How to Shop for a Sofa

When it comes to choosing the perfect sofa, all the experts say the same thing: Sit on it.
First, look for a sofa that feels good, then worry about what it looks like.

Comfort is “the No. 1 consideration” in buying a sofa, said Joe Caliva, a sales associate at Brinton’s of Carmel, California. “Style is No. 2, and the pattern and color are No. 3.”

The experts say it’s good to get the whole family involved in the purchase.

“Each person has to sit on the sofa, to see how it fits them proportionally,” said Debbie Brix, manager of the Ethan Allen store in San Jose, California. “You have to take your shoes off, lie down and curl up because that’s how a lot of people live.”

Brix had to do this recently herself when she was selecting a new sofa for her own home. She tried out every model in her store, and her husband tested a good many as well. But it was well worth the effort – they got just what they wanted.

Let’s face it, finding a sofa can take a while. You’ll probably have to sit, recline and lounge on quite a few before you’re through.

“A sofa is a huge commitment – once it’s in your house, it’s usually yours to keep, so you’d better love it,” said Colleen Hickey, a custom upholsterer and designer, who owns the home furnishings store Saffron amp; Genevieve in Santa Cruz, California.

And not only is it a commitment, it’s an investment. Good quality sofas start around $1,500 and go up from there.

But where to start? There’s a bewildering number of options available, both in style and fabric. Rolled arm or straight arm? Box pleats or plinth base? Tight back or multi-pillow back? Upholstered legs or bare?

There are some other basics to keep in mind. Choosing the style that fits your home is important; so is the size, which should be proportional to the rest of the room. Then there’s picking among the thousands of available fabrics.

Take a deep breath – here’s how to get started.

Style: Consider the room the sofa is meant for and the existing style of the room. Is it formal or casual? Modern or classic? Knowing what you want before you go in the store is half the battle.

Hickey recommends leafing through home design magazines to gather ideas about what you want. You might want to visit furniture stores for a while – just to look – so that you can become familiar with what’s available.

Some popular designers include Barbara Barry, whose furniture evokes glamour of earlier eras; Bill Sofield, whose look is sophisticated and modern; Laura Kirar, known for clean, simple lines; and Thomas Pheasant, whose pieces are classic and curvy.

Use: What will the sofa be used for? Is it for the whole family to lounge on while watching TV? Is it for a seldom-used room? Determining who will be sitting on the sofa, and how often, will help you make a choice.

Size: Many contemporary sofas and sectionals are enormous, made to fit in today’s supersized new homes. But be careful here. You don’t want to buy something that will overwhelm a room or, heaven forbid, be too large to fit through the door. Measure carefully; if your furniture store has a design service available, have a designer measure the room and give recommendations.

Padding: Everything about the sofa should feel comfortable and solid, said Hickey. She recommends feeling a sofa all over, checking for any springs or hard parts that might be sticking out. The arms of the sofa should also be cushy enough to sit on.

At the same time, support is also essential, notes Caliva.

“As people get older, they need a little more support,” he said. “They shouldn’t sink into the sofa and not be able to get up. Something firmer may be needed.”

The right degree of firmness, however, should still be comfortable.

Frame: Years ago, quality sofas were “eight-way hand-tied” or made of kiln-dried wood. However, Brix said these are no longer sure signs of quality, especially when it comes to imported furniture. Hardwood frames are still considered the most desirable.

Fabric: Pick what suits your taste and your lifestyle. If you have pets and small children, go with leather or chenille, and opt for darker colors to hide dirt.

Leather is very popular, but there’s a lot of variation in leather quality, said Caliva. “There are different kinds of leather and different thicknesses,” he said. A cheap sofa might have paper-thin leather, which won’t stand up to much wear and tear.

Hickey likes natural fibers, such as hemp and linen. “They are super-durable, can be cleaned, and get softer with age,” she said. “Ultrasuede and chenille are popular choices these days, but unless it’s a quality fabric, you won’t get the wear you expect.”

Brix has reservations about another popular fabric, microfiber. “Spot cleaning can leave marks,” she said.

When you start getting serious about selection, visit a furniture store and be prepared to push, prod and test the floor models.

Caliva said the best way to know what you’re getting is to ask questions – something that few customers do in the showroom. Ask what kind of wood is used, what springs are used (heavy gauge is best), what kind of webbing, and what sort of warranty comes with each sofa.

You can also test the sofa by pressing down on the arms and back. If there’s a squeak or a wiggle, it’s not a good buy. You shouldn’t hear any squeaks when you sit on it, either.

You can open the cushions to see how they’re stuffed: Caliva recommends those that have a high-density polyurethane foam core with a Dacron wrap. The wrap protects the foam and keeps it from oxidizing. Brix and Hickey say that a down blend surrounding a foam core is also popular.

Whatever the filling, there shouldn’t be any lumps or bumps anywhere in the cushions or the rest of the sofa, and the back of the sofa should also be padded. Seams must be straight, and stripes in the fabric should line up properly.

Why go to all this trouble? A sofa is often the centerpiece of a room, and in all probability, it’s a piece of furniture that will see a fair amount of use. Making sure it will last – and that it’s the perfect fit for your home – will ensure that it gives you something to cuddle up to for years to come.

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