Buying a sofa is often one of the biggest—and most important—purchases you can make for your space. Not only is it often the focal point of a room, but it’s also the piece of furniture you, and your guests, will likely be spending quite a bit of time on. So what to buy? It’s hard enough to decide on a style—English roll arm, mid-century design, chesterfield, tuxedo—but then come all of the fabric choices (leather, chenille, cotton, prints, patterns, stain resistance, the list goes on). Finally, there are all of the unseen details—the springs, the fill, the frame—that should be the literal underpinning of your decision. So where do you begin?
by Virginia Van Zanten
by Virginia Van Zanten
Take some time to consider how you use your space—is it formal or relaxed? Will it get frequent use? Or is it an occasional space? A deep, comfortable sofa is good for an informal living room and evenings of curling up with a blanket and a bowl of popcorn, but might look out of place in a formal living room. In a more formal room, a structured, ornamental sofa could be the ticket—it can make a visual statement, but doesn’t necessarily need to be suited to hours of Netflix-bingeing. Next, take into account the style of your room when selecting the style of the sofa. An English roll arm sofa would feel at home in a traditional space, but adding a sleek mid-century sofa could be a great way to inject some eclectic interest.
Consider the size. It can be difficult to envision exactly how such a large piece of furniture will appear in your space, so mark it out. Use painter’s tape to trace the outline of the piece on your floor. If you plan on putting the sofa up against your wall, mark the height along the wall with tape as well. Now walk around your room as you usually would—are you bumping into the “edges”? Consider how many people you are hoping to seat. Unless the sofa has a bench cushion (one long cushion), the rule of thumb is one person per cushion—most people don’t opt to sit on the cracks. Finally, measure carefully to make sure your chosen sofa will fit through your door or around any corners.
Now comes the fun part—choose the fabric. Start by getting swatches of everything you’re considering to see how they look in your space and with your existing furnishings. Then consider the material itself: Is it stain resistant? Will it age well? Will it fade? Is it kid-friendly? Dog-friendly? Should you get a slip cover?
Check the undercarriage, so to speak. Ask about the frame. What is it made of? A good-quality sofa should be made from solid hardwood like oak, ash, or beech. Other materials like particleboard or metal, will wear more quickly and have a tendency to warp. To check the strength of the frame yourself, do the “lift” test. Raise the front sofa leg by six inches, at that height, the other front leg should lift as well. If the other leg is still on the ground, the frame is too flexible and weak. Similarly, the sofa should be held together by dowels, metal screws, and brackets, not just nails and glue.
Next, check the cushions. Foam and polyester fill are affordable, but can flatten quickly. Down filling (goose or duck) mixed with other feathers is the gold standard, but will cost at least twice the price of foam or poly. But it’s not all one or the other, many good quality sofas are a mix of many materials, like a foam core wrapped with down and even polyester fill. The cushion is only part of the formula, the springs do the support work. Most sofas have sinuous serpentine springs, but the best, longest-lasting option is eight-way hand-tied springs.
Finally, sit on the sofa. How does it feel? Put your feet up. Stretch out. Your sofa can tick every box, but if it isn’t comfortable, it isn’t your sofa.