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Furniture shopping? What to look for when buying desks, entertainment centers, more

When it comes to furnishing a stylish home on a budget, finding the right storage pieces is key. The entertainment center, bookcase and desk you choose don’t just keep things in their proper places, but they also say a lot about your home’s character. How do you find the piece that’s right for you? Here's what designer Betsy Helmuth, author of the new book "Big Design, Small Budget," sugges
John Ha
John Ha

When it comes to furnishing a stylish home on a budget, finding the right storage pieces is key. The entertainment center, bookcase and desk you choose don’t just keep things in their proper places, but they also say a lot about your home’s character. 

How do you find the piece that’s right for you? Here's what designer Betsy Helmuth, author of the new book "Big Design, Small Budget," suggests you look for when furniture shopping.

Media storage/entertainment centers

Today

Let’s face it: The focal point in most living rooms is the television — in mine, too. No judgment. Since we are likely staring at the TV and the furniture it is in/on/above, I want that media storage to look nice.

Look for:

  • Cord concealment. A media console or center must conceal the mess of cords behind it. I cringe when I see a glass or open-backed shelving media stand. I am very adamant about this one. Imagine me yelling a la Joan Crawford, “NO MORE VISIBLE CORDS — or wire hangers!”
  • Low sight lines. If you choose to mount your TV above its stand, don’t go too high. TVs are supposed to be viewed at eye level when you are seated on your sofa. When mounted too high (or, gosh forbid, above a fireplace), it can feel like you are seated in the front row of a movie theater, straining your neck to view the image above you.
  • Storage. Besides just a cable box, media players and gaming consoles, we typically have extra remotes, controllers and DVDs that we need to store. Get a piece that can accommodate these items as well.
  • A hallelujah moment. Let’s just say you need a lot of storage. Let’s just say your husband is a hoarder — like mine. He owns over 1,300 DVDs. Rather than having these in a collection of bookcases sprinkled around the room, I got a big ol’ media center. This piece has saved our marriage.

When clients have a lot of things, be they books, toys, just crap they can’t part with, I recommend a media center. In order to not have the media center look like the big, DVD-stuffed elephant in the room, our unit has both open and closed storage. Most of the media is behind closed doors. Then we have featured the more interesting volumes as well as photos in frames and special mementos on the open shelves. Thus, the unit is more visually appealing and looks less like a storage locker.

Positioning pointers:

  • The unit should be placed so that the television is centered on the sofa or the primary seat from which it is watched.
  • Double-check your room’s balance. If you have a large sectional or sofa on one wall, you’ll need more than just a small TV stand opposite it. Flank the TV stand with bookcases or go for an entertainment center.
  • On the flip side, if you have a big entertainment center, you need more than a wilting love seat on the wall opposing it. Bulk the seating area up with a chunky side table or a sizable piece of art above the settee.

Shelving/bookcases 

Today

Your étagère is going to be mostly concealed behind books, picture frames and baskets. We are looking for sturdy — not flashy.

Look for:

  • Depth. It’s a pet peeve of mine when things stick over the front of a bookcase. If you have wide books or want to store your board games on shelves, be sure you pick a deeper than normal bookcase.
  • Sides. Having sides on your bookcase means that you can store more books within the piece. If your piece has open shelves with exposed ends, you are going to need bookends or you will need to lay books horizontally to prevent them from falling.
  • Adjustable shelves. Some books are tall. Some books are small. Maximize the amount you can store with adjustable shelves that leave two-inches to four-inches between the top of the books and the bottom of the next shelf.
  • Fewer pieces. Unless they are built in, more than two tall bookcases in one room can start to feel oppressive. If you have more stuff than two cases can hold, consider a Hallelujah Moment (see above) or getting wider than normal bookcases (30-inches wide or greater).

Positioning pointers:

  • A space feels more welcoming when your eye steps up with the furniture as you enter. Therefore, place smaller pieces near the entry and taller pieces, like bookcases, toward the farther ends of the room.
  • A bookcase with cubbies rather than shelves makes a perfect sofa table when laid on its side.
  • Create the look of a media center without committing to one large piece by placing a bookcase on either side of a TV stand.

Desks/desk chairs

Today

If/when I have my own furniture line, I will start by designing desks. Almost all of my clients request a desk, and the current retail selection of decent work surfaces is slim.

Look for:

  • Storage. I don’t care if you need storage or not. Every desk I recommend to my cli­ents has storage underneath. We all need a place to put a pair of scissors. But the real reason your desk needs storage is that the drawers/shelves conceal those pesky cords. The cords from the desk lamp or chargers can all fall behind the trusty column of drawers/doors.
  • Anything but glass and open shelving. Again, Mama don’t wanna see your fingerprints or your cords! Get something opaque with closed storage.
  • A comfy seat. If you spend a lot of time at your desk, you may want to sit on something ergonomic. Nearly all of those chairs look hideous. I surrender. Get the hideous yet super comfortable chair. Take the money you would have spent on a chiropractor and invest in a super chic desk that steals focus.
  • No wheels. Unless your desk is on tile or a very low-pile rug (NO MORE PLASTIC FLOOR MATS!), you should not have wheels on your chair. Wheels will eat up your wood flooring, leaving unsightly gouges.

Positioning pointers:

  • Place it far from the entryway to avoid the dumping ground issue outlined in the dining area section.
  • Another reason to keep it away from the entry is to avoid seeing it. Most of our desks are messy and functional rather than pristine and perfect. Don’t nobody want to see your printer or paperwork. Find an out-of-the-way corner in which to tuck it rather than making it the room’s focal point.
  • What’s the word for an anti-aphrodisiac? For the purposes of this book, it will be “desk.” Desks, with their technological energy, flashing lights, and stress-inducing projects, are far from sexy or restful. Keep them out of your bedroom.

Excerpted with permission from "Big Design, Small Budget: Create a Glamorous Home in Nine Thrifty Steps" by Betsy Helmuth. Copyright 2014, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.