AMY CUNNINGHAM REALIZED SHE had to do something about her living-room furniture the day her husband, Joel, started dumping it in the driveway.
"He just had a fit one day and said, `I hate this furniture!' " Amy recalls. She could see her husband's point. The pieces weren't very comfortable, and the white upholstery was no match for two kids, two dogs and two cats.
"It was always dirty," she says. "We could never get it clean."
This was the second set of furniture that Amy and Joel, a lawyer, had purchased for the room. Unwilling to invest any more money in a space they rarely used, the Cunninghams decided to go out and buy some cheap replacement pieces that they wouldn't mind trashing in a few years. Then Roberta Brown Root intervened. An interior designer and friend of the couple, Brown Root assured the pair that throwaway furniture wouldn't make them any happier in the long run.
The designer promised them that if they let her select some new furniture, they would end up with pieces that would last for years. And if the family moved, she vowed that the furnishings would work in their next house as well.
That was important for the Cunninghams, who have a history of changing houses - often. "We move every six years just to keep our closets clean," Amy says.
In choosing new furniture for the home, Brown Root looked for pieces that were moderate in scale, so they could adapt to a variety of room sizes. She also searched for pieces that were classic in design - neither too contemporary nor too traditional.
"Don't look for your basic pieces of furniture to punctuate your room," suggests the designer. "Look at those pieces to be the backbone of the room, and punctuate with things that you don't have to take with you." Accessories, centerpieces and throw pillows can give a room character, and they're a lot less costly to replace.
Brown Root chose a sofa with a tailored skirt and understated rolled arms, two armless chairs, and an armchair with ottoman. She had all four pieces upholstered in a durable, commercial-grade gray flannel.
"Gray flannel is the perfect neutral," she says. "It moves easily - it's like white canvas that way." Using the same material on all four pieces gave the room a more contemporary look than a mix of several different fabrics.
To assure maximum comfort, the designer bought pieces with foam-and-down-wrapped seats and feather-and-down backs. She bypassed conventional, no-sag construction in favor of eight-way hand-tied springs, which are far more durable and provide greater comfort over time. Naturally, those attributes don't come cheap: The four pieces cost $7,410 back in 1992.
"They'll be able to pass this furniture on to their kids," notes Brown Root. "It will last forever."
The Cunninghams complained that they spent most of their time in the breakfast room off the kitchen. To get the family to use the rest of the house more, Brown Root moved the TV and stereo into the living room, concealing them inside a custom-made pine armoire. She lined the dining room with bookshelves, so it felt more like a library, and replaced the table in the breakfast room with a sectional, so the family would be forced to eat their meals in the dining room.
The plan worked. The family started using the living and dining rooms for family activities as well as for entertaining. Unfortunately, Brown Root's success was short-lived. A few months after the furniture moved in, the Cunninghams moved out.
Their new home in Cedar Park was everything the Inverness home wasn't. Originally built in the 1920s, it featured traditional rooms with dark taupe walls and matching carpet. A broad porch lined the waterfront side, casting a shadowy pall over the interior.
When Brown Root saw the new house, she panicked. The gray flannel furniture would look much too gloomy in this setting. But she had promised that the new pieces would work anywhere. That left her with just one option: If she couldn't change the furniture, she'd have to change the surroundings.
Fortunately, she had a willing client.
"I was hungry for color in here," says Amy. "Our other house was so open and light. Plus, we wanted it to be kind of casual - not formal."
The homeowner and designer chose sunflower yellow for the dining room and poppy red for the living room. They pulled up the wall-to-wall carpeting and covered the walnut window frames with a crisp coat of white paint. Suddenly, eyes were drawn to the view of the lake instead of stopping at the frame.
In the previous home, the gray flannel furniture fit the pared-down, contemporary mood of the interior. In their new location, the pieces provide a casual counterpoint to the traditional architecture. The wall colors do their part as well, brushing away some of the solemnity brought on by the charcoal-gray fabric.
The sectional from the old breakfast room was placed in the master bedroom, where it defines a cozy sitting area by the fireplace. Brown Root paired the teal pinstripe fabric with walls painted a delectable pale kiwi.
The custom-made pine pieces from the old house feel right at home in their new quarters. The armoire resides in the new living room, alongside the old coffee table and side tables. In the dining room, the only new piece - a custom French farm table - is paired with the Cunninghams' old black wicker dining chairs. Brown Root says these were another good investment, because they can be moved outside if the owners tire of having them indoors.
"I never believed that this furniture would work in here," says Amy, still a little shell-shocked how things worked out. "Even my husband - who never thought he'd want to spend money on furniture - is really happy with it."
So far, the driveway's a lot cleaner, too.
--------------------------------- SHOPPING FOR INVESTMENT FURNITURE ---------------------------------
If you're looking for furniture that will last a long time and work in a variety of settings, Seattle interior designer Roberta Brown Root has these suggestions:
-- Buy the best furniture you can afford. A piece with eight-way hand-tied springs will generally last longer than a piece with no-sag construction. Hardwood frames and joints that are glued and doweled are other hallmarks of quality. If you don't know how a piece is made, ask the salesperson.
-- When selecting core pieces of furniture, look for transitional styling in an understated fabric.
-- Don't buy pieces of furniture that are so big they won't fit in another setting. Better to err on the side of buying too small than too big.
-- Think about how a piece of furniture could be used at a later date. The Cunninghams purchased wicker chairs for the dining room with the understanding that they could move the pieces outside if they tired of them.
-- Sectionals are more flexible than sofas, because they can be arranged any number of ways to fit the size and scale of a room.
Seattle writer Fred Albert reports regularly on home design for Pacific and other regional magazines. Greg Gilbert and Benjamin Benschneider are Seattle Times photographers.