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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

Build-Your-Own Furniture Shakes Its Bad Rap

The pair of side chairs I ordered arrived in boxes so flat I thought surely I had gotten the wrong items. (What’s in here? A dog bed?) Then again, I usually order furniture that comes assembled.

I had ordered the matching set of Mid-Century, azure-blue (to go with an area rug), accent armchairs for our upstairs TV room. I found them online after narrowing my search to half a dozen candidates. This took a while. A search for blue accent chairs on the Overstock website surfaced 763 options. This probably makes me sound old but remember when your choice of furniture was limited to the stores you could drive to and walk in?

After narrowing my search based on looks, size and price to three favorites, I turned to the reviews. What ultimately sold me on the chair I chose was its 4.5-star rating. Among the more than 500 reviews were many that regaled — and now we finally get to my point — how easy the chair was to assemble. Another contender had a string of reviews that said just the opposite.

I surveyed the flat boxes as one might size up a wrestling opponent. My husband, who was heading off to a meeting when the boxes arrived, offered to put the chairs together when he got back. I didn’t want to wait. I never want to wait.

I cut open the cartons. Surprisingly, inside each compactly packed box were all the pieces needed to assemble one chair — two sides, a seat, a back, hardware, an Allen wrench, and instructions.

I laid out the hardware and cross checked the pieces against the instructions: eight bolts, eight nuts, eight ringy thingies, and set to work. Except for one minor operator error (when I attached the left arm to the right side), all went smoothly. I had the first chair together in 20 minutes, and its mate together in 15. Huzzah!

Most amazing, they were sturdy as a nun’s faith. Talk about gratifying!

Not too many years ago, a similar project would have involved more parts, more tools, more cursing, and a rickety result. The table would shimmy. The shelves would tilt. The chair would wobble. (Please just look, don’t sit!)

Then I wondered, What had changed?

“Ready-to-assemble furniture is shaking its bad rap,” said Elton Rivas, co-founder of Semi Exact, a company that sells ready-to-make furniture components that DIYers can customize to make what they want.

“The perception has been that putting together your own furniture is too hard, and that only low-end furniture comes this way,” he said. Truly good furniture, people believed, comes fully assembled on trucks, delivered by men in white gloves.

“So it’s not my imagination,” I said. “Furniture today is easier to assemble.”

“Easier, less daunting and less looked down upon,” he said.

He likens the shift in the furniture industry to what is happening in the home-delivered, meal-kit space. Companies like Home Chef, Blue Apron and HelloFresh deliver the ingredients with an instruction card, and you do the work, Rivas said. “Many find a great sense of satisfaction putting together a meal that looks like a magazine shoot.”

“We started using one of these services during COVID,” I said, “and my husband suddenly thought he was Emeril Lagasse.”

“That’s what is happening with furniture,” said Rivas, whose company slogan is “Making it easy for you to say ‘I Made it.’” “We are working to help customers build what they want with better outcomes.”

Works for me!

Here’s what Rivas said has changed to make that experience possible:

  • Emboldened consumers. Big box retailers like Home Depot, Lowe’s and Ace Hardware have empowered consumers to say, “Yes, I can do this myself.” Pinterest and Instagram are also fortifying consumer confidence.“Today’s consumers are more willing to build their own furniture, and are taking more pride in saying they did it themselves,” he said.

  • Resources erase the fear factor. For many would-be DIYers, the root of their resistance has been the fear the item won’t work or turn out well, Rivas said. However, today so many online tutorials and inspirational resources are available to help consumers overcome their skill gap. Whatever you want to make, a YouTube is available to show you how.

  • Better parts. As demand for ready-to-assemble furniture (also known as knock-down, flat-pack, or kit furniture)grows, companies are working to make putting furniture together easier. “Improvements in machinery and equipment have allowed for manufacturers to create better, higher quality components with less variation, so pieces go together with greater precision,” Rivas said. (Amen.)

  • Savings on shipping and storage. The ability to flat pack items that the end user will assemble dramatically reduces costs. It not only eliminates the cost of professional assembly, but also saves on storage and shipping because unassembled furniture takes up much less space.

  • Online reviews. No one is going to order a piece of furniture that has 10 reviews saying the assembly is a nightmare. Consumer reviews and posted photos hold furniture makers accountable.

  • A shift from push to pull. The furniture industry has gone from being manufacturer driven, where companies say, “We’re making this, and so this is what’s available,” to being consumer-driven, where customers say, “This is what we want. Now make it happen.”

Photo caption: Ready. Set. Make. The next wave in furniture, says Elton Rivas, co-owner of Semi Exact, will be a move away from ready-to-assemble furniture to ready-to-make furniture, like items pictured here, where customers purchase components then cut them to the size they want. Photo courtesy of Semi Exact.

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