Finding the Perfect Sofa
My advice is to always buy the best that you can possibly afford – and even to try to spend a little more
Interior designer Amanda Hanley reveals expert tips and tricks for your home-decor projects. Here’s her insider guide to sofas and upholstery.
Are you sitting comfortably? This is how all good stories should begin – and it’s no different in your home. A great sofa combines comfort, style and quality, and as it’s often the largest piece of furniture in a room – one you’ll want to spend plenty of time enjoying – it’s worth getting right. Here’s how…
Choosing a new sofa
There’s a dazzling array of beautiful fabrics and tempting shapes out there, but before you start browsing and ordering swatches, consider first the space available; the ‘flow’ in your house; and how a new piece will sit with your existing flooring and against other pieces in the room.
More and more clients are going for a bespoke solution, with furniture tailor-made for the space available in a style they love. It’s not just made to measure: it’s built to last, and in terms of comfort, the difference is considerable. Let’s face it, in this country, you’ll be spending far more time on your sofa than on your garden chairs…
What about reupholstery?
Reviving a pre-loved sofa or chair can be a good idea in some cases. If you have some furniture with sentimental value – perhaps inherited or from your own childhood – then, yes, it can become the heart of the room and is well worth saving.
However, if it’s more than 15 years old, and it’s not an antique or heirloom you can’t bear to part with, buy new, as it would need to be stripped down to the frame – the work involved is often just not cost effective.
Fabrics and finishes
Be realistic: the sofa is the most high-traffic piece of furniture in most homes, so the fabric should be hard-wearing and technical matters such as the ‘rub factor’ need to be taken into account. Again, insider expertise can be vital here: knowledge of what’s behind a manufacturer’s claims, or how different fabrics respond over time, can only be gained with years of experience.
Hardwood frames are the most durable and will help your sofa to keep its shape and character; pick light or dark wood details that will co-ordinate with your other furniture. Favourite choices for bespoke items are beech and ash – ideal for hand-jointed, solidly built furniture. My team of craftsman handbuilds every chair and sofa: artisan furniture like this will last for generations.
It’s tempting to buy into the latest looks, but always think longevity and practicality. In cottage-style or high-ceilinged Georgian rooms, the ‘cool country’ look is a great way to introduce chic modern furniture that stays looking fresh for many years. If you want to play it safe, seek out fabrics with neutral tones running through them – beiges, taupes and greys are best.
Turn up the style dial with rich textures like hard-wearing herringbone tweed or sumptuous velvet (Colefax and Fowler is a good source of both), and dress sofas with throws and scatter cushions to add personality. Vibrant colours can make a statement: GP & J Baker, Mulberry and Manuel Canovas are masters at giving traditional patterns a contemporary spin with eyecatching hues and on-trend detail.
Like everything else in this era of endless choice, there seem to be infinite options when it comes to choosing a sofa. You might think you know exactly what you want, but once you walk into a shop or browse images online, the styles, shapes, and customization alternatives can become overwhelming. Save yourself the time, money, and potential buyer's remorse and use these tips to get a clear idea of what you want (and what you need!) before you start the hunt.
Consider size first. If you have a bigger living room, you'll need to decide exactly how much of the living room you want your couch to fill. Do you want to include other couches or chairs? Do you want a coffee table? If so, a simple sofa, or one with a slight L-shape is probably the best fit. If you're looking for a sofa that will be the focal point of your living room, look for rounder couch shapes that take up a bit more room and provide a lot of seating.
If you have a small living room, odds are you'll need a smaller couch. With less space, any couch or sofa is going to be in the spotlight, so it's important to pick something that is practical, but is also of a strong design that carries and complements the rest of the space.
Decide exactly how the sofa will be oriented. Successfully organizing a living space starts with analyzing your lifestyle. What do you do the most in that space? Do you like to wind down in front of the TV? Make sure your couch faces that direction. Love hosting game or wine nights? Create a semi-circle (or even full circle) around a central table.
Does your family use the living room to lounge, relax and read? Surround your sofa with chairs and cushions to create multiple seating areas that can be enjoyed individually, or as a large group.
Determine which shape will suit the room best. Now that you've decided your sofa's function, it's time to figure out which shape will help it fulfil that purpose. A clean L-shape is great for open areas that need to be divided — such as separating the living room from the dining room.
“L” shapes are a bit more conducive for a smaller space meant to serve as a gathering area for groups of people, but could also be perfect for a media room.
If you want to implement more chairs and tables in your living room, a chaise or a daybed could be a good alternative to a traditional couch. It still provides seating for several people, but is compact and can work as a more sophisticated version of the futon.
Research upholstery materials. Amanda Hanley has many samples. Which will be best for you? Aesthetic is important, but functionality is key when it comes to choosing a material for your sofa.
Choose a style that complements your home. It can be a little hard to nail down your own personal style, but go with your gut instinct when picking the type of couch that will fit naturally in your home. If your style is sleek and modern, pick something that reflects that in clean lines and dramatic colours.
If your home is an eclectic mix of colours and designs, a couch that combines several styles (such as a vintage couch re-upholstered in a colourful fabric, or a more modern shape with traditional accents) could be the perfect expression of your taste.
Don't be afraid to choose a couch with a fun or unique print! It can add a surprisingly personal touch and quickly transform the feel of the entire room.
If you're too nervous to experiment with bolder colours and patterns in your sofa, you can always opt for a funky ottoman that can double as a coffee table. It'll add a more subtle sense of diversity to your living room, while complementing more classic couches and chairs.
Sofas design ideas
There are few things worse than an uncomfortable sofa – that rude shock of being repelled by the very cushions you were hoping to sink back into. I believe that a sofa is one of the greatest furniture commitments you make; even cheap sofas cost a lot of money and they are hard to get rid of, so it’s worth getting it right the first time.
A sofa will ideally be with you for a long time and a good one should serve a few more generations – an inherited sofa can even improve with age. My advice is to always buy the best that you can possibly afford – and even to try to spend a little more. Whenever I manage to persuade any of my clients to buy good (expensive) sofas, they might have baulked, moaned and cried at the cost, but you can be sure it is the one that has everyone fighting to sit on it.
Some of the best sofas are expensive, but they have a good secondary market.
Cushions filled with 100% down are considered the most luxurious, although it is more common to be offered 60/40 feather and down. Down cushions need plumping up a lot, so they are not ideal for those keen on neat-looking sofas and low on domestic staff. When you are buying a cheapish sofa, a good trick for comfort is to go for an upholstered back and add your own cushions so you can control the quality.
I’d recommend asking for seat cushions with 60% filling, as they tend to be stuffed to the brim. I prefer cushions to be about 60% full as I find over-stuffed ones uncomfortable.
Good sofas improve with age as the cushions get sat on more and more, and they soften. When you get an old one reupholstered, be careful who you get to do it and what you ask for, as something that is soft and cosy can come back with very tight springs and over-stuffed cushions, feeling quite different from when it left.
A language tip: ‘to reupholster’ means that you want it taken back to the frame and almost remade – not what you want if you are happy with the way your sofa feels; while to ‘re-cover’ a sofa is to change the fabric, and that is often all you need.
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