What to Know Before Buying a Sofa

Sofas! Everybody needs ’em. Usually, you don’t buy them frequently, every 5-10 years or so. Sometimes, more years go by if you’re lucky. Unless, you’re me, of course. I buy a sofa at least once a month, sometimes I buy more like 4 in a month! Because I’m an interior designer, I am always hunting for sofas for my clients. I’m constantly keeping an eye out for new places to buy sofas and I’ve found quite a few great stores. So today, I’m going to show you my secret stash of sofas, as well as tips on what to check before you buy, just in case you’re in the market! People are constantly telling me they need to sit on a sofa before they buy it. But, really, you don’t! You just need to know what you like in a sofa and what to look for to get that comfort. And I’m about to dish, ya’ll!

Even if you read this now and buy a new sofa in a couple years, you can always search the blog for this post as a refresher course! Or better yet, head to the contact page and reach out to me for design services. Yep, I’m open for any consultation work you might need and am happy to discuss my fee structure. But first, some tips on buying a sofa!

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Sofa Sizing

If you’re in an apartment, one of the biggest mistakes people make is buying a sofa that’s way too small! When you have a small apartment, you really don’t want all your furniture to be mini too. It just makes it non-functional. Trust me. I design model apartments in large, luxury multi-family housing buildings monthly. You want a nice big sofa or even a sofa with a chaise that can help create a nice comfy zone. If your space is larger, add a lounge chair or two.

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Measure your space and get the biggest sofa you can, while still leaving at least 24″ on either side for accent tables. Yes, you need them on both sides; no, you shouldn’t shove your sofa up to the wall or, even worse, into a corner. Pull it out, let it breathe a little!

The average size for sofas is 84″ long by about 34″ deep and 32″ high. Anything less than 72″ long is really a loveseat, so don’t get mislead by it’s label! I’d say, 6 times out of 10, 84″ is a good fit for your space, but the other 4 times, go bigger! 96″ is still a very standard length. Anything under 100″ is an average sofa length. If you go over 100, it’s usually because you have an awesomely giant space to fill! Or you’re a professional athlete.

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Lead Time

The second thing about buying a sofa you need to know, is that it takes a good long time for a sofa to arrive. Even if you go to the store and look at sofas (unless you’re willing to buy the floor model which is only sometimes possible!) you’re likely to wait eight weeks on average for your sofa to arrive in your home. That’s right, eight weeks, not days, not minutes, not hours, weeks. And that’s on average. Sometimes it can take up to 16 weeks. So if you are getting an apartment, ask to measure for a sofa when or before you sign the lease, don’t wait until you’re in the space unless you have back-up places to sit! Of course, there are definitely some quick-ship options out there, but you often have to compromise on the design to go with one of them. So, when you can, plan ahead!

Components and Styles

There are so many sofa styles out there, how do you possibly choose the right one for your space amongst so many choices?! Well first narrow down your style. Are you traditional? Love a mid-century leg? Want something more subtle and transitional? The kinda gal that likes to make a bold statement? Answering that will help narrow it down from the huge number of styles out there. Then once you have that, what’s the purpose of your sofa? Do you want something lounge and comfortable for curling up your feet to watch TV? Or is this a sofa in a more formal living room, mainly used for sitting upright and chatting with friends.

Tufting

Tufting is something that looks so amazing and adds so much character to your sofa. A tufted, tight back sofa is never going to have the type of loungey feel an unattached cushion does though. Tufting inherantly creates tightness and a firmer feel. If you love a tufted look, but want a more plush feel, consider a tufted cushion rather than a tufted back since this will have more give.

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Sofa Back (Cushions)

Unattached cushions are one of the first areas that a sofa tends to fail as it reaches the end of its life span. The unattached cushions have no support from the internal framework of a sofa and take a huge beating. A tightback sofa, while firmer, tends to have a longer lifespan since the cushions and foam are attached to the frame of the sofa itself. Tight back sofa are also an awesome option for those of us who have pets who like to curl up on the back of the sofa. A loose cushion is damaged by this and will eventually begin to dip down in your pet’s favorite sleeping spot. A tight back sofa remains a lot less effected by this misuse. A semi-attached cushion will toe the middle line between the two, so that’s a good option if you don’t like the look or firmness of a tight back sofa.

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Seat Cushions and Depth

Seat depth is the measurement of a sofa from the edge of the seat to where the seat meets the back of the sofa. The average seat depth of a sofa is about 22″. If you prefer a deep sofa for lounging on and cuddling up next to someone, consider a sofa with a deeper seat. For more upright sofas, you can go with a narrower seat depth. Remember to look at the seat depth, not the overall depth of a sofa as things like slanted backs and rolled backs can be misleading on overall depth.

