Sofa selection requires many decisions

"Style is a magic wand, and turns everything to gold that it touches." Logan Pearsall Smith (1865-1946), American essayist, Afterthoughts (1931)

Q: Can you offer advice on selecting a sofa? There are so many different styles that it is totally confusing. I'm looking for something for my living room; I want something not too formal, but comfortable. I get confused about whether to go for one with pillows in the back or ones that have no loose pillows. There are so many different arms and legs. How do you decide?

A: Thanks for the question, and thanks for not calling it a couch! Sorry, that's just my personal thing.

There are many considerations when buying a sofa. In addition to the different backs, arms and style, there are selections of seat cushions, legs or no legs, shape of the back, and the size. This doesn't even begin to take into consideration the construction. Who knew there were so many decisions to make?

Let's see if we can clear up some of the confusion.

First select the back. Sofas generally come with two types of backs: tight back, which means there are no loose cushions; and pillow back, which has removable cushions along the back.

With the pillow back type of sofa, you must use the pillows because if you remove them, the back is just a hard upholstered frame which would not be comfortable without the cushions. Also, with the cushions, you have to consider how to keep them in place. When someone sits down, they will invariably get displaced. So cushions or no cushions, pillow backs are generally considered more comfortable, but they can be worrisome.

Next is size, and while there are many choices, this is largely dependent on the size of your space. While the sofa is usually the largest piece in your room, you still need to account for your other needs. A sofa that's too large for the room will make it look smaller than it is and make the room too crowded.

There are also choices in seat cushions. This is key to comfort and style. While down is an expensive and coveted material for cushions, they are truly painful to keep neat. They must be fluffed after every sitting. Tight seats without loose cushions offer the lowest maintenance. Foam cushions work fine, but that also means you will have two or three cracks, and let's face it, nobody wants to sit on the crack!

Also if it's a tight seat, you can pile as many people as will fit onto the sofa. Cushioned ones usually dictate how many folks will sit. On a two-cushion sofa, only two people will sit; three cushions seat three people.

Seat construction also is important. The more expensive sofas have eight-way hand-tied springs while cheaper ones will have the foam cushions or plain springs inside.

Legs or no legs on a sofa is usually determined by style. More contemporary sofas tend to have legs, although the classic camelback settee has legs. So much for rules. However, sofas without legs are more traditional and transitional. Some traditional sofas "sit" directly on the floor and some have bun feet, which are normally upholstered in the same fabric.

Sofas may also have skirts to cover wooded legs. These are traditionally styled also.

Arm style also is attached to an overall style. Large rolled arms are found on traditional, overstuffed sofas. Armless and the Parsons or straight arm are found in more contemporary sofas. Along the traditional line, you also may find trim or cording on the arms, while the contemporary arm has no decoration.

While the look, fabric and size of the sofa are key, construction is paramount. Prices for sofas range from a few hundred dollars to thousands. This is usually determined by the construction and fabric. Less expensive sofa frames are made from soft wood and glued, with some bracing. More expensive, longer lasting frames are made from kiln-dried hardwoods and securely screwed together.

After all of these considerations, you still have to decide on fabric and color. It's a wonder any of us have sofas if it's this much work. But, as with most other things, do your homework, shop around, sit in as many sofas as you can, and the decision will be made for you.

Carolyn Muse Grant is president of the Architectural & Decorative Arts Society, as well as an interior design consultant and stylist specializing in home staging. Her Inside Spaces column appears weekly in the Home section of the Review-Journal. Send questions to