High/low design

It started with a Facebook conversation I started the other day about a potential sponsor offering me a $165 cushion. I had declined it on the basis that it was not a good fit for this blog since I am all about affordable decorating.

A quick straw poll revealed that most of you would typically spend about the same as I would on a cushion, but industry pros Jen and Fiona raised the big question of quality, conditions and craftsmanship.

I don’t usually get too ‘deep’ here but for some reason I feel like I want to dive into this particular can of worms (now there’s a mental image for you).

I want to make one thing clear from the outset: this is not about how businesses choose to price their products. I have no doubt that the manufacturer in question priced their goods appropriately given the quality of material and labour involved. I am a producer of high-end goods myself through my invitation business and – even though it’s sometimes uncomfortable – I know my prices are exactly where they need to be.

Design-wise, we can’t compare these kinds of handcrafted items with their mass-produced counterparts. Yet for us as consumers, they need to be compared because they are both competing for our dollars. We all have finite resources so of course we are weighing up the product that costs the same as a takeaway baguette with the one that costs more than my entire weekly grocery budget.

I would love to buy proper designer furniture to compensate its creator. I would love to know I’m putting food on the table of an independent designer. I would love to know my money is supporting sustainable and ethical business practices.

And then there’s the reality. I can’t afford to drop a month’s mortgage payment on an armchair. The pesky budget has me bypass the handmade for the machine made. A higher price is no guarantee of ethical production (and vice versa).

High/low design
Mid-century chair (roadside find), hand-me-down Kartell side tables, Freedom sofa, Etsy cushions, Target lantern and faux flowers, handblown Eamonn Vereker glass bowl. In background: antique oak table with replica Eames chairs.

So what’s a design-loving, budget-conscious (possibly over-thinking) girl to do?

Buy handmade/independent

It’s harder to do this on a budget but it can be done. Keep an eye out for newer designers or those who produce goods that are not so labour-intensive or that use simpler materials (not that that is the sole factor in price, but it’s a good starting point). And of course there’s Etsy, which caters for every price range.

Buy second-hand designer

If you love designer furniture but feel squeamish about knock-offs, consider second-hand. I’m lucky enough to have inherited my parents’ original Kartell tables and Planet lamp, but eagle eyes can find affordable originals (or at least authentic smaller brand names) on Gumtree or Craigslist.

Buy vintage

Most of our furniture is vintage (or even antique), partly for aesthetic reasons but also because the craftsmanship is far superior to the majority of comparably-priced modern buys. We have picked up some beautifully made pieces for a fraction of the cost of quality new furniture.

Invest in the right pieces

You will need to invest in some quality pieces even – or perhaps especially – if you are on a budget. I say especially because it will be even more important to ensure your purchases last so you don’t have to constantly replace them. These are the items that need to be kind to your body (mattresses, couches, desk chairs) or make an impact in a room (area rug, entertainment unit, feature artwork). Look for quality items that give you the most bang for your buck and will stand the test of time.

Buy what you love

Go easy on the impulse purchases – yes, I’m talking about the all those innocent $20 purchases, they add up. Instead, give yourself a 30 day delay on purchases; if you still keep coming back to it, go ahead and buy it. It’s not about deprivation, it’s about quality vs quantity and making sure your hard earned cash goes to something worthwhile that you will enjoy for years to come.

Do a trade

I have a jeweller friend who regularly trades her pieces with other designers in her community. You don’t have to be a professional – perhaps you have a crafty friend who would sew you a set of curtains or knit you one of her beautiful scarves in exchange for some lawnmowing or babysitting.

High/low design


I admit, I am equal parts lazy and naive when it comes to ethical production (I know, I know), so I won’t comment too much on that complex topic. Mine is not an extreme standpoint, rather an uneasy balance between cost vs quality, ethical vs unknown.

It’s a continual challenge but the above approach is what helps me strike as good a balance as I can for me right now.

There is no easy answer (and it will be different for every person) but first we need to be aware of the questions.

How about you: Do you largely buy independent/ethical/designer or is budget a more crucial criteria for you? If, like me, you find yourself in the middle, how do you find a balance?


2 Responses

  • Like you, I try to maintain a balance. I’d love to only buy from ethical, independent designers, but I often can only afford that thing from Target.

    Until I’m independently wealthy, I’m going to need to make some compromises.

    {I do try to buy my Christmas gifts on Etsy, though, as a way to assuage my residual guilt.}

    • Even if you can’t always put your beliefs into practice it’s great that you’re conscious of it and do your best.

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