Seat cushions also fail on a sofa, the softer the cushion, the more likely it is to sooner fail! One of the popular looks right now is a loose bench seat cushion which is a long unattached seat cushion that stretches the entire length of the sofa. Within a few months of purchasing a sofa in this style, you’re going to see the seat cushion start to dip in the center since the foam can not support this kind of length. If you still love this look, consider a tight seat cushion, which while firmer, is supported by the internal sofa frame and will hold up far longer over time.

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Whichever option you choose and important thing to note is maintenance of cushions. You should be flipping any loose cushions weekly to maintain their shape. Yes, that is frequent, do it anyway! This prevents your cushions from wearing unevenly and prevents the favorite seat in the house from looking worn out far before any of the rest of the cushions. If it’s possible to flip your left and right or middle cushions amongst themselves, please do so. Cushions tend to start out at their firmest and get more cushy overtime. Which means if your sofa is feeling just a tad too firm at the start, it’s probably supposed to. Over time cushions will tend to dip in the center. This is normal as the foam breaks down. Rotating and flipping your cushions extends their lifespan.

Arms

Please don’t buy an American Roll Arm sofa. They are those sofas with the HUGE rounded arms with flat fronts that take up a ton of space. They are just not stylistically or practically functional. Turn away! Luckily, there are so many arm options out there and you definitely have tons of room to play. Before going with your preferred arm style, think about your space. Do you have lots of extra room and the circulation needed to go with a bolder thicker arm? Is space a consideration and number of seats a priority? Consider a thinner arm.

Chesterfield style sofas are some of my absolute favorite pieces of furniture out there (the red leather one above is a chesterfield!). They are stunningly gorgeous in leather and in velvets and add so much instant character and interest to a piece. They also have HUGE rolled and tufted arms that take up a ton of space. I would not recommend them in any room where space is a consideration. But if you have the room, they’re gorgeous!

There are lots of options out there with nice skinny arms that are as luxurious looking as a chesterfield and a bit more practical in tighter spaces. Take the English Roll Arm (below) for example, this low, tight arm style is still a traditional look, but allows for plenty of room on the sofa for sitting and room beside the sofa for a side table.

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Sit Test

The third thing about buying a sofa you need to know is how it’s going to feel. People think they need to sit on a sofa before they buy it. You don’t. You just need to know what things to look for and at to get the comfort level you’re looking for. Remember what you learned above about tufting and seat depth. Those are important considerations. Now let’s talk cushion fills. A foam, memory foam, or dacron wrapped foam are going to be your most firm sofa cushion options. A down fill will be your softest most cushy, sink back and watch a movie option. It’s also high maintenance, as to provide the cushy feel, it has minimal support within it and thus needs frequently floofing to maintain its shape. A great inbetweener is the down wrapped cushion, which has a nice give that lets you sink into the sofa while still maintaining the support of a foam cushion that springs back into place when you stand up.

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Fabrics and Finishes

Oh fabrics – a million options – or do you want leather? Leather is going to be a cool material to the touch, it tends to be a bit firmer and often is applied to tufted options. Leather is cozy in many ways, but also can be cold in winter months. Consider the summer too, as sweaty thighs on leather cushions are not ideal in un-air-conditioned spaces. Leather is also a bit slippery, so if you’re looking for a curl your feet up on the sofa setting, make sure your sofa is quite deep as the slidey leather may make it feel less so.

Fabrics vary in so many ways. Color is a whole post in and of itself, so I’m not going to get into that here. I will touch on types, content, and durability instead. Doublerubs are how fabric durability is measured. A fabric with a higher doublerub is more durable. Fabrics are usually measured by the thousand doublerubs and the definition is quite literal. Testing is done to measure doublerubs by literally having a machine rub over the fabric over and over, when the fabric begins to wear and fray, that’s when the doublerub content is measured. Generally for residential, you want a fabric that is at least 30,000 doublerubs. 50,000 is considered a good threshold for commercial settings. Anything lower is usually fine only for pillows or infrequently used settings. Or for those wealthy enough to be okay re-upholstering their furnishings on a frequent basis!

Another thing to consider is fabric content. Polyester, Acrylic, and Wool fabrics tend to be the easiest to clean. Cotton and linen are possible to clean, but tend to be more difficult. Fabrics that are single solid colors are the most likely to show any dirt, so your first choice should always be to find a fabric that is woven from a variety of different colors. Dark fabrics will obviously hide more than light fabrics. Solid fabrics will still always show more than a multi-colored fabric though. By multi-colored, I don’t mean bold patterned either, just simply a fabric that has a variety of colors in it. From a distance, it will probably still look like a solid tone, but up close you can see the variety of tones within the weave.

