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Sofa Shopping 101

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To be a well-rounded and savvy shopping diva, one must eventually venture into the world of upholstery. You take all precautions when out shopping for those really serious purchases—digital cameras, computers, and even the latest make of your favorite cars. You gather the much needed, in depth data, from all resources, as any good consumer would or should. Then, you always inquire from all respected friends about their recommendations on brands, product designs, functions, features, and cost. You even skim over the consumer reports on specific top models.

So why is it that when it comes to purchasing a sofa, all sensibility goes right out the window? This being one of the largest, most expensive purchases for the home—and one that you’ll more than likely have for over five to ten years—should not be treated as an impulse buy.

The most common mistake people make when buying a sofa is their lack of preparation. There are many things to consider before purchasing—what is more than likely—the largest piece of furnishing in your home. I tell all my clients to start the sofa buying process by doing a little research. Doing your homework first will alleviate a lot of grief down the road.

I recommend starting a notebook of clippings from design magazines. Once you have a sense of what you like, draw up a quick floor plan of the room, and take measurements of all openings, and wall space. Map out the room: place the sofa and all other furniture pieces to scale in the floor plan. If you need help with this, there is a plethora of helpful online tools: Better Homes and Gardens’ Arrange-a Room or Raymour & Flanigan Furniture’s Room Planner.

Once you have the basics, a color palate needs to be created. Gather paint samples, fabric swatches of all upholstered furnishings, carpet, and wood samples, including drapery. Create a color board of all textiles to be used. Design the room as to how you want it to feel, rather than how it is currently. Like any good girl scout, be prepared to make that big purchase.

What should you look for when searching for upholstered pieces? You should always consider the inner construction. Ask the salesperson if the frame is kiln-dried. This is a process where the manufacturers take the wood and remove the majority of the moisture content in large kilns, to ensure little to no warping for lifespan of the piece. “There is no substitute for a top-notch frame if you plan to really live with your upholstered furniture,” says Susan Regan, executive director of the Hardwood Information Center.

The next thing is to find out how the joints are adjoined. Are they corner screwed, glued and doweled, or is it just stapled and glued? This is a very important construction feature. Stapled and glued is a cheap building method, and will cause the piece to potentially fall apart easily due to the lack of secure joinery. Even though you don’t visibly see these beneficial features, you’ll want to make sure they exist beneath the upholstery. The more workmanship that goes into the structural integrity the more the price will raise. You get what you pay for!

Upholstery has many different support systems in the seat areas. They can have webbing, sinuous wires, or a coil system. Many manufactures are steering away from the traditional eight-way hand tie system. It takes a great deal of labor and time to do this process. This process is when one coil is taken and tied in eight different directions to the adjacent coils, ensuring the coil remains in position, and refrains from any shifting. This is a sign of great quality workmanship. Due to advancements in technology, such extensive work isn’t needed anymore. You’ll find that even the higher end manufactures don’t do this as much, while many are staying true to such design features.

Next, discuss in detail with your sales associate, the level of cushioning. Sample the sofa by sitting on it the way you would if it was currently in your space. Don’t be shy about lying down on it if this is what you do on your sofa now. A lot of sofas come with down fill, or a down wrap around the cushions. Down has a softer feel and adds a deep level of cushioning. You will sometimes sink deeper into a down filled sofa, as it likes to wrap you into its embrace. A firmer cushion might actually have coils, and firmer high-density foam to give it a tighter and firmer seat. The firmer cushion is great for those who have a difficult time getting from the sitting position to the standing position.

Many sofas offer one long bench cushion, two cushions or three cushions across. When deciding what will work for you, determine how many people—in all actuality—would be seated at the same time on the sofa. No one likes the crack; so if three people would be seated on the sofa comfortably, consider a three-cushion sofa or a bench cushion (one cushion). If it’s a bench cushion, be sure to look for the under seat hooks that hold the cushion in place and down. Bench cushion are notorious for bowing and lifting on one end while seated on the far opposite end. These hook/clasps are signs of attention to detail and something to look for.

The back cushion options are numerous. There is a “multiple cushion” back system that has a bunch of loose pillows that line the back cushioning for the sofa. Then there’s the “tight back”, where the cushioned back is sewn and pulled tightly up the back of the seated area. The “semi-attached” looks like cushions that are not attached, but are sewn on. This is done to ensure proper placement of the cushion at all times. Last but least, the “standard boxed cushion” backs, is where the cushions are loose and not sewn onto the back of the sofa.

The bottom of the sofa is the last design feature to consider. Do you like a skirt or legs? There are a number of different styles of skirts. If a sofa has a skirt, always inquire if there’s a possibility to have a leg option instead, if so desired. Most sofa manufactures give you options such as this, as long as it does not compromise the design. Remember form follows function always.

Photo: Mateusz Atroszko


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