11 September 2010

Late-summer rerun: A chat about sofas

It's the second weekend in September already and I'm going to try something new. It's still summer where I live and in keeping with the summery weather and in a vain attempt to reclaim something resembling my life, I'm going to start running archive posts on weekends for the next couple of week. I just want to see how it goes.

I've been blogging daily for more than two years now and I have the feeling that somehow the sun won't come up if I don't have a blog post written every day. I know that's BS and I need to prove it to myself. So bear with me.

I have some pretty deep archives and a lot of those old posts never see the light of day anymore. The following post ran under the headline "Sofas, Sofas Everywhere and not a Place to Sit" on 20 February 2008. Wa-a-a-a-y back then I didn't have an audience and I didn't know what I was doing so it's just as well that a lot of that old stuff never gets read these days. But some of it wasn't so bad. My buyers' guide to sofas is a post that still has something to say.

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.


  1. I'm at the same place now. Next year, we'll be replacing the dirt-colored sectional we bought 3 years ago when our daughter was an infant. It wasn't particularly expensive or exceptionally-made, but it has served us well.

    Having champagne taste on a wine cooler budget is frustrating. As much as a Patricia Urquiola sofa wold fulfill me every design fantasy, I have to be realistic.

    There is a dearth of options for the mid-range contemporary buyer. You have West Elm on the low end, Crate & Barrel on the medium-low. Room and Board's, Gus', and Blue Dot's offerings are mid-range but boring as all get out. I always find myself wanting to tweak this or that detail.

    I've come to the conclusion that vintage will be the way to go. Personality, individuality, and good construction to boot.

  2. Honestly, you can't go wrong that way. Henredons are built to last forever and they do.

  3. I think you should be able to test drive sofas before you buy them. I bought a leather sectional last year and find myself always pushing the damn things back together. Whenever you lie down on them for more than 20 minutes, the sections creep apart.. annoying... I'll fix them, but had I been able to test drive them longer than the sit down in the showroom, I would have discovered this and not bought a sectional. Oh, well.. live and learn...

  4. Or you could have asked me and I would have told you not to buy a sectional. If you insisted, I'd have told you to look for a sectional built with a locking mechanism too keep them from sliding apart.


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