Arts & Culture

Lines on Design: What to know when you order custom furniture

Furniture has more avenues into people’s homes today than ever before.

These include hand-me-downs that families give young people in college, off-the-shelf products from big box stores that people assemble, bargains and eccentric pieces on the internet, sets larger furniture chains offer, and custom furniture pieces people order as they outgrow their existing furniture.

After working at Dwell Home Furnishings & Interior Design in Coralville, I saw firsthand how ordering custom furniture can be an eye-opening experience for people in terms of wait times and cost. Perhaps it’s the two-day shipping world consumers have become accustomed to that has led people to believe almost everything can be delivered that quickly.

Don Short, owner of West End Architectural Salvage in Des Moines, likens people’s expectations to fast food. “We live in a McDonald’s mentality,” he said. “Where you drive up and get what you want.”

That’s not the case with custom furniture.

Abby Craighton, an interior designer at Dwell, said time is the biggest surprise to people ordering furniture.

For furniture made and shipped in the United States, people should expect an eight to 10 week time frame. That period doesn’t take into account if a fabric or material is back-ordered, plant shutdowns for holidays, or damage that may occur during shipping. If the furniture is coming from overseas, the wait time increases. Expect to wait 14 to 16 weeks because these items arrive by boat.

Another surprise to people, Craighton said, is the price of leather. Leather can nearly double the cost of something upholstered in fabric. Being mindful of the grade of fabric or leather is one way to control costs. The lower the grade, either alphabetical or numerical, the lower the price.

Built for you

Upholstery manufacturers, such as Vanguard, Bernhardt, and Lee Industries, largely do not have sofas and chairs pre-made and ready to go. These companies offer buyers the opportunity to create furniture to fit their preferences. The fabric, wood finish, cushion and pillow style, and extras such as nailhead or trim are options determined by the buyer. The possible combinations are endless.

Other companies, such as Nuevo, Classic Home and Dovetail, offer a few choices to no customization. If these companies have the items in stock, they potentially can arrive sooner.

I had the opportunity to visit the Norwalk Furniture plant in Ohio. Aside from cutting the wood framing and leather with the help of technology, the furniture is assembled, upholstered, and finished by people. It’s certainly not something an unskilled person can do. Workers assemble frames by memory, stretch webbing and wire at the right increments for proper support, and pull fabric with the right amount of tension to cover the frame.

They are artisans at work in their crafts. Some have decades of experience and knowledge and are training a new generation of artisans. A video of the process can be seen at


With high-quality furniture comes a higher price tag. The materials, craftsmanship and designers involved define quality.

Because a piece has a higher level of quality, interior designer Susanna Sosa said clients think this means the furniture is indestructible. However, there are no guarantees. Furniture can withstand heavy use, but there are limits to the abuse a piece may take.

The durability of fabric is often people’s chief concern. How will it stand up to spills? How will it fare in the sunlight? How will it look after Fido or Feline has gotten its claws into it? Thanks to technology, fabrics today are better than ever. Manufacturers offer several types of performance fabrics, which use fibers that are solution dyed to be fade resistant, treated to make fabric stain resistant and easy to clean, and chemically structured so they hit multiple facets of durability.

These fabrics go by brand names such as Sunbrella, Crypton, Revolution, Smart Care. They likely are made of 100 percent polyester or olefin, a fiber used in carpets because it wicks away moisture and is stain resistant for life.

Even with all these improvements, many people have pilling on their mind. Pilling is caused by abrasion and forms little balls of fiber on the fabric surface. If a fabric pills, people think something is wrong, Sosa said. However, pilling is natural with fabrics and may occur more often with certain types of short fibers and construction. A fabric shaver can be used to carefully remove pilling.

Beyond the catalog

Sometimes people envision an item that a catalog just can’t satisfy. Maybe they have found an item they love but can’t afford the price point. Or they are correcting an online purchase that did not live up to expectations.

These people may turn to a local metal or woodworker to build their dream piece. West End Architectural Salvage produces custom pieces for commercial and residential customers. Short estimates the store sells 15 to 30 custom pieces monthly.

For an idea of price, a 24-inch by 48-inch coffee table with square tube steel base and a 2-inch thick wood top would be $450, Short said.


By showing in-stock materials and examples of previous work, Short can help guide people to design what they want. The design process and unique end product help create a memorable experience, which Short said is vital for retailers competing against online shopping.

“We need to have folks excited and proud to have something in their home that they got from us,” Short said.

Of course, that’s after the eight to 12 week wait Short tells customers to expect.

l Erin Owen is a graduate of the interior design program at Kirkwood Community College. She has worked as a commercial and residential interior designer.

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