I recently received a catalog from a large Minneapolis retailer that specializes in modern furniture. I have long admired this company and their commitment to American manufacturing. By and large, they sell a decent product at a reasonable price and, as a result, have experienced tremendous growth. As I perused the upholstery section, I came across a page that explained the construction of their sofa frames. In bold text, they touted hardwood frames. Reading on, I discovered it wasn't traditional hardwood like I would have found on my grandparent’s sofa. Rather, it was hardwood plywood. While they clearly showed a photo of a 15-ply sheet good, they cleverly renamed it "engineered hardwood" and compared its strength to that of structural micro-lam beams. From there, they went on to explain how the plywood was cut into puzzle-like pieces which were assembled using a combination of glue, staples or screws, and corner blocks, which would hold up through years of frequent use. Of course, they didn't say how "many" years one could expect from this type of construction. Reading further, the upholstery used three different types of "spring/support" systems as a foundation for the foam cushions. The first type was a sinuous spring, which is a good choice for a back spring and an acceptable choice for the seat as long as the manufacturer uses a heavy gauge version of this product. The other two were a nylon webbing and a spring-and-wire system called a dual flexolator, both sub-par systems used only in the lowest quality upholstery. It was here I realized that their products weren't just "engineered,” they were "value engineered."
Value engineering (VE) is a term used in the manufacturing sector to describe the process whereby a product is critically evaluated and redesigned from the stand point of its anticipated product life span and end cost. To illustrate this process, we are going to step back and look at the life cycle of a sofa.
A sofa, like any product, starts as a manual sketch or computer drawing. The designer is trying to create a look that will appeal to a wide audience. He/she will introduce elements into the design that reflect current buying trends as well as features that speak to modern culture. Once a design has been determined the designer, in conjunction with the manufacturer, now focus on the materials and construction methods that will be employed in producing this sofa. Here is the critical juncture in the design process where the life span of the product is determined. If they decide to produce a high quality sofa, the manufacturer will construct a solid hardwood frame using double dowel construction, corner block reinforcement with glue and screws to hold it together. The seat will have 8-way hand-tied coil springs, and the back will have coil or sinuous springs for support. A high resiliency foam with a Dacron wrap will finish the seats (the best quality seat will be a combination of foam, feather down, and Dacron). The backs will also be a combination of high resiliency foam and Dacron. Depending on the style of the sofa, cotton batting may also be used. The fabric options will be carefully chosen. The fabrics should pass a double rub test of at least 30,000, plus have a good rating for light fastness and stain resistance. These ingredients in the hands of skilled craftspeople will result in a sofa that will last for generations and will stand up to several re-upholsterings in its life span. One should expect to pay $3,500.00 and up for a sofa of this quality.
Obviously, a sofa with a starting price of $3,500.00 has a smaller target market than one which sells for $1,800.00. If the manufacturer wants to reach out to a broader audience, he has to lower his price. (Keep in mind the manufacturer’s price will be marked up by the retailer anywhere from 100% - 200% or more depending on the retailer. A subject for another blog.) This is where value engineering kicks in. A lower priced sofa is a short lived sofa. The first thing to go is the hardwood, double dowel frame, and the 8-way hand tied springs. These will be replaced with a plywood frame and an inexpensive spring/support system. A low grade foam will be substituted for high resiliency foam. Finally, the fabric will be chosen based on price, not on durability and function. In the end, the consumer that purchases the $1,800.00 sofa will have a piece of furniture that may look nice, but it will fall apart quickly and, most likely, end up in a land fill.
The take away is this: Be wary of "linguistic sleight of hand.” Plywood by any other name is still plywood. Here are some questions to ask before making a purchase.
1. How is the sofa constructed?
Look for a hardwood frame that is, preferably, double doweled, glued and screwed together using corner block reinforcement. Plywood frames will not last.
2. How are the legs attached?
The best legs are part of the frame itself. Legs that screw into the frame will ultimately break and fall off. Sometimes sooner than later.
3. What is the quality of the foam being used?
There is a huge difference between foams and how they will perform over time. Make sure it is a high resiliency foam.
4. Ask about the fabric. This is where manufacturers really skimp.
Ask what the "double rub" rating is on the fabric. If it is less than 30,000 double rubs, keep looking.
Ask about the fade and stain resistance. While natural fabrics like cotton, silk and even wool can look great, they do not hold up like polyester blends. Polyesters have come a long way and offer stain and fade resistance that natural fabrics cannot.
5. What kind of a warranty does the manufacturer offer?
Better quality sofas will come with a 10-year frame guarantee.
Finally, if you have a higher budget and would like a lifetime product that fits your needs, try a custom upholsterer. Working directly with the frame maker and upholsterer can be a very rewarding experience. You will end up with a product specifically tailored to your taste and ergonomic needs. You will have access to fabrics that the average furniture store will not offer. Finally, the knowledge and experience of the craftspeople building your sofa cannot be matched by any retail store middle man. If you would like to explore the custom upholstery option, please drop us a line. We'd love to talk to you about what is possible.