufacturers) if you let them know ahead of time that you or another regular user is a larger person, they will take extra steps to provide you with the most comfortable and durable seat possible. Now, can you go down to Bob's Furniture Barn and get the same level of care?  I'm going to guess, probably not.

Factor #4.

Do me a favor. Feel along the outside of the outside of the arm of your sofa. Now feel along the top of the "deck" of your sofa. The deck is the the area below the seat cushions as seen in this photo below:

Now, tell me what you feel.  If your sofa is like mine, you feel the wood frame. That's because there's a little layer of batting and not much else between the fabric and the frame.  Here's an image showing what is all along the deck of Kravet's furniture

I know the image quality is lacking but hopefully you can see the super thick layer of foam that goes all along the deck. Not only does this add to your comfort level but it adds to the longevity of your fabric by keeping the back of it from rubbing against wood. 

The rest of the frame was wrapped in a combination of foam and the thickest batting I've ever seen!

SHOPPING TIP: Feel all along the frames of any piece you are considering. You should always feel softness, never wood! If they've skimped on comfort you can bet they've skimped in other areas as well.

Are you starting to sense a trend here? Higher quality materials, highly-trained artisans, extra steps for comfort and longevity. There's a lot that goes into quality furniture construction.

But we're not done just yet, there's another factor I'd like to point out. The details.

See that little strip of cardboard (the only strip of cardboard that should ever be on an upholstered piece!) along the top of the chair back? That strip is secured right up against the welt to hold it exactly in place. Is there anything more annoying than a crooked welt cord?  Which reminds me of another tip.

SHOPPING TIP: Gently test the welt cords by lightly wiggling them. In a well-constructed piece, the welt cords should be firmly attached to the frame. If it wiggles or looks crooked move on!

I want you to try one more thing. With your hand, gently tap the outside center of the arm panel and the back panel. Are they flapping around around like bingo arms?  Does it feel hollow inside? If so, that's not a good sign.

Upholsterer Steve demonstrated how a back panel should be reinforced.

He gave it some good taps and let me tell you, that layer is tight as a drum! No flippity flapping going on here folks! That layer was also secured to the frame with about a million staples. Come to think of it, everything Steve attached was done with about a million staples.

Another notable nugget: every corner, every seam was super neat and incredibly tidy. See the inside of the back of the chair? According to Steve, that's a very good sign when he's evaluating upholsterers. If the parts you can't see are this clean, imagine how well done the parts you can see will be.

Before anyone accuses me of being a furniture snob, the sofa I currently own was purchased from a mass market retailer about 19 months ago. In that time, we've had the seat cushions replaced once because they flattened out within the first year.  My welts are not secured to the frame at all.  It's like the fabric was slipped over the arms and stapled only underneath.  As a result, they are crooked and it drives me absolutely bonkers. The welt on one of my seat cushions is actually coming apart at the seam.  I've been meaning to sew it shut for months now.  The sinuous springs underneath creak and groan with every movement.  My arm and back panels wiggle and jiggle with wild abandon.  I felt my deck and all along the outline of the frame.  Guess what I feel?  Here's a clue: it isn't lush padding my friends. 

Does that mean that those mass market furniture retailers are out to take advantage of you?  No, not at all. In order to make their products a value for their market, (which includes me!) they have to find ways to cut back on cost.  As long as they are honest about their construction methods and warranties I have no issue with it.  They're in the business of making money, not giving away furniture!

Rather than let any of this make me bitter about the quality that is lacking in my $700 sofa. I recognize that I purchased the best that my budget would allow. There is absolutely no shame in that! No one should ever apologize or feel bad for sticking to a budget. What this experience at Kravet yesterday gave me is the ability to be a better advocate for myself and my clients.  Because most of them can afford higher quality goods and as their designer, I need to be well informed and educated when making recommendations. 

It also taught me that although designer furniture like Kravet requires a higher initial investment, you will most certainly get a better return on that investment.  Well-made furniture will stand the test of time and, on average, last longer.  One woman in the group piped up and said she has a Kravet sofa and in the 15 years that they've had it, it has held up beautifully and is still as comfortable as the day she bought it.  So, I guess we have to decide what makes more sense for each of us, spending $3000 on a sofa we'll have for 15 years or or shelling out $700 every few years because we keep buying things that don't last?  

My current sofa is going to have to last me a couple more years but after that, I'm going to save up for a higher quality, long lasting sofa that won't sag or mock me with its bingo arms.

I hope I've given you some helpful tips and information on how to evaluate furniture quality and make the very best decision on how to spend your hard-earned dollars.  Whether that's by purchasing designer furniture through a designer (like me!) or going the mass market retailer route.


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