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JOEL Joel's Blog

Chairs from China


Chairs from China 1 About 65 years ago my father bought six Danish dining chairs and a glass-topped table to go with them. The table ended up with my cousin many years ago, and I've had the chairs for over twenty years. The chairs are light and strong, but mass produced. The legs aren't attached as well as they should be, and 65 years of use have taken their toll. I love the chairs' devoted service to my family and their utilitarian but elegant lines. (This photo is a little deceptive - the dining chair doesn't usually hang out on my balcony, but -- as in the old joke -- the light was better here.)

What are their contemporary equivalents? On a family walk this weekend I ducked into a store to check my email without the sun's glare. The shop was West Elm. West Elm is a furniture chain that caters to stylish young people who would be insulted if you thought they shopped at Ikea, with "modern" styles and better built quality. A dining table and chairs were right in the front of the store, tempting shoppers with primo product placement and a 20% off sale. What caught my eye was the chairs' obvious resemblance to my own chairs, albeit in a clunkier version. I had some questions for the very nice salesman, and he seemed surprised by my questions. What wood? I asked. He said the sales staff wouldn't know, but he thought the chairs were made of was Mango wood. Where were the chairs made? He said probably India or Vietnam. I thought Mango wood was improbable - more likely the chairs were made of whatever tropical hardwood that was available to manufacturer. The salesman turned the chair over, revealing a "Made in China" label. Screwed to the bottom of the seat was a steel strap held on with four big screws. There was no allowance for wood movement. My guess is there is no real expectation that these chairs be built to last. I think that no strap would be needed at all if the wood were properly dried, but the salesman said there were issues with drying and shrinkage.

The chairs were priced at $249 each -- a fifth or so of the price of the chairs in last week's blog on Thomas Moser,
But they won't last. Needless to say I had no interest in them.

Chairs from China 2When I thought about my experience at West Elm I realized that what is being sold is not a well made chair that is less expensive because it came from China, but a poorly made chair that is designed to look stronger than it is, made out of a random rain forest wood that the company can't even identify, sold by a multinational company. I bet it is far more profitable to sell this chair than the Moser chair. I assume, however, that West Elm employees earn less than the Moser counterparts just because the commission on a sale of a more expensive item would be higher.

N.B. This coming Friday and Saturday is our scratch and dent sale. For more info click here!
Join the conversation
07/06/2016 Tim
I have thought a lot about this issue. I think it comes down to people no longer actually wanting things to last. We are now more trend driven and people want to be able to make the excuse that something is breaking so they can get something new. There will always be a few of us that would rather buy quality and see it last but I think this is the minority compared to the older generation. We are in an era of mass consumption where hand crafted has become a buzz word as the antithesis to this phenomena but I wonder how long this will last even. Sorry to sound pessimistic but as a furniture maker I find people would rather buy a cheaper copy than pay for a well made original. It won't stop me from making my furniture properly though :)
07/06/2016 Daniel Moerman
I want things to last. I want to buy things that are well made, and will last. And I'll pay for them. I've bought stuff from Ikea (tea towels, candles -- they have nice candles that burn well and long). But, I buy Lee Valley chisels and planes which will outlast me by two or three generations. And I like them better because of it. My sweat, sunk into their steel and brass will be there in some other woodworkers hands in a century or so. I like that.
07/06/2016 Bob Lang
This says a lot about what we've allowed our society to become. Appearance matters more than substance, even to the point that those producing and selling products don't know (and don't care to know) what they are purveying, or what the difference is between the West Elm chair and the Moser chair. If you do the math (dollars invested in chair/years of service) the Moser chair becomes a bargain. I guess it's to be expected when you replace producing useful stuff with gambling on wall street as the basis for the economy.
07/06/2016 Kevin Frey
I can see both sides of the equation. So the Thomas Moser chairs are 5 times the cost? Will they last 5 times as long as the Chinese chairs? The problem is no one really knows. I am in Australia, so I have neither of these shops, but I suspect you run into fundamentally the same problem which is that Thomas Moser wants you to buy into the idea that their furniture is heirloom quality, will last a long time, and so forth, but they probably don't "put their money where there mouth is" in terms of the actual warranty that they supply, relative to the cheaper item.

A recent example is LG has just released a 65 inch "signature series" OLED TV - $11K retail. 1 year warranty. The "Signature series" claim is certainly embodied in the price, how about a 10-year "Signature series" warranty. Nope, same 1 year warranty as a $700 TV.

So that's the first problem. The second problem, because of the warranty issue, is that people see a chair 1/5th the price and think "Well, heck, even if I had to replace it 5 times" I'm no worse off. This is sad to see.

I hear this argument all the time with power tools - buy a $30 home-brand drill from a Big Box store versus a Makita or Dewalt or whatever at 5 times the price. I've even heard of tradies taking this approach for lesser-used tools (tradies have the additional issues of leaving them inadvertently on job sites, or their vans being broken into and tools stolen, or dropping them off roofs, etc).

When you apply the above argument to furniture, you get the "additional bonus" (in the person's mind) that "If I have to replace it, I don't necessarily have to get the same thing". Or a variation on the argument which becomes "Well I don't know if I'm going to want the same piece of furniture for 30 years anyway, so a chair that lasts 30+ years is a moot point".

