When to Splurge (and Save!) on Furniture & Decor


Plus a Ton of Awesome Product Suggestions

In the market for solid, reliable home furnishings—and expert advice on when you should spend mucho dinero or save your money when shopping for furniture and home decor? Trust an interior designer to show you the way.

Because designers are constantly contending with client budgets (budget-wrangling is a LOT of what we do), they’ve gotten to know the rules of the road when it comes to splurging or saving on must-have furniture and home decor

Sally McDecorator knows that if she decides to spend $1K of your hard-earned cash on a vase that won’t see the light of day, she’s likely to get an earful. But any good designer worth her salt knows that you get what you pay for—and that buying an ultra-affordable closeout that seems like a great deal now, may see you spending at least twice that amount to replace that steal of a particleboard entertainment center with something a bit more, ahem, robust (and stylish).

We spoke with 3 top-notch interior designers, Barry Dixon, Jennifer Jones, and Marcelle Guilbeau, who explain how they make their decor and furniture purchasing decisions—and offer some awesome product suggestions, too. So read on for their expert advice on when to splurge on that velvet sofa you’ve had your eye on or if you should save your money on, say, top-of-the-line drinking glasses for your next soiree.


Photo: Niche Interiors

Photo: Niche Interiors

Whatever your budget, the sofas, love seats, and lounge chairs you will use most often should definitely be splurges, says Virginia-based designer, Barry Dixon. “I’d rather have an expensive sofa with inexpensive fabric on it than vice versa. An inexpensive sofa will break down and the expensive fabric will quickly wear because it’s not being supported,” he adds. The designer recommends holding out for 8-way hand-tied springs, a hallmark of quality construction.

Not shopping big-box stores does have its rewards, says Jennifer Jones, principal designer of Niche Interiors in San Francisco. With higher end brands, “Custom upholstery offers more fabric and finish options so that you can design pieces down to the inch, ensuring they fit perfectly in your home.”

It’s OK, however, to save a bit on upholstered furniture that won’t see too much use, say, in a formal living area or in the guest bedroom. But remember: Great craftsmanship is still the goal. 


Photo: Farrow & Ball

Photo: Farrow & Ball

Our experts agree their biggest concern is the off-gassing of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are harmful solvents released into the air as paint dries— a.k.a. “that wet-paint smell.” Ever paint in an enclosed area with no windows? Pay a little more—upwards of $50/gallon—for brands that tout their low-to-zero-VOC content. You won't be sorry.

LEED-certified Jones likes Benjamin-Moore’s low-VOC Aura and zero-VOC Natura lines (“Their range of colors is unmatched,” she says), which run $70/gallon and $57/gallon, respectively. Dixon recommends Farrow & Ball as well as C2 Paint, along with which Dixon has even developed his own low-VOC collection of colors, called The Naturals, that cost $25/gallon and are inspired by hues the designer sees while out on his Virginia farm (think: Pond Shimmer and Calf’s Snout).


Photo: Barry Dixon Interiors

Photo: Barry Dixon Interiors

Perhaps the most exciting to shop for—but the elements that vary the most regarding price points—are accents like mirrors and décor. But it’s important to think long and hard about acquiring decorative items that reflect your uniqueness rather than choosing something that’s mass-produced. Flea markets seem to be the places du jour in finding real treasures that let your personality shine. “Local boutiques, antiques shops, and flea markets are where I find my most treasured accessories,” agrees Jones.

Dixon thinks every home should show off an antique, “or at least vintage,” mirror,” he says. “But if you can’t afford an antique, then find a nice reproduction from the 1940s or 1950s at a flea market.”    

Perhaps most indicative of your own taste and style is the inclusion of original artwork in your home. “Real art makes a home sing,” says the Tennessee-based Marcelle Guilbeau, “and no one else in the world will have the piece you have.” She suggests looking for special pieces in consignment shops and local galleries—and now and then, Guilbeau even confers with a professional art consultant to help grow and curate a client’s collection.

And if you must buy online, Jones suggests looking to global-minded Jayson Home and The Citizenry for their mixes of modern, as well as one-of-a-kind, offerings. 


Photo: Niche Interiors

Photo: Niche Interiors

Sure, the bed gets most of the attention when creating a comfortable respite. But the mattress, says Dixon, is really where you should splurge. He recommends investing in a Sealy Posturepedic (upwards of $600) or Beautyrest (upwards of $800) mattress (It’s what they use at the Hotel St. Regis,” he says). But before the sumptuous sheets go on, Dixon layers a Scandia Home down comforter atop the mattress itself, and then covers it with yet another down-filled mattress topper. “It’s like sleeping on a cloud,” says Dixon, “and you’ll be sandwiched in luxury.”

As for the sheets? Aim for 400-thread-count Egyptian cotton—sateen finish in winter, percale for summer, Dixon says. For middle of the road pillows and sheets, peruse Bloomingdale's and Macy’s Hotel Collection lines. And for top-of-the-line luxuriousness, shop Sferra and Leontine Linens.


Photo: Marcelle Guilbeau Interior Design

Photo: Marcelle Guilbeau Interior Design

Formal dining tables can really put a dent in your wallet, but if you have the space you need one—and a quality one at that—say our experts. A clever way to grab quality pieces is to shop locally for gently used and second-hand tables and chairs at estate sales and Craigslist, and also via online marketplace 1stDibs, says Dixon.

