Finders Keepers: The value of ‘brown furniture’

Designer William Caligari is on the hunt for "brown furniture" for high quality at low price.

So you have a bunch of “brown furniture” in your life? Great! Let’s use it!

In the 36 years since I joined the interior design industry, I have never seen such value. Since brown furniture is “out,” prices have plummeted, which means we can blend these incredibly well-crafted, beautifully designed older furnishings and antiques into our interior design projects on a regular basis. While these furnishings are worth a lot of money these days, they don’t cost a lot of money these days.

If you look, these great pieces are everywhere.

Recently, while perusing a second-hand furnishings shop, I came upon a pair of classic Brunschwig & Fils club chairs: hardwood frames, 8-way hand-tied springs, cotton-wrapped arms, down and feather seats, upholstered in a largescale Brunschwig & Fils floral. They were priced at around 5% of what they would cost new. The wood frames alone are worth more than I paid.

What does a smart designer do with a find like this? Make a killing–right? Absolutely not! A smart designer passes the savings onto his client and positively impacts a design project budget. This means we now have means to augment some another finish or element that we might otherwise not have the money for.

These Brunschwig & Fils chairs were so strong that we will back into the design of a guest room using these chairs and fabric as the starting point. By combining them with complementary pieces, we will have struck gold: a beautiful space with authenticity, a thrilled client and future projects and referrals. Everybody likes a deal — and this is an example of how we deliver value as a designer, and how you find it as a consumer.

These second-hand chairs still show the label of a fabric and furniture house associated with high quality. Photo: William Caligari

These great “found” club chairs were picked up and taken home the same day. I didn’t have to select and order fabric, wait for it to ship to the furniture manufacturer, wait for the manufacturer to put it into production and then wait for the common carrier to get it to the local warehouse, or schedule the delivery. Better quality, lower price, immediate availability, low impact on the environment. Did you notice how many deliveries and trucks we just cut out of this transaction?

But these days, consumers of mass-produced, disposable “fast furniture” are missing out. Yes, such furnishings look hip and slick, they are shipped quickly and you can put it together—all for a modest (perceived) investment. But where is the value, the authenticity and the charm? Broaden your horizons and mix in these incredible older, well-crafted furnishings. You don’t have to abandon your bling but mix things up! I do.

Dig through second-hand shops and look carefully. Look through the oil paintings on the floor in the bad frames—we have reframed and hung dozens of such finds. Next to a great piece of contemporary photography or a simple color study, they feel like masterpieces, adding character and sophistication. Attainable? Absolutely. These second-hand finds are within of any budget. Those club chairs are part of a project with a significant budget, but they just as easily could have gone into a college dorm–they cost less than the Ikea alternative!

A tag-sale piece of art, with a new frame, adds personality to the walls. Photo: William Caligari


And another salvaged painting, also refurbished with a new frame, looks great with a mixed collection of old and new. Photo: William Caligari

Another example: Kittinger and Wood & Hogan, two classic high-end craftsmanship houses that were at their height in the 1980’s, offered the best quality reproductions you could buy. More and more, I’m finding their pieces in the shops I frequent.

The two pieces below are examples of “under $500” purchases that have exponentially higher values. The Kittinger dresser is being painted and the hardware restored. It will be a super piece for a bedroom in one of our projects.

The Kittinger dresser. Photo: William Caligari


A 19th-century Sheraton cherry wood dresser. Photo: William Caligari

Clients ask me all the time, “Is this piece worth re-upholstering?” If it’s a 300-pound sofa made from particle board, sinuous springs, foam and Dacron with a good dose of formaldehyde, I say absolutely not. If durability and value are your goals, reupholstering such a piece would not be worth it, given the underlying quality.

But if the fabric on the Brunschwig & Fils chairs doesn’t work out, re-upholstery is still a great option because the construction is fabulous. Every detail is made in the authentic traditional upholstery methods honed through generations of apprenticeships. On that note, I have furniture from my parents that I’ve reupholstered a couple of times: great forms, well worth hanging onto.

For a couple of centuries, we valued craftsmanship and authenticity in home furnishings. Dovetailed hardwood construction has now given way to paint sprayed onto medium-density fiberboard. Today, with such aggressive trending and marketing forces in play, it’s easy to overlook these qualities. Cheap imports, opportunism and exploitation of people in many countries who are willing or forced to work for substandard compensation–it bothers me to see their undervalued labor and resulting waste filling our landfills and oceans.

This misguided consumerism and misuse of natural resources is wasteful and lacks consideration of our planet. But the harmful chemicals released by today’s mass-produced manufactured furnishings–known as “off-gassing”–won’t emanate from an Empire antique chest of drawers! And that chest has seen itself in service for the last 210 years–a wonderful use of our natural resources–with zero landfill impact.

Our design decisions should go beyond transactional: we can seek out more venerable and substantive acquisitions. “What’s the least I can get it for” or “what the most I can sell it for?” should not drive our decisions.

Seek out those design jewels. They are everywhere right now! Make them a part of your hip/slick interior.

A family heirloom in my own home has found a new purpose. Photo: William Caligari

William Caligari is the owner of William Caligari Interior Design in Great Barrington, Mass.


3 thoughts on “Finders Keepers: The value of ‘brown furniture’

  • I love this story! When my husband and I moved full time to Monterey our daughter kept the Duncan Phyfe sofa that had belonged to my parents. I had it “lovingly” reupholstered twice and I’m thrilled knowing that it is still loved!

  • Great message, Bill. It is so tiresome to see clients choosing items that you know will go into a landfill in a decade or less.

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