We've been slowly brainwashed into becoming a throwaway society. We've been slowly brainwashed to want and desire the latest trends. For many of us, anything "old" is "second best". I am guilty of this myself. When it comes to tools, I could count on one hand the number of tools that I own that I did not purchase brand new. On the other hand, when it comes to tools, I buy [within reason] very high quality tools such as Festool, LN, Lee Valley, and I hope that the hand-tools outlast me because I get enjoyment from superlative tools versus mediocre ones and I like the thought of these tools ending up in someone else's hands, where the tool is just as respected in the future as it is now.
07/06/2016 Phil Harley
I only agree to a point. I think furniture retailers for the last 20 years or so have been transforming the furniture industry into a fashion business. Just as clothes nowadays are designed to last a season, the mass market furniture business wants us to redecorate every 2-5 years. If your product only needs to last a few years then there is a much lower emphasis of quality construction, increased use of man-made materials such as chipboard and a much higher emphasis on design and colour. Appliance manufacturers encourage this too. In the case of kitchen's, how often are perfectly operating appliances (fridge, stove etc) replaced as part of a kitchen makeover? So things aren't made to last - except if the look you are after is classic.
From the Moser website - (they do put there money where their mouth is)


If within the first 30 days after receiving any standard Thos. Moser product you do not remain completely satisfied with your purchase, we will provide you with a refund for the price of your piece or rebuild it. Proper care will ensure a lifetime of satisfied use from your Thos. Moser furniture. Should our furniture fail at any time during the life of the original owner because of workmanship or a failure of the wood materials, we will either repair or replace it. Upholstery components such as fabrics, leather, cane, and foam are warranted for a period of 5 years against material failure. Some customer requested wood species, finishes, fabric selections and modifications are excluded."
07/06/2016 Bruce
I've thought a lot about this. Man I could write a novel on it even. But one thing that comes to mind is that people didn't buy crappy imported consumer goods and furniture 50 years ago because they didn't have the option. Everything was "built to last" because it costed a fortune. A toaster, for example, was probably pretty expensive in today's dollars. It was also made of solid metal (and chrome plated of course), produced in an American factory, and serviceable but it was healthy portion of the average mans wages. I'm sure if there was a cheaper Chinese alternative that looked half as good people would have bought them back then. Same counts for tools and other things. We live in a society that consumes a ridiculous amount of goods and therefore the average mans paycheck is spread much more widely than ever before. Globalization and the Internet have made the problem exponentially worse. Some folks just don't have a thousand bucks to spend on a dining room chair. Only those with the deepest pockets can furnish a whole home with quality American (or artisan) made items. I have an American made stereo system that cost as much as a compact car when all said is done. It will probably outlive my children, maybe even their children. Our "casual" dining chairs my wife ordered from some online superstore made of some crappy wood and probably fall apart after a few years. Sometimes you just have to pick your battles. I usually buy (or get handed down) antiques for most of my furniture. There's also so much quality antique/vintage stuff out there for less money than the Chinese junk if you are willing to do a little work restoring it. I buy all quality wood working and garden tools because it's what I enjoy doing. I suppose I should learn how to make chairs. In any event, I respect the artisan furniture maker and think that there is a market (growing even) for their craft it just isn't the mass market and the mass market IS the market.

Disclaimer: I wanted to get some Amish made ladder back chairs but was shot down.
07/06/2016 Keith Lepkowski
Joel, Those chairs your father purchased are actually AMERICAN chairs, made in Winchendon, Mass. Google: Planner Group designed by Paul McCobb. You'll see that those chairs today, in good condition, command a hefty price.
That's Awesome! Thanks for letting me know. This goes BTW completely against family lore.
07/07/2016 Christopher
Several other factors. A lot of people -- most people? -- just can't afford the Moser chair (let alone a set of them) even if it will substantially outlast the Chinese or IKEA chair. Many young people in starter apartments or homes are lucky if they can afford new chairs at all on top of the $100,000 plus college debt and weak job prospects.

I love my Lee Valley planes and chisels. But when I started in woodworking with a young family and a modest income job it was Craftsman or nothing.

Then there's the issue of moving. We are a society of movers. The average American, I've read, moves every five years. Will the Moser chairs fit into every home and apartment a person will move into in their lifetime? Or is it better to buy fairly cheap and give things away rather than pay the high cost of moving to a new home where the good things might not fit in? (Try fitting a big Moser dining room set you bought for your 4,000 foot home on Long Island into the 1,100 sf apartment you're lucky to find when you have to move to San Francisco.)

It would be great if we could all afford Rolls Royces, Moser furniture, Dyson vacuums, and the homes and garages to go with them. But there's a need for those who can't afford those things still to be able to own chairs and cars and vacuums.
07/07/2016 Steve
Those West Elm chairs could very well have been made of mango wood. Mango trees are only productive for 15-20 years, and are therefore replaced periodically, with the wood nowadays being diverted to furniture factories. A lot of cheap furniture is also made of rubber wood, for the same reason, although the cycle time in that case is more like 30 years.
They don't really look like Mango wood to me. They might be or not. The issue is that West Elm doesn't care and by not caring, if illegal logging sneaks in some tropical hardwood the company can claim ignorance. Sadly that happens far, far too often - maybe not to West Elm but it is documented frequently with other companies such as Ikea.
07/25/2016 Mike
Some of the people who posted here might be surprised by what people expect out of these disposable chairs. I make a bit of change repairing these things. I also have to tell a lot of people that their chair is beyond repair for less than the original cost of of the piece.
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