Anyone who has ever plopped down into an uncomfortable chair and who hasn't can relate to the dilemma faced by Goldilocks. "This one's too hard," and "this one's too soft," she complains before settling into the "just right" baby chair. It may seem as if she was being high-maintenance, but really, she was onto something. When it comes to selecting the "just right" chair, one should be persnickety.
"Chairs have to be a personal expression of yourself," says David Baccus, studio proprietor of Design Within Reach. "There are thousands of different chairs in the world and you have to find the one that suits you best." Easier said than done, especially when you factor in the different types of chairs a well-appointed home may require: dining room chairs, side chairs, club chairs, accent chairs, recliners, armchairs, to name a few. But for all the different kinds of chairs out there, there are three factors that matter most: quality, comfort and style. "First and foremost is quality," Baccus says. "You don't want to buy a chair and have to replace it within six months to a year. You're also looking for comfort and for a style that will stand the test of time."
Perhaps the best place to begin is to pinpoint your style. The American Home Furnishings Alliance, a trade association for the U.S. furniture industry, outlines the following five basic styles:
- Casual. Marked by earthy, neutral colors and textured upholstery, this style caters to easy living, warmth and friendliness. Think overstuffed sofas, simple fabric covers, matte finishes and a variety of woods.
- Contemporary. This style features bold colors, sharp lines, minimalist patterns. Well-known designers include Ray and Charles Eames, Herman Miller, Philippe Starck, Frank Gehry and George Nelson.
- Country. Hallmarks of this style include distressed and painted woods, plump cushions, ruffled skirts, floral prints, bold stripes, gingham and plaid fabric covers.
- Traditional. Formal in every sense dark polished wood, elegant upholstery, rich and mellow colors, carved curves this style includes reproductions of pre-1900 antiques such as Chippendale, French Empire, Hepplewhite, Queen Anne and Louis XV.
- Eclectic. Reflecting a unique eye and personal interests, this highly individualistic style might feature ethnic and artisan objects from around the world, textured fabric covers from a variety of styles and periods and a rainbow of colors.
Fortunately, area stores truly offer something for everyone's tastes. Some, like Design Within Reach, Zinc Details and Vitra San Francisco, specialize in contemporary pieces. Others, like Ethan Allen, Eastern Furniture Co. and Pottery Barn offer more traditional wares.
"At Ethan Allen, we have a real mix of styles," says Diana Mitchell, an inhouse interior designer. She adds that customers are mixing it up a bit when it comes to seating arrangements. For instance, she says people are still buying chairs for their formal dining rooms, but they're not necessarily the ones that match the table. With the popularity of the great room, many homes have done away with formal living room furniture in favor of more user-friendly pieces. In fact, Mitchell says, some people are eschewing the sofa altogether and purchasing just chairs anything from traditional carved wood chairs to overstuffed, upholstered seats. Mitchell says men still like their recliners, and Ethan Allen has managed to camouflage them by eliminating the exposed handles. But no matter the type of chair, the common theme is comfort. "A lot of our chairs can be pretty stylish, but they're all very comfortable."
In fact, comfort should be king no matter which style you prefer. After all, we spend so much of our lives sitting down, that the bottom line (pun intended) should be how the chair feels to sit in. Design Within Reach's Baccus encourages customers to test-drive the chairs before purchasing. Is it too deep? Too soft? Too hard? Does it feel level? Consider also your practical needs. "You don't want a fragile upholstery fabric when you have kids and pets," he says. "I would suggest either a solid material such as wood, plastic or aluminum, or if you want upholstery, I would go with an ultrasuede or leather that's easy to clean."
That said, it also has to look good. "I think form and function work hand in hand," Baccus says. "Every piece of furniture needs to have a function that's the first thing to look at. But it also has to work well in your room, so it has to have some sort of form. You have to look at function first, then look at the form, because you have to live with it and you should be happy in your place." He says that dark-stained woods, patterned fabrics, ultrasuede upholstery and bright colors currently are big sellers, as well as chairs made from sustainable resources, such as teak.
Another big trend in chairs is multiuse seating, or chairs that can go anywhere from the office to the dining room to the living room. Usually simply designed yet highly stylish, such chairs like Kartell's Louis Ghost chair, the Cherner Armchair or the Eames Molded Plywood Dining Chair often end up serving as conversation pieces as well. They can fit around a dining room table, be pulled into another room as accent chairs or used as extra seating while entertaining. Taking that approach a step further is the trend of furniture that can be used both indoors and outdoors. "There is less of a boundary between indoors and outdoors now, and many people use outdoor furniture inside, and vice-versa," says Junko Nagai, a buyer for Zinc Details in San Francisco. She says the ideal chairs for this application are simply designed, lightweight pieces.
This is where the contemporary approach might have an edge over the traditional, since you wouldn't want your grandmother's floral wing chair on the back patio. "Our designs are stripped down to what is needed in a piece of furniture," says Baccus. "We just design what you need. And what you need is a place to sit down and relax."
And that's really all Goldilocks was looking for.