Why does furniture fall apart so easily?

Years ago, furniture, like dressers or dining tables, was built to last for generations. Now, you’d be lucky if a bookshelf could survive a move. Why doesn’t modern furniture last as long as it used to? According to Washington Post reporter Rachel Kurzius, it starts with industry practices to raise profits. 

“Cheap manufacturing practices have conditioned consumers to expect that furniture should be inexpensive and fall apart in a few years,” Kurzius writes. “So not many shoppers are willing to pay for good quality even when it is available.”

She talks with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about modern furniture’s decline in quality. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: Not to put too fine a point on it, but what did happen to furniture in this country?

Rachel Kurzius: Well, Kai, it’s not great. I think anyone who’s purchased new furniture recently can tell you that often, it just doesn’t last very long. It used to be made out of solid wood. It used to be made out of domestically produced plywood. And now we’re seeing more particle board, we’re seeing worse quality plywood. And that has an impact on how wobbly the furniture is. Because things are designed to be put into pieces, they often end up in pieces as well.

Ryssdal: It used to be that the great state of North Carolina was a furniture hub in this country, right? Great stuff would come out of there, well-made by artisanal craftsmen and people who knew what they were doing. All of which is to say this is kind of a labor story too.

Kurzius: This is absolutely a labor story. And I think that it comes back to the idea that as soon as distance no longer became part of the equation, as soon as it was less expensive to ship things internationally than it was domestically, then there wasn’t this idea that, “Hey, we should pay people in the United States to do this work.” Instead, companies were chasing bigger profit margins, which they were able to do by producing furniture and other goods internationally.

Ryssdal: Can I just ask you about the thing you set up at the top, you know, the stuff that shows up in pieces at our doorstep that we then have to assemble often winds up in pieces. There was a staggering statistic in this piece about how much furniture waste goes into landfills every year in this economy. It’s like millions and millions and millions of pounds.

Kurzius: Yes, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly 10 million tons of furniture ended up in landfills in 2018. It used to be that if you had a sofa, and it needed to be refurbished, you could re-upholster it. These days, it’s generally less expensive to just buy a whole new sofa than to hire someone domestically to re-upholster your couch.

Ryssdal: You know, it’s funny, we inherited some chairs from my wife’s grandmother and they weigh a ton. We had to get them sent out to re-upholster and they’re hugely, hugely heavy.

Kurzius: I feel like the heaviness is part of the story here too, because when people move around so much, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to be carting an armoire made of solid oak, up and down six flights of stairs. So there’s some benefit to having lightweight furniture. The problem is with flat pack shipping where you’re putting it together yourself, you can’t take it apart and then put it together again and expect it to still last.

Ryssdal: Yeah, no, once you put together those IKEA cabinets, they’re staying together. They’re not coming apart for the move. So this gets me to my last question. Speaking as a guy who has had and now does have several IKEA cabinets — not to you know, dump on them, but they’re the one that comes to mind. I’ve got those cabinets in my house. And so the question is, what is our furniture future? Is this just where we are now with more cheaply made and less lasting stuff?

Kurzius: I want to dig into the IKEA. Okay, mention briefly, just because I think IKEA gets a really bad rap here. In speaking with vintage furniture purveyors, all of them said, just as a given, “Oh, new furniture is not like it used to be. It’s not like it used to be.” And then if you look on the vintage furniture market, you’ll see that IKEA furniture from the ’80s is an extremely hot ticket right now.

Ryssdal: Wow. That’s crazy. That’s funny.

Kurzius: So it’s not that IKEA is the cause of all of our consternation here. Another thing that I note about that is that when these changes started happening, IKEA didn’t really have enough market share to really be able to shift the game in the way that we’re talking about now. So IKEA is getting a bad rap here!

Ryssdal: Gotcha. All right. All of that noted, and mea culpa on IKEA, but the question stands. Is this — no, I appreciate the question, right? Because I have no idea. But is this sort of our future now the less lasting furniture, do you think?

Kurzius: It’s up to us, you can still buy domestic solid wood furniture if you choose. But the reality is, you’re going to spend more money on it. It’s not going to come as quickly and it’s going to be heavier. A great place to buy long-lasting furniture is a vintage furniture store, right? The proof is in the pudding that it’s well made because it’s lasting long enough for you to be able to purchase it right now.

Ryssdal: Including IKEA stuff from the ’80s which just kind of blows my mind.

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