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The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Sofa

Buying one is a big decision, and not just because it’s pricey. Here’s how to find a keeper that’s incredibly well-made, sink-inand-stay comfortable, and so beautiful, it makes the room.

1. Choose a Style

Trendy silhouettes come and go, but these six classic types—some dating back to the 18th century—are timeless investment pieces.

Midcentury

Signature look: Mad Men–esque: low profile, high back, and squared arms.

Pros: Clean lines, good back support.

Cons: Too low for some people’s comfort.

Watch out for: Overstuffed cushions. “The structured design can make for a firmer sit,” says furniture design consultant Marissa Brown.

DETAILS: Jonathan Adler Topanga fourseater sofa, in Venice Camel Velvet, $5,250, jonathanadler.com.​

Camelback

Signature look: Upright and elegant, thanks to its curves and high arms. Also known as a Chippendale.

Pros: The tight back makes you sit up straight.

Cons: The shallow seat isn’t comfy for tall people—or for snuggling.

Watch out for: Wonky proportions. If the seat is nice and deep, the back can be too high.

DETAILS: Ethan Allen Audrey sofa, 96", in Matic Gray, $3,499, ethanallen.com.

English Roll Arm

Signature look: Also called a Bridgewater, it’s low and louche.

Pros: Soft arms and cushions; tilted at an inviting angle.

Cons: Leaving its embrace can be (physically) challenging.

Watch out for: Cheap assembly. “Low-end makers slap the arms on the outside,” rather than building them into the frame, says Brown.

DETAILS: RH Restoration Hardware English Roll Arm sofa, 108", in Fog Belgian Linen, $3,896, restorationhardware.com.

Tuxedo

Signature look: Boxy but tailored. The back and arms are always the same height, the cushions firm.

Pros: Stylish, sometimes slightly feminine lines; good for small spaces.

Cons: The arms tend to be thin and hard. Single-seat cushions look sleek, but over time they may start to “smile” (lift on the ends and sag in the center). The fix: Buy a sofa with one you can flip, that’s anchored by little hooks on the sides or back.

Watch out for: Awkward arm heights. “If they’re too high, it’s hard to find side tables that work,” says interior designer Steven Gambrel.

DETAILS: Bunny Williams Home Southern Belle sofa, in Solid Linen/Natural, $6,150, bunnywilliamshome.com.

Chesterfield

Signature look: At home in a library, with its leather-bound kin. Often tufted, with rolled arms the same height as the back, and a tight back and seats.

Pros: Formal yet remarkably cozy.

Cons: BYO pillow for napping.

Watch out for: Appropriate upholstery. “These look best in stiff materials like leather, heavy linen, or velvet,” Gambrel says.

DETAILS: George Smith Channeled sofa, $14,680, georgesmith.com.

Lawson

Signature look: Loose cushions; the back ones form a T shape over rolled sock arms.

Pros: Versatile and great for stretching out, with low arms that double as headrests.

Cons: Less statement-making than the others.

Watch out for: Fussy details. “I’d never skirt a Lawson,” Gambrel says. “That looks too traditional.”

DETAILS: Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Smith sofa, 82", in Avignon Pewter, $2,840, mgbwhome.com.

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Architecture and dècor don’t need to match. In a modern, slick setting, I’d push in the opposite direction and choose, say, something tufted to warm up the space.
Steven Gambrel

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2. Measure Your Space

Most sofas come in a few standard lengths. An eight-foot one is optimal for catnapping and conversation, says Gambrel; any shorter than six feet, and you might be better off with two club chairs and an ottoman. Use painters’ tape to map out the right spot, and factor in door frames, walkways, and other clearances to be sure you can get it in there. If you have narrow doors or stairs, shop for models with removable legs.

3. Pick a Material

The right one suits your routine, pets, kids, and wine preference. Remember these details when you’re lost in a sea of swatches.

  • Velvet
    Velvet

    Plush, bold, and opulent. Mostly-cotton varieties are ideal all year in formal rooms. Polyester or poly-blend ones fend off stains and wear well; they’re also pet-friendly.

