Could an office chair really cost $5,000?
That was the head-scratching question facing some Americans on Tuesday amid news that a Department of Housing and Urban Development official complained about the agency's plans to redecorate Secretary Ben Carson's office.
Helen Foster, then HUD's chief administration officer, wrote in her complaint that shortly before President Donald Trump's inauguration, Acting Secretary Craig Clemmensen told her that Carson's wife, Candy, wanted Carson's office upgraded. Foster told him the department could not spend more than $5,000 on decorating the office without congressional approval, Foster wrote in her complaint, The Washington Post reported.
"$5000 will not even buy a decent chair," Clemmensen responded to Foster, according to her complaint. He instructed her to "find money," Foster wrote.
If what Foster says is true, then it appears that Clemmensen has a very pricey taste in chairs — especially for a federal official in a taxpayer-funded department tasked with overseeing programs for the homeless and poor.
"How many of you have bought a $5K office chair?" tweeted Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.
So we decided to do a little shopping. What kind of chair, we wondered, could $5,000 buy you?
It turns out, $5,000 office chairs do exist — but hardly.
A quick online search turns up, for example, the Bard of Avon Carved Armchair, at $5,129. ("Only 1 left!") It bills itself as an upholstered armchair with a brass trim, "walnut finish," and "grandiose details." The Italian-designed Bard of Avon chair promises to "create a throne-like chair for you, master of your home office."
Then there's the Osaki OS-3D Pro Cyber Zero Gravity Heated Massage Chair, in firetruck red, on Amazon. For a measly $4,795.00, you can enjoy a 3-D Roller and "features that will allow for a very vigorous massage, or even a gentle massage." These include, of course, "next generation airbags, computer body scan, Zero Gravity, lumbar heat, MP3 music system, Foot Rollers, chromo therapy, and more."
For a more traditional look, there's also the "Grand Executive Highback," designed by Antonio Citterio and offering "individually adaptable FlowMotion mechanism and luxurious leather upholstery" for $5,140.
These options seemed a bit far-fetched for someone looking to buy a "decent chair," so we decided to consult a professional.
Deb Longua-Zamero, CEO of Los Angeles-based DLZ Interiors, is a certified interior designer who has spent decades furnishing high-end office spaces for clients such as the CW Network and HBO. She even designed the post-presidential office space for President George H.W. Bush in Texas, she said.
Longua-Zamero's clients can clearly afford top-of-the-line office chairs - well beyond Ikea or Office Depot. Still, she said, she does not recall ever paying upward of $5,000 on a single chair. High-end, top-quality chairs generally range from $1,500 to $3,000, she said.
"He's probably just exaggerating," she said of Clemmensen. "Five thousand dollars I thought was just silly."
One popular office chair that comes close to reaching that price tag is the Eames Executive Chair, a premium leather, cushioned chair sold by Herman Miller for $4,480 to $4,780. Designed in 1959 for the lobbies of the Time-Life Building at Rockefeller Center, the chair is "classic," Longua-Zamero said. "It'll never go out of style."
That's about as expensive as high-end office chairs get. And Longua-Zamero said she has never paid nearly that much for the Eames Executive Chairs, which can often be sold on spec for less than the list price. She also presumes that many federal agencies have deals and preset pricing with vendors through the General Services Administration, which can help bring down costs.
Longua-Zamero's go-to office chair is the Aeron Chair, also at Herman Miller. The popular, ergonomic chair ranges from $820 to $1,555. Other top-quality options include the Freedom Task Chair with Headrest from the Humanscale collection, listed for $1,145. The Mirra 2 office chair, from Herman Miller, is listed at $694 to $1,199, and is compared to "a great running shoe - it moves with you, supporting you so you can keep going without getting fatigued."
Needless to say, there are legions of elite chair options for far less than $5,000.
But Longua-Zamero believes that Clemmensen was simply exaggerating that price tag to drive home a point - that a $5,000 budget for redecorating an office is "nothing."
"You seriously cannot do an office for $5,000," she said. "There's just no way." She estimated the average cost of decorating an executive office would be about $30,000. "It does add up," she said. But she presumes that government offices repurpose many furniture items when redecorating offices.
On Tuesday, HUD spokesman Raffi Williams denied that the department overspent to redecorate Carson's office. Officials ended up bringing used chairs from the basement and replacing the blinds for a cost of $3,400, Williams told The Post.
But a much greater HUD expense prompted outrage on social media Tuesday. Federal records show that HUD spent $31,561 on a conference table set for a room where the secretary has lunch with guests. Williams said the table was ordered by career staffers in charge of the building — not for the purpose of redecorating the secretary's office. The previous table, he said, was old and beyond repair.
Longua-Zamero said high-end conference table sets can run upward of $20,000, so the $31,561 price tag is "not unreasonable" — at least not for corporate executives.
When it's funded with taxpayer money, she said, "that's a whole different ballgame."
"I do think that anybody in a political office should be more conscientious about their choices because it's coming from the taxpayers' money," she said.
The department bought the dining room set late last year, just as the White House was proposing major budget cuts to HUD programs for the homeless, elderly and poor, the New York Times noted Tuesday.
What else perhaps, could HUD have spent the $31,561 on? Critics on social media presented some ideas.
"I'm disabled & I've been on a wait list for public housing for seven months," one woman tweeted. "My local disability housing wait list is at least five years long. The dining room set HUD bought for Ben Carson would easily have paid for two disabled people to be housed for a year."
And former Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell tweeted:
"Ben Carson billed taxpayers for a wooden table that cost more than the first home I bought.
"Draining the swamp sure seems expensive."