Simply put, contract furniture is any furniture that is designed and manufactured for commercial installation in offices, waiting rooms, lobbies, and other public or high-use spaces.
Furniture that is designed and manufactured for the home is referred to as residential furniture. Residential retail furniture is furniture for the home that you can buy online or in stores without the help of an interior design professional.
Why should anyone care?
Modern commercial interior design has shifted towards spaces that are looking more and more like comfortable home environments. So you might wonder, aren't the sofas found in upscale hotel lobbies built the same way as the sofas sold in stores?
There are two key considerations when considering the differences between contract and residential retail furniture: construction and design. Let's focus specifically on the differences in upholstered furniture (sofas, lounge chairs, loveseats, ottomans, and sectionals), since these differences can be hidden and dramatic.
Contract furniture frames are typically constructed of hardwood or steel, are built to withstand minimum weight requirements, and usually carry a warranty of 5 years or more. Frames in residential retail furniture vary greatly. Some have warranties, but nearly all are voided by commercial use.
Foam used in contract furniture is usually between 1.8lb - 3lb density, with indentation load deflection ratings that insure foam holds its shape and provides a firm sit for a variety of users. In residential retail furniture, information on foam is usually not disclosed, and is suited for light or occasional home use. Sometimes residential furniture may include a feather or down wrap which requires fluffing and reshaping over time.
- Fabrics used on contract furniture usually have a Wyzenbeek rating of at least 40,000 double rubs (categorized as "heavy duty"), and often have stain resistance or anti-microbial properties. Fabrics included in residential retail furniture typically only meet requirements for light or occasional use (Wyzenbeek ratings of 15,000 double rubs).
You might assume that the differences between contract and residential retail furniture end there.
But the design priorities of contract versus residential retail furniture are also vastly different.
Seat heights in contract furniture usually range from 17-19". This height ensures those with limited mobility can easily stand up and sit down without stumbling. Firm foam means the seat height remains constant. In residential retail furniture, priority is often given to a low-profile look, resulting in seat heights as low as 14-16". Lower quality foam can sink the seat height even further.
Seat depths in contract lounge furniture range from 20-24" while residential retail furniture can reach seat depths of up to 28" to accommodate napping and slouching.
Contract furniture prioritizes function in a commercial setting where space can often be at a premium, so over-sized furniture or details like large rolled arms are unusual. Residential retail furniture can sometimes be bulky.
Traditionally, custom design details are carefully specified by an interior design professional when a contract furniture order is placed. For example, a designer may advise against welts along the front of seat cushions and along arms because they show wear quickly. Tufting, buttons, skirts and exposed wood details all have the potential to invite damage. In residential retail furniture, these details are left to the consumer's preferences.
Photo courtesy of FLDWRK
All of these general differences aside, it is possible to find residential retail furniture that will function in a light-use commercial space! The issue is that the broad range of dimensions, construction, materials, and details in residential retail furniture means that the responsibility lies with the buyer to do their research.
You'll also need to ask yourself: "How long do I want this furniture to look good?" If the answer is only a few months, then you may be able to get by with cheaper, less durable furniture. But you'll need to be prepared to buy new furniture down the road.
If you decide to forgo the residential retail furniture option, your best option is buying contract furniture, either directly from a contract furniture company, or with the help of an interior designer or dealership. You'll still need a firm understanding of your priorities before you make your purchases, but you'll be minimizing your risks.