  • Performance
    Performance

    Gloriously stainresistant—most can be thrown straight in the wash. Perennials and Sunbrella make indoor/outdoor fabrics that look practically like linen.

  • Linen
    Linen

    Pretty and relaxed, and best for casual sofas, like the Lawson. The downside: wrinkles. Heavy weaves are less prone to them: “I use Belgian linen,” Gambrel says.

  • Wool Blend
    Wool Blend

    Beautiful to the touch; highly versatile. A bit of polyester makes wool more durable, but it’s still dry-clean-only. To avoid pilling, try not to vacuum too vigorously.

  • Leather
    Leather

    Spendy but durable; pet hair brushes right off. To get the look with less upkeep, try ultrasuede, says designer Darryl Carter: “It’s stunning—and kidproof.”

  • Velvet
    Velvet

    Plush, bold, and opulent. Mostly-cotton varieties are ideal all year in formal rooms. Polyester or poly-blend ones fend off stains and wear well; they’re also pet-friendly.

  • Performance
    Performance

    Gloriously stainresistant—most can be thrown straight in the wash. Perennials and Sunbrella make indoor/outdoor fabrics that look practically like linen.

  • Wool Blend
    Wool Blend

    Beautiful to the touch; highly versatile. A bit of polyester makes wool more durable, but it’s still dry-clean-only. To avoid pilling, try not to vacuum too vigorously.

  • Linen
    Linen

    Pretty and relaxed, and best for casual sofas, like the Lawson. The downside: wrinkles. Heavy weaves are less prone to them: “I use Belgian linen,” Gambrel says.

  • Leather
    Leather

    Spendy but durable; pet hair brushes right off. To get the look with less upkeep, try ultrasuede, says designer Darryl Carter: “It’s stunning—and kidproof.”

4. Check Out the Construction

  • 1
    Memorize This Term: Kiln-Dried Hardwood

    It means the material (usually oak, maple, or ash) has been stabilized and won’t warp. A highquality frame makes a sofa worth reupholstering or reselling—and keeps it out of a landfill.

  • 2
    Ask About the Joints

    They should be connected by mortise-and-tenon, dowel, or tongue-in-groove construction. If they’re only glued or stapled together (or if the salesperson can’t specify), move on.

  • 3
    Do a Leg Lift

    If they aren’t removable, the legs should be part of the frame, or, second-best, anchored by long bolts or screws.

  • 4
    Study the Springs

    You can’t see them, since they’re covered by batting, so test them by lifting the cushions and pressing down on the seat. They should feel close together and evenly spaced. Then assess the front edge, says Gambrel. Many highquality sofas have a sprung edge—the way some mattresses have a box spring underneath—to help you get back up.

  • 5
    Kick the Tires, So to Speak

    Sit down on one side, near the arm. If you hear a creak or movement, the frame is inferior, Brown says. Then pick up a front corner about five inches and see if the other front leg lifts, too—it should rise to the same level. Finally, rest your elbow on an arm. You want it to feel padded, not hard.

5. Test the Cushions

And by that, we mean go to a store or showroom, sit down, and stay a while. (Brown recommends at least 10 minutes.) While you’re getting acquainted, ask about the filling. Gambrel suggests cushions that are stuffed with high-density foam core wrapped in a feather-and-down blend over ones filled with down alone: “Cushions should return to form when you rise, so you’re not left with a floppy wreck, but not be so stiff that they’re bouncy.” (Top-end cushions used to be feather-and-down, but that was back when servants fluffed them every time someone stood up—not as appealing when you’re the fluffer.)

Then ask how the foam was made. New safety regulations ban the use of harmful flame retardants in polyurethane foam in certain states, and many manufacturers have stopped using them; make sure yours complies. Finally, unzip a cushion to confirm that the filling is encased: “Companies may skimp on the bag,” Brown says. “You don’t want loose feathers.”