I still remember my shock and dismay when I realized that sofas had to be bought. Somehow I thought sofas just happened. They always simply showed up in homes, hotels and offices without explanation or fanfare, like feral kittens or bills.
It seemed as if someone on high said: Let there be sofas!
But somewhere on the way to becoming an adult, right around the time you buy insurance for the first time, you find yourself in the market for a sofa. It’s a terrifying place, the sofa market.
Sofa buying, you think, will be simple because it’s so commonplace, like marriage. So you and your naïve optimism go to the sofa store and suddenly think: Geesh! Did everyone go to sofa school but me?
I remember thinking the transaction would go something like this: “Would you like a sofa today?”
And it would be over.
Or maybe, if I thought about it , I might say, “Yes. Tan, please.”
But then the choices started flying like nail heads: how long, how high? Then came all those body-part questions: What kind of arms, legs, back? Do you want sections, nail heads, tufts, piping and pillows? What kind of fill? And, of course, will that be cash, check, charge, or will you be taking out a mortgage?
“Our industry has done a really poor job of educating customers about how to pick a sofa and explaining why sofas cost what they cost,” said Regenia Payne, creative director for Taylor King Furniture, a high-end upholstered furniture maker in Taylorsville, NC.
“Thank you!” I say, “I’m glad someone is willing to take responsibility.”
“Customers often start by picking out the color, but color is one of the last decisions you should make in the process,” says Payne.
“There’s a process?”
She takes me for a mock test drive: “When you walk into a furniture store and see tons of upholstered sofas, what do you do?”
“Sit down and practice my Lamaze breathing.”
Like anything, buying a sofa gets easier when you know what you’re getting into and break the process it into steps, which Payne does here:
- Know your budget. The sticker shock is real, she says. “It’s like buying tires. They all look the same and you wonder why the cost difference is so much.” I totally relate to this comparison.
- Pin down your style. A lot will hinge on whether your interior is casual, rustic, traditional, transitional or modern. Decide on the feel you’re trying to create.
- What’s it for? Will you use the sofa for lounging and watching television, or will it go in a formal space and be used only occasionally? In other words, will the kids and dogs use it to jump on, or will adults sit on it and discuss North Korea?
- Choose your arms. More than almost any other feature, a sofa’s arms declare its style. Choose one that fits your décor (See No. 2). Stuffed rounded (called sock arms) work in laid-back casual interiors, such as cottages or country homes. Structured, rectangular arms work well in transitional or modern spaces. Curved arms lean traditional. Clean-lined wooden arms look Mid-Century.
- Legs bare or covered? Sofas that show some leg are most popular, said Payne. Customers are tending toward more casual and transitional looks, and sofas with legs feel less stuffy. Skirts on sofas, however, are still the best choice for traditional rooms. A sofa’s legs should be in proportion to its arms.
- Back it up. Whether the back of your sofa has cushions or a straight back also depends on use. For crashing and lounging, pillow backs are most comfortable. They’re also the most traditional. Tight-backed sofas look more tailored and formal. Tufted backs are handsome, but are not the best choice for everyday use. When selecting a tufted back, know that the wider apart the tufts, the plusher the padding. Smaller tufting creates a tighter, more rigid the back.
- Now choose color and fabric. Because fabric choice has a big impact on final price, ask to only see fabrics in your price range. A lower-cost, durable, solid neutral on the main sofa, can give you lots of mileage and versatility, and let you spend more on fabric for pillows. If the sofa will get a lot of traffic from kids and dogs, seek tightly woven, family friendly “performance” fabrics. Formal spaces can take something a little less sturdy. Beware of loud patterns. Solid, neutrals are the best investment, says Payne, “which is why they outnumber prints and stripes 10 to 1.”
- Add finishing touches. Nail heads, piping and trim give sofas personality. Nail heads are standard these days, said Payne. Their finish is important: Brass, whether shiny or aged, is traditional. Distressed finishes look rustic (think lodge), and pewter goes in transitional to modern settings. Piping or welting can be in the same fabric (self-welt) or different (contrast welt). Monochromatic looks work well in transitional or modern interiors. Contrasting piping offers a more relaxed, casual look. Higher-end and traditional sofas often have a cord or trim instead of piping. Decorative tapes on pillows or around the base of the sofa is a popular, custom detail.
- Get your fill. Cushions filled with high-density foam offer a firmer sit and hold their shape. Spring-feather down gives you that great sink-down feeling, but needs to be plumped into shape afterward. High-density foam with a feather or down wrap feels good and recovers well.
- Maintain it. To keep your sofa looking good longer flip the cushions often — because who wants to go through this again?
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through marnijameson.com.