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The Perfect Sofa
How to choose a couch that not only is comfortable but will stand up to kids, pets, and years of use. By Kate Parham
When choosing a sofa—such as this Bonn sofa, $3,500 at Theodores—think about how many people you want it to accommodate. Photograph courtesy of Theodores.
Comments () | Published May 10, 2012

You've had a long, hard day at work. When you come home and plop down on the couch, the last thing you want is to meet resistance--or worse, none at all.

Finding a sofa that's comfortable--not too firm, not too squishy--can be a challenge. Not to mention finding one that's not too formal but is nicer than your college-dorm futon, plus not too large but big enough to fit a few people comfortably.

We spoke with local interior-design experts about how to find that perfect sofa.

Judging Quality

While the number of sofa options on the market can seem intimidating, design experts will tell you that there are mainly two kinds of sofas--as interior designer Barbara Hawthorn puts it: "Those that will only last a year or two and those that will last a lifetime."

While some high-quality sofas cost $7,500 or more, you don't have to spend a fortune to get a "lifetime" sofa. Annie O'Connell, showroom manager at Edward Ferrell & Lewis Mittman, a high-end furniture manufacturer in the Washington Design Center, recommends purchasing from a reputable dealer such as Crate & Barrel or Ethan Allen when budget is a consideration: "These stores have many choices below $3,000, and they stand behind the product that they sell. Their sales staff is knowledgeable, and their customer service is stellar."

Or try choosing pieces that "draw inspiration from much higher-end designers or companies, bringing great design within affordable reach," says Louine Wailes, a design associate at Room & Board. "We have several designs that reflect styles from the 1930s to '50s and designers of the period like Edward J. Wormley and work he did at the time for Dunbar Furniture."

Depending on the room and your lifestyle--with, say, a toddler or pet running around--it may be worth it to buy an inexpensive, "temporary" couch. Ditto if you like to move or redecorate frequently. If you're looking for a more permanent fixture, an investment sofa could be a good choice.

"Like cars, many sofas look beautiful on the outside or feel comfortable, but it's really what's under the hood that determines whether a sofa is a good sofa," says O'Connell.

The actual construction is not always visible in finished upholstery, so it helps to know what questions to ask and what to be aware of when shopping.

If you're looking for a sofa to last many years, Hawthorn recommends that you look for a frame made of aged hardwood; best is something kiln-dried, with few knots and a tight grain, such as maple. And ask where a piece was made--Hawthorn says there have been concerns about Asian woods that weren't properly aged or dried or that contained toxic substances. Good sources are the US, Italy, and Great Britain.

The best joints are screwed and glued or nailed, never just glued or stapled. You don't want the frame to "rack," or become loose. "There should be no wiggle to the frame," O'Connell explains, when you try to move the arms or back.

Look for solid suspension, such as eight-way hand-tied rather than sinuous wire. "It's more labor-intensive, therefore more expensive," says O'Connell, "but is generally thought to be the best suspension."

Choosing a Size

Larger sofas are a trend in furniture design, but be careful: A sofa that may seem like a good size in a big showroom can look enormous in an apartment or average-size living room.

On the other hand, if you have a spacious living room, a small sofa could look miniature. The best way to ensure the perfect scale is to measure.

"Make sure to measure the length, height, and depth of the sofa that you are interested in," says interior designer Kelley Proxmire. Then, at home, use painter's tape or newspapers to map out the size on the floor and see how it flows with the room. You can even take it a step further and measure the entire space in order to do a scaled layout, placing different-size sofa templates in different areas.

"Don't forget that the back height and arm height are what give you a sense of the volume in the space," says Hawthorn.

Think about how many people you want the sofa to accommodate, says Ezio Mattiace, president of the furniture retailer Poltrona Frau Washington. That will help you determine whether a love seat, two-seater, three-seater, or sectional is right. In a more casual atmosphere, such as a family or rec room, designers agree that a larger sofa tends to work better. A smaller love seat or settee would be more appropriate for a sitting area in a bedroom.

Though it may seem obvious, says Proxmire, "make sure that the sofa has enough clearance to fit though all gates, doorways, and stairwells so that there are no surprises come delivery day."

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  • Auburn Textiles

    I am a designer of decorative cushions. These are great suggestions!

  • I found these tips really useful. After reading your post, i have decided to buy larger sofa for my home as it is the latest trend. Moreover, I like the color combination used in the picture of sofa that is black and yellow.

  • Thanks for the information. It is really a great help. You gave me the hint.

    Lounges perth

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Posted at 01:00 PM/ET, 05/10/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles