20 February 2008

Sofas, sofas everywhere but not a place to sit.

I have been on a quest for the right sofa for my living room for the last couple of years, and I'm proving myself to be my own worst client. I can't pick furnishings for myself to save my life. In the course of all of that back and forth I've learned a lot about sofas and even though it hasn't helped me decide between a Mitchell Gold and a Barbara Barry it helps me find better stuff for my clients. So if it's sofa time for you, pay close heed to some tips about what makes a good sofa good in the first place and why good sofas are so bloody expensive.

A sofa starts with a frame. In better furniture, that frame is made from kiln-dried hardwood. These hardwoods are kiln-dried to remove any residual moisture and to prevent later warping or cracking. In less-expensive furniture, that hardwood frame is replaced with furniture-grade plywood. A hardwood or furniture-grade plywood frame is the first thing to look at if this is a piece of furniture that will get a lot of use and that you expect to hold onto for a long time. A good sofa is screwed and glued at its joints and its corners are reinforced with blocks. These are things you cannot see, so ask your salesperson about a sofa's frame construction and you should hear something like what I just wrote. If he stares at you blankly, leave the store immediately and go somewhere else.

If you're looking for something that won't get used a lot, or that you expect to get rid of in a couple of years; a frame made of particle board is for you. The particle board frame won't keep its shape over time and its joints will eventually break. The $7,000 Henredon sofa and the $900 knock off of it at Ikea may look similar on the outside, but it's the insides that count here.

If you spend any time in furniture showrooms, you hear the term "hand tied" bandied about but no one really gets into what it means. What the term refers to is the sofa's suspension system. The suspension is the second element that separates better furniture from cheaper furniture. "Hand Tied" is shorthand for eight-way hand-tied steel-coil system --called this because each steel coil is attached at eight different points to other coils and then the whole system is attached to the frame. This allows for the coils to operate independently, but not too much. The result is called the sofa's "ride," or how it feels when you sit on it. The hand tied method of using coils is regarded by the industry as the best marker of quality and you can be sure that the $7,000 Henredon has hand-tied coils. Down from that is a drop-in coil system where the individual coils are clipped to one another and then clipped to the frame. This system won't last as long and will give a more uneven ride. Finally, our $900 example will likely have what's known as sinuous construction and it will be the shortest-lived of the three methods here. Sinuous, or zig zag, construction uses S-shaped steel wires that run from side to side of the frame. Sinuous suspensions are stiffer and are omnipresent to the point that most people expect a sofa to feel the way it does with one of these suspension systems.

But more than the other two categories, the largest driver of a sofa's price is the fabric it's upholstered in. There is a staggering range of fabric qualities out there. And as is the case with a lot of things, if you don't know what quality is, don't learn or you'll spend fortunes chasing it. An upholstery fabric should be attractive, obviously; but it needs to be resilient and easy to clean as well. The tag on a sofa will tell you how it can be spot cleaned through a series of codes. Guard your sanity and avoid anything labeled "Brush Clean" only.

Always ask how long the lead time is for the delivery if it's a custom piece. Typical turn arounds range anywhere from one month to nine months. Know going in that the minute you customize a piece of furniture is the same minute that it stops being returnable. Think about this for a while and look at the fabric swatch in your own home before you buy anything. Do your homework, pick something and get on with it. That sounds like good advice for me too.

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