If you have pets or children or wear jeans with stubby pocket metal pieces, consider the snag factor. Fabrics like velvets and, their more expensive cousin, mohairs will not snag as the fabric sticks up from the back and out, fabrics that are woven, like linens, will get snagged more easily. If your cats like to scratch, look for non-woven or very tightly fabrics. My cats don’t touch the velvet chairs in my house, but are very fond of scratching the teal woven linen fabric on a wingback chair.

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Where to Buy a Sofa

My favorite sofa resources are places that are affordable, great looking, and work in nearly every home. First, there’s Article. I love this online store for it’s endlessly stylish options and amazing pricepoint. I have a special place in my heart for the Leather Alcott sofa which toes the line between mid-century and traditional so perfectly. It comes in three leather colors. I love the Oxblood below, but the Black leather looks equally fantastic. It’s what Chris Loves Julia has in their front reading room as well. I’ve used their pieces in a number of living rooms with lots of success!

Another favorite source of mine is Joybird which specializes in so many mid-century gems, but also throws in a delightful sprinkle of other styles. The vertical channeling on their Chelsea sofa makes my heart sing! And those brass ferrules at the bottom of the leg? Yes please. It comes in a whole slew of fabric options (as do most of Joybird’s selections) so you can really make this sofa fit into your home and style. This is a high quality manufacturer that I’ve even installed in commercial settings.

A lesser know, but equally awesome place to find a sofa is Interior Define. I love them for their customizing abilities. They let you switch up the lengths by the inch on some sofas and nearly every sofa comes in several size options! Perfect for those tighter spaces that just need an exact fit. I adore their Rose by the Everygirl sofa which has the most perfect English vibe (and English roll arms!). I just want to host high tea looking at this piece! I love that Interior Define has such a range of styles too, you can get a very modern look on their site or go more traditional like this sofa. I installed one of their sofas in a freelance project in Oakland for a lovely young family and it’s still holding up well a few years down the line.

The well known West Elm is a favorite place of mine to check out as well. They have good quality for their price point and their range of styles is far better than so many of their competitors and sister companies. They can nail the mid-century look, go contemporary, or hit a slightly more transitional look. Since their stores are scattered all across the USA this is a good pick for those who insist on sitting on their sofas before buying. The Gold Hive has this Rochester Sleeper Sofa in her den and I am seriously considering it for Berrybrier. I love a sleeper sofa for creating a space to squeeze in guests when you don’t have an extra bedroom. The fact that this has a tight back is a huge sell for me since, particularly on a sleeper, this should extend the longevity of the piece. Plus the fact that it has a wooden plinth base means that nothing can get stuck under the sofa and my cat Auggie can’t hide beneath it and then attack my legs!

CB2 is another bigger box store that has lots of affordable options for sofa. They tend to be the more modern, young store compared with their sister, Crate and Barrel and often have some really fun options. Take a look at their new Curvo sofa, a true stunner that would make an amazing statement in any space. I love the blush color, but it also comes in grey. A sofa with this much style works best in a living room where the circulation goes around the sofa so you can check it out from all sides. Shoved against a wall, doesn’t do this sofa any justice.

Wayfair is another great source to find that special sofa. You tend to get what you pay for on this site, so although you can go really cheap, know what you’re paying for. They tend to have mostly what-you-see-is-what-you-get furniture items. Young House Love just launched their furniture line on the site though and since they’re one of my favorite blogs, I immediately kept a close eye on many of their pieces. Their Pivot Sofa makes me giddy for it’s clean, transitional lines and I can’t help but laugh a the name which is a reference to a Friends episode that I can’t help but quote every time I’m moving a piece of furniture around a corner.

Finally, some of the best places to check out are your local stores! Fenton MacLaren in Berkeley sells Rowe which is an awesome CA based upholstery line as well as a number of Amish made furniture lines that allow a lot of customizability. Highly recommend them if you’re looking for pieces in the Bay Area. In Portland, companies like City Home carry lines like Jonathan Louis Furniture which has really well priced upholstery goods as well as vintage furniture. Kuhnhausen’s (also in Portland) carries a local Oregon upholstery manufacturer name Biltwell as well as Rowe Furniture.

So, are you ready to pick out a sofa now that you have these tools? Are you confident enough to buy online now that you know what you’re looking at or do you still think you need to sit on the sofa to try it out first? What’s your favorite piece from the sofas I pulled above? Do you think I should splurge on the West Elm Rochester Sleeper Sofa? Imagine it in a dark green velvet…

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