Thought for the Week: Cheap Costs Too Much

Irwin Weiner ASID - As an interior designer, I often tell clients that they should try to spend much more than they feel comfortable about for one or two signature pieces of furniture in each room of their home. I use the clothing analogy: Invest in a few well-made, stylish, high-end designer pieces that will last for years, and supplement your wardrobe with fun and trendy lower-cost items. The more expensive pieces may be museum quality or they be just very special and be made extremely well. They'll outlast everything else you buy and clients can proudly pass them on to the next generation as family heirlooms.

Not all my clients get it, of course. After all, we're conditioned to shop in big box stores, pay less, save money, make our hard-earned money stretch - and forego investment-quality furniture and purchase cheap-but-nice-looking items. Fashion in America has been a real "race to the bottom" over the past decade in terms of quality, style, and value. Some wardrobes are made entirely of cheap, inexpensive, poorly-made garments, and this is an alarming movement that influences the interior design industry as well. We just finished reading Elizabeth Cline's great study of the fashion industry, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, and it decries the cheap clothes/fast fashion cycles that have taken all the thoughtfulness and style out of fashion by urging consumers to spend less money, buy more often, and forgo solid investments in quality for spur-of-the-moment low-end purchases. We end up buying more, being dissatisfied with our wardrobe, having no real soul connection with what we're putting on our bodies, and ultimately filling our closets with cheap crap that we don't wear. Cline's book also documents the tragic economic and environmental costs that cheap goods create. We pollute more, exploit workers overseas, and wind up quickly throwing away things that are cheap or need repair. 

I love the unusual finds at Rago Auctions, which oftentimes can lead to high-value, inexpensive purchases.

I love the unusual finds at Rago Auctions, which oftentimes can lead to high-value, inexpensive purchases.

Oftentimes when a parent dies, a client will ask me to evaluate the furniture that's about to be divided up by the children. Most of the time, the furnishings have no real value. I always find this sad. Perhaps there's sentimental value in the items, but much of what I see is so shockingly poor that it's not worth fighting with your siblings over. Here's my advice ... something to think about this week, if you're so inclined. 

  • It's too costly to be cheap. Most furnishings that are priced too low to be true are poorly made. They have no value. They were likely made by overseas labor not earning a living wage, they were made at a severe cost to the environment, they waste resources, and they'll soon wind up in an overcrowded landfill.
  • Know where to look for quality. Auction houses usually have curated items with high value, but they'll sell for a relatively low cost. Compare purchasing a beautiful mahogany bookcase at auction against paying for a cheap bookcase at a mass production furniture house. You'll probably pay far more for the cheaper merchandise. Yes, it's new, but it soon won't look new!
  • Listen to your decorator. Interior designers are trained to know furniture styles and periods. We're usually very good at sizing up the scale, balance, and harmony of a piece of furniture. We can point out the faults in a piece and tell you why you shouldn't - or should - buy it. This comes from a combination of education and training, experience, and talent. It's just like you can look at someone's face and say, his nose is crooked, the left eye is higher than the right eye, and his hairstyle doesn't fit the shape of the face. My savviest clients ask me a lot of questions with the intent of getting as much information as they can from my design education and training. But a number of clients think they know better, and not only will they not listen to design advice, they'll gravitate towards cheaper items of less value and bad design, with a limited lifespan. This can easily be avoided, and I feel this is one of the best reasons to hire an interior designer - we'll help you navigate through the maze of cheap choices and find quality within your budget.