After almost two years and hundreds (okay probably tens) of couches sat on, I consider myself to be a couch connoisseur, maybe even a bit of a couch snob.
You see, I have a lot of demands for my couch. First of all, I need space. I have long legs, and I often have to share the space with either my husband or our 35-pound Australian cattle dog — sometimes both. I need a couch with arms so I can balance my laptop or water bottle on it. It must have stable, firm cushions because I tend to set my coffee to the side while balancing my laptop on Sunday and Saturday mornings. Finally, I need something that's comfortable for long periods of sits. I am someone who likes to take time off around the holidays to binge-play my favorite video games, and during those times, I get up only to fulfill my most basic of needs. In short, I demand excellence from my couch.
My current couch, however, is none of these things. We bought it three years ago online for $350 when we moved to Chicago, me to start grad school, my then-boyfriend-now-husband to start his first full-time job. The seat cushions perpetually hang about three inches over the front of the couch, and there's no shoving them back. The corduroy-like, red fabric-covered cushions have sunk into the couch, and it's nearly impossible to get all the dog fur off it. The arms are rounded, and I'm no longer allowed to set my coffee on the cushions because the cup will inevitably tip. Somehow, the cushions have managed to soak up at least two pots worth of coffee and show no real stain, and I don't know what to think of that. I suspect magic, although probably first-year-at-Hogwarts magic. If it were good magic, the couch wouldn't be so awful.
My Thoughts About Sofa in a Box
All this to say that when I wrote my article, "Made in Post-Globalized America," last spring, I didn't know what to think of Campaign Living's product, a sofa-in-a-box (or loveseat, chair or ottoman) made in the U.S., shipped in flat-ship boxes within four to seven days and put together in the home. I thought the idea had merit, but as I interviewed CEO and founder Brad Sewell, I thought — as did probably anyone who read the article — okay, sure, but what's the quality of this $1,495 sofa in a box really like? Is it just another IKEA, made to be thrown away when moving day arrives, or is there some durability to it?
It's likely a question others are asking because Campaign isn't the only company with this concept. There's also Burrow, which makes sofas, loveseats and chairs, and just recently, Floyd announced it would start producing sofas. And now The Inside, a furniture startup founded by Dwell’s Christiane Lemieux, will be manufacturing its own chairs, introducing new styles and sofa slipcovers and hoping that customers want to treat their furniture like they do their Forever 21 clothes (but that's a topic for another day).
For those questioning consumers, Campaign and Burrow both have outlets or places in different cities around the country that have the products in their stores and shops so people can go check them out. So that's what I did on a rainy Chicago Thursday morning — I couch surfed and went to discover what these sofas really looked like in person.
Here's what I found.
It was Campaign Living that originally connected with Macaire Douglas, owner of Half Pint Shop in Chicago, six months ago. Right away, she liked the concept of the DIY furniture and the idea of being an outpost for the company, and she thought the furniture would make a good fit for her eco-friendly furniture and decor shop for kids and the home. For those six months, she had one loveseat and three chairs in the shop, and she put them all together herself, even enjoying the process. Her customers liked the quality, and the sofa and chairs held up against the many kids coming in.
At the beginning of this month, Douglas closed her shop for good because her family was moving to Barrington, IL, but the space's new tenants, Alisha and Ray Crespo who are currently opening a coffee shop for Good Manner Coffee, liked the concept. They contacted Campaign, and Campaign told them to keep the furniture and sent swatches so they could choose new sofa slipcovers to match their space. Alisha Crespo said the company liked their plans for the space and seemed accommodating.
In the now-empty space on North Ashland Avenue, the burnt orange Campaign loveseat still felt soft. Though it had a few stains and some minor snags in the fabric here and there, it seemed to be in pretty good condition considering all the kids that had probably bounced on it. I squeezed the back and the sides to feel the powder-coated aluminum frame, and it felt sturdy, yet comfortable with the padding around the frame. The solid hardwood legs were thick in a light color, and the cushions laid perfectly against the back of the couch. Behind the back cushions, I could see the small hooks used to put the sofa together. Simple in design with its straight, clean lines, the loveseat looked plain, but the space was empty as well. A few throw pillows would fix that.
I sat on the loveseat for a while and leaned against the arm. The cushions felt secure, like they wouldn't go sliding off the front if I slouched (which I tried), and the back cushions provided great support without feeling like a brick wall. The loveseat was even deeper than I thought it would be.
After leaving Good Manners' future shop, I headed downtown to Space, a collaborative workspace with mini offices for rent located on North Wabash Avenue. The lobby area had a Burrow sofa and chair, and though the receptionist didn't know how long they'd had them, she knew it to have been at least a year.
Burrow's sofa in a box had more design touches to it, and online, consumers can raise the arms and add a chaise to a sofa. Its navy cushions had two shallow button tufts, and the arms sloped down, all of which gave it a more Mid-Century Modern look. I looked at the wood legs finished in Matte Black and thought of all the lighting fixtures that would match them. Burrow's frames are made from sustainably-sourced wood, and the fabrics have not been chemically treated. The fabric covering the cushions again felt very soft, and the sofa and chair both looked to be in good condition.
Once again, I sat on the sofa in a box for a while and leaned back. The arms came down at just the right height, and I felt comfortable placing my arm back behind the cushion like I sometimes do at home. None of the cushions slouched together, and they didn't move when I shifted forward. At about $1,200 for one medium-sized sofa, it seemed like a decent choice. At the very least, better than my $350 one, but then again, that's a pretty low bar to jump.
So what's this all about?
I'm not in any way, shape or form advocating for people to buy either brand or suggesting that I will replace my terrible couch with one of these options. My only thought is this:
Campaign Living, Burrow and other companies like them could disrupt the furniture industry in a way similar to bed-in-a-box mattresses. They offer better-quality products at a lower price point, and they produce furniture that can change with the consumer's life. Burrow's furniture is modular, so a consumer with a loveseat could order an extra seat to make it a sofa or even add a chaise farther down the line. Campaign offers a lifetime warranty on its frame, and as consumers move or redecorate their spaces, they can order a new sofa slipcover to change their look without having to buy a new couch in a box.
How I feel about these sofas is similar to how I feel about new construction in Chicago. All around, new condos are going up, but they're filled with all the luxurious amenities that I — and many like me — can't afford and normally wouldn't buy in a starter home or apartment. Granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, high-quality flooring — these are all things that after 10 years I might consider putting in my home, but right now, I don't need them and I could care less. I just want to be able to paint my walls and hang my stuff. This is only part of a larger conversation about affordable housing in the city and how luxury condos affect other homes, but it's one I think about often.
To me, I see these sofas as the equivalent of a starter home with the potential to become a nicer home without having to actually buy a new home. I don't know how long these sofas are really built to last — the companies are just too young at this point — but if the quality is there, then I could see a real shift in consumer expectations for furniture longevity.
Maybe we'll see that shift. Maybe we won't. A million factors could affect it, but for now, it's at least a rift I plan to watch closely.
And now every website I go to has ads for Campaign and Burrow on it, so I hope writing this was all worth it to someone.