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Searching for furniture -- a personal odyssey

PSST. Hey, mister, wanna buy a room full of furniture. Cheap?'' ``How about two rooms?''

My bride-to-be and I found ourselves wishing some trench-coated stranger would pop around the corner and make the above offer -- and thus save us the ordeal of surveying endless showrooms, warehouses, factory outlets, and hole-in-the-wall furniture marts.

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No such luck.

We were in the market for bedroom, dining room, living room, and casual furniture. Not that we had to buy it all at once, but we were on the lookout for, well, everything.

We had purchased two one-bedroom condominiums, one atop the other, and connected them with a spiral staircase. With the furniture left over from our single lives firmly destined for the two small side rooms, we were left with both a daunting task and a delicious opportunity: designing the two large rooms from scratch.

Make that a monumental task.

The problem -- beyond weighing needs against pocketbook -- was balancing overall motif with immediate, short-term needs and eventual, long-term plans. Little did we know that buying a couch to sit on next week might require designing a lifelong, buying-using-discarding-upscal-ing scheme that could carry us through retirement.

Baby-boomers of the Yuppie generation (minus the large paychecks), my fianc'ee and I had deferred marriage nearly a decade longer than our parents. We found ourselves asking questions like: Should we skip the economy-brand, early-married motifs and get real furniture now? If we pay for furniture that's supposed to last 20 years, will we later wish we had spent less and gotten rid of it in 10? Living in early-post-collegiate form for nearly a decade, don't we deserve a few pieces of the best?

For starters we decided to narrow down the options. That meant deciding among traditional, contemporary, and antique.

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We eliminated antiques as a main motif, primarily because we needed some furniture right away. One large estate sale convinced us that bidding for good-quality antiques was someone else's cup of tea: time-consuming (waiting an afternoon just to bid for item No. 341); indeterminate (not knowing where or when sales would turn up); and requiring a learned eye. Not to mention price.

We eliminated traditional furniture based on both our tastes -- influenced no doubt by wanting in some measure to distinguish ourselves from the previous generation. We didn't want something super-chic that would be ``out'' in 10 years, or something that had been around forever, either.

We settled on a contemporary look, condominium style: not just small furniture, but pieces that conserved visual space -- chairs and couches on raised legs, glass tables. And we didn't rule out the occasional exceptional or charming piece in any category.

Secure in the knowlege that we had narrowed our focus -- but without any advice from decorators, parents, colleagues, or distant uncles in the business -- we hit the pavement. To our amazement, we embarked on what was to be a personal odyssey that consumed six straight 10-hour vacation days. We stopped only for gas, fast food, and quick changes of clothes.

As our saga unfolded we found:

It's not a good idea to hit the pavement without some advice from decorators, parents, colleagues, or distant uncles in the business. Furniture buying is not a simple matter of deciding what you like and then buying it. It is a long-term, large-item, often ``consumer blind'' affair. That means you're paying a lot for much that you can't see, or don't know about -- and will live with the decision a long time. Any consumer advice is handy, if only to help in asking intelligent questions.

Although budget is important (and a person should know his own ballpark), we found it useful to survey outlets both above and below our price range. Though it's a truism that you pay for overhead -- paneled, well-lit showrooms and well-dressed, articulate salespeople -- we were amazed and delighted at the frequency of savings of hundreds of dollars on identical items at different locations.

We were surprised how often we saw major lines of furniture. Everywhere from the toniest, exclusive decorator outlets to the liquidators of hotel/motel furniture. Surveying upward of some 60 stores in all directions from downtown Boston -- and even spending a few days in the furniture center of southeast Manhattan -- we found ourselves awash in a sea of sameness that became stultifying.

Not that we were so snobbish that we couldn't be caught dead trafficking in the same merchandise as the gum-chewing public, but we wanted something unique. Sadly, that means having money or searching for it. We kept searching.

Searching means comparing not just cosmetics (style), but quality. We found it both maddening and reassuring that some of the furniture beyond our price range fitted into the gorgeous-but-fluff category. Cursory tests like lying on a bed or opening a drawer can be quite revealing. It's easy to get so mesmerized by looks that the obvious and commonsensical are overlooked: Will two people lying on this bed roll together like two huge steel cylinders? Is this chair comfortable? Does it fit in the space we have it in mind for? Would I be comfortable eating/reading/lounging on a particular piece for long periods? How about others who will use it? (Another seemingly obvious point that often gets overlooked: maintenance. Light colors look nice but get grimy quickly. Black lacquer is gorgeous in a showroom when polished, but it shows finger marks and chips much more dramatically than other styles.)

A funny thing happened because of the sheer volume of furniture we looked at. Our likes and dislikes passed through phases that saved us an expensive alternative -- buying something first and frowning at our choice three days after delivery. Certain motifs that caught our fancy early on just didn't have staying power -- an important point for those with itchy credit card fingers.

One more tip: It's easy to be intimidated by insecure salespeople who appear insulted to have you inspect the merchandise. Those who are secure, and know what they are talking about, will let you inspect every last screw. The others might get huffy, but you have every right to examine what you may buy. Even the toniest furniture can be shoddily made.

Beyond these key points, we found it enlightening to ask where the bulk of the cost is reflected: design (name brand, new design), craftsmanship, or cost to import. The extra money you are paying for that unique piece may be the price of importing it from Italy, France, or beyond. Nothing wrong with that, of course; just let the buyer beware.

To close the first chapter of what promises to be a lifelong novel, our quest has led us not to all our furniture, but instead to a leaping-off point. We have decided on two different, but hopefully interchangeable, versatile motifs. We think they can be mixed and matched for future living spaces and be added to or subtracted from as we go along.

And the epilogue: Our first subtraction came the day after our first addition. Two black chairs we ordered so obviously dominated our tiny apartment compared with the wide-open display floor that we called the store with the sad scenario. To our surprise, the store people were perfectly gracious, picked up the furniture, sent our money back -- and gave us the name of a good decorator.


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