But before taking the plunge, Dixon suggests doing some reconnaissance: Know your lines and recognize top-quality brand names, he says. Brands such as John Widdicomb, Lane Furniture, and Thayer Coggin are only a few of many good names to remember. “Flip the table and look under that chair,” Dixon suggests. “If you can get a Baker chair for $75, you can recover it in a nice Belgian linen and it’s still less expensive than buying from a retailer.”

Guilbeau and Dixon both love consignment shops, too. English & Company is a local Guilbeau favorite her clients check out regularly. “I’d rather buy a name brand table at a consignment shop or estate sale than an off-brand one from a catalog or large showroom that there are 14 of in every town, Dixon adds. “Who wants those? There’s nothing special there!” 

Often, you’ll see antique and vintage dining tables and chairs sold as sets—but Dixon suggests buying them separately. “I don’t like brown tables with brown chairs,” he says. “It either looks Colonial or corporate.” If you can’t split the set, paint and upholstery do wonders in transforming boring chairs.


Photo: Lincoln Barbour for Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

Photo: Lincoln Barbour for Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

You’ll need to spend and splurge on lighting to develop a high-end look. Large fixtures, especially those guests see immediately upon entering your home, should be splurges.

“A chandelier in the foyer or a hanging pendant over the dining table—they have to be great,” says Dixon. Floor and table lamps, then, should be moderately-to-low priced. “People notice the grand pieces and presume everything is high-end. They then elevate lower-cost lighting,” Dixon points out. “Just choose well from low-priced fixtures so that they’re not bringing the high-cost items down,” he cautions.

Not everything can be from stores such as Apparatus, Niermann Weeks, and Ochre, Dixon concedes. So if a $12,000 chandelier just isn’t in the budget, Dixon again suggests the antique route. “Find something that’s one-of-a-kind at the flea market. There, you’ll score a statement piece without spending as much.” The designer also frequents Arteriors and Visual Comfort for moderately priced options, as well as the mail-order store, Rejuvenation, for more affordable sconces and bathroom lighting.


Photo: Anthropologie

Photo: Anthropologie

Interior designers are must be masters at marrying the high with the low. While Ikea is a dirty word to some, shopping the Swedish giant for essentials like glassware, dishes, and children’s furniture does have its merits. “Ikea is OK in kids’ rooms, but not out in the regular house, says Dixon. “There’s a certain playful simplicity to many of its products, but they don’t carry the élan that your readers would like in their main living areas. Most pieces don’t last long, either.”

Dixon likes shopping for vintage and vintage-inspired glassware at flea markets, Anthropologie, and Crate & Barrel. “I switch out my old glasses with new, fresh versions every couple of years,” he says. “It’s fun to do.”


Photo: Merida Studio

Photo: Merida Studio

Among all three of our experts, wool was the go-to fiber because of its durability and easy-to-clean properties. Jones estimates a good wool rug will cost anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000.

Too rich for your blood? Guilbeau recommends wool-blend flat-weave rugs from Dash & Albert. “They’re very European looking, and there’s a pleasant lived-in quality about them,” she says. Plus, “Wool doesn’t nap the way that olefin- and polyester-fiber rugs will,” says Dixon. “Wool is the best and it lasts forever.”

Many people gravitate to sisal rugs due to their relative affordability and supposed durability. But even though sisal is beautiful, explains Dixon, “one spill of wine or one dog accident—and it’s all over. It’s uncleanable and untenable.” Instead, the designer prefers using sea grass. “It grows in water so it repels it, unlike sisal, which absorbs it,” he explains. Sea grass rugs can be smooth or braided and are even perfectly durable in offices, too. Dixon shops Merida for wool and sea grass rugs, and The Rug Company for affordable, reversible cotton rugs, as well as runners.


Photo: Niche Interiors

Photo: Niche Interiors

In theory, opines Dixon, you can spend a lot less on side tables than a coffee table, especially if you’re looking for matching side tables—because then, you’ll have to splurge twice.

Coffee tables are the workhorses of any living area. “People use coffee tables to prop up their feet and to eat pizza, and just generally abuse them,” says Dixon, laughing. “Side tables, however, usually contain a lamp, the odd picture frame, and not much else.” Sure coffee tables come in a variety of materials—and you can basically use anything to configure one (think: four smaller tables, a steamer trunk, or a large ottoman outfitted with a tray)—just be sure that it’s 15-to-18-inches high, says Dixon, and that whatever its permutation, it’s designed to last. 


Photo: Cowtan & Tout

Photo: Cowtan & Tout

Our experts all agree that custom window treatments go a long way in making your home to look both stylish and refined. “Window treatments that are tailored to your space—and measured perfectly—make a huge impact,” says Jones. Her go-to styles? Flat-fold Roman shades and Parisian pleat drapery panels. In addition to farming custom work out to a local drapery workroom, Jones always hires a pro, too, for the final installation.

But, according to Guilbeau, you can actually hang off-the-shelf drapes in places like guest bedrooms and smaller rooms with ceiling heights of up to eight feet. She recommends Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn for dress curtains (those that don’t completely close), sheers, and inexpensive hardware you can easily mount yourself. She estimates that layering a window with two-each of the solid and sheer drapes and using off-the-rack hardware costs about $800 per window—a far cry from custom treatments. Otherwise though, a larger-scaled room all but dictates the need for custom curtains, shades, and drapery.


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