By Roger Hazard
Finding the perfect sofa can be a trying experience. Choosing the best fit for your family from thousands of styles and colors and hundreds of manufacturers means that this major purchase can be a major headache.
Let's look closer at your options, simplifying the search for a comfortable, stylish sofa.
Finding your style. The style that works best for you will be a combination of what appeals to you visually — form, color, detailing — and what works for you in terms of practicality — comfort, scale, versatility.
Start by familiarizing yourself with the available styles without worrying about practicality. Which varieties appeal most to you? Do you like the classic shape of a Chesterfield, with a boxy form and deep tufting? Or do you prefer the formal English sofa, with graceful, sweeping lines? Modern style in a sofa can mean anything from sleek, Italian pieces to chunky, deeply cushioned pieces meant for casual lounging.
The type of cushions used on a sofa affect both its appearance and plushness. Most seat cushions are designed to be removable, but they vary in size. Bench cushions run the entire length of the sofa, which creates a more even surface for lounging. The back cushions can be tight back, cushion back or attached back configurations. Tight back sofas have no separate back cushion; instead, the padding is built into the back of the sofa itself. This is common among formal and mid-century styles. Cushion back sofas generally boast more plush comfort, although you might find it difficult to keep the cushions neatly arranged. Attached back sofas are typically low-cost models, as this manufacturing technique reduces upholstery costs. The cushions might appear to be separate, but are actually permanently sewn to the back of the sofa.
Don't worry much about matching your existing furniture. In fact, a dramatic departure in style — a very traditional sofa in a modern space or modern sofa in a classic home — can make a room more interesting. Adhere to neutral colors if you're worried about creating a cohesive feel.
Scale and layout. Big rooms demand big furniture. Little rooms don't. When walking through a large furniture showroom, remember that sofas will appear smaller than they will in your own home. I understand that most people want a couch roomy enough to stretch out on, but an oversized sofa or sectional can easily overpower a room and block walkways.
If you are working with a smaller space but are adamant about maximizing seating area, opt for a design with a narrow square arm. The massive rounded arms of many oversized sofas do little to contribute to comfort but can waste several square feet of floor space.
When shopping for sectionals, avoid preconfigured models and instead find one that you can design especially for you space. A three-sided sectional can wall off the spaces behind the furniture; as an alternative, use a backless chaise for at least one leg of the sectional to create a more open feel.
While it might be tempting to buy a matched set of furniture — often seen as a three-seat sofa paired with a love seat or armchair — don't feel obligated. Create a more sophisticated look by pairing different but complementary pieces. You can experiment with combining furniture of varying colors, forms, and sizes to add your own touch to the room.
Looking for quality and durability. Identifying a well-built sofa is easy if you know what to examine. Key components are the frame, seat and back supports, and cushions. Each style of sofa requires a custom-engineered frame. Though the seat and base vary only slightly model to model, the arm detail must be carefully designed to provide the right look. Look into the type of materials used in frame construction. Top manufacturers will be able to provide detailed information on what materials the frame is composed of and how it is assembled.
Most sofas use one of three types of support systems. The most common is a sinuous spring, an S-shaped wire that runs across the seat base to be fastened at the ends. Eight-way hand-tied springs use an assembly that allows a wide range of movement. They are typically found on high-end pieces due to the labor required to install them. Finally, pocket coil systems provide dozens of encased springs, creating an even, uniform seating surface.
Remember that the upholstery constitutes a substantial portion of the expense of any sofa. Because most sofas require at least 12 yards of material, some manufacturers will go to great lengths to reduce the amount of material used or opt for lower-quality grades of material. Spending more on upholstery doesn't guarantee that your sofa will be more durable, but higher-quality materials do typically age more gracefully and might come pre-treated with stain repellent.
Setting a budget. Before establishing a budget, go window shopping. Familiarize yourself with the price points of various manufacturers, and pay attention to the materials and workmanship put into the product.
Though there are exceptions, sofas in the mid-to-upper price ranges will feature much higher quality frames, upholstery, spring systems, and cushions. If your goal is to keep your sofa for more than a few years, spend time examining the construction of different vendors to verify that their products will withstand the stresses of daily use. Would you like to be able to reupholster your furniture down the road? The construction of inexpensive pieces might make them difficult or cost-prohibitive to have reupholstered.
If a store is offering an appealing monthly payment plan, be sure to read the fine print before getting too excited. The interest rates on these payment plans can be high, as some companies sell their furniture at low margins but maximize profits through finance charges.
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