Consider these sofa essentials before your purchase

Awhile back, an attractive and somewhat mysterious young lady with a very pronounced Eastern European accent contracted with me to design and furnish her high-rise condominium. We agreed that our goal would be to make it very glamorous and sort of an ode to the Hollywood of yesteryear. I believe she saw herself as one of the leading ladies of the golden age of cinema such as Joan Crawford or Marlene Dietrich.

All seemed to be going quite well up to the point at which I inquired about other furniture than the bed and sofa that had already been installed. I suggested that a dining table of some kind would be a worthwhile addition.

At that point she turned and looked me straight in the eye, never missing a beat, and declared in her sultry accented voice, “For vat I need vit table, I sit down and I lie down!” That was when I realized that I’d been hired not to design any kind of a pied a terre for her to live in, but rather a place for her to receive gentlemen callers.

What this story illustrates is that no matter what, a home (for whatever purpose it’s to be used), and no matter where in the world it is, will in all likelihood have one thing in common if not much else — and that’s a sofa. So basic is this piece of furniture to any kind of lifestyle, anywhere.

Buying a sofa isn’t rocket science, but there’s still a number of things to consider beforehand so that you know just what kind of seating you’re ordering. These include comfort, durability (or longevity), space requirements and cost.

Whatever style finally appeals to you, be sure that it meets not only your design needs but the needs of your family as well, i.e., something practical and strong for the family room.

In a word, the design of a sofa can be broken down into two major categories: traditional and contemporary. And these two looks can be still further separated into more styles with the use of different types of arms, backs, legs and more. And this is what essentially separates sofa styles in both how they look and how they feel to your body.

Contemporary-style sofas can include a channel back, a sectional, metal trim and other contemporary materials and are always characteristic of clean, straight lines. Traditional designs will feature roll or tuxedo arms, tufted, tight or barrel backs, etc. And both can include seat cushions that are removable (great for cleaning) or attached, whether two or three cushions or a bench style (one long cushion).

But whether traditional or contemporary, few people realize that the style of the sofa is generally set by its arms, which really double as artistic statements as well as rests. And, in fact, some sofa styles are actually known by the names of these arm designs, which, by the way, also go a long way in determining the actual size of the sofa.

For example, the overall dimensions of a sofa can differ greatly from its interior dimensions based on the scale of the arms. A sofa measuring 90 inches wide sounds like a good size that comfortably sits several people.

But, if the arms are overly large, the actual seating space may be no more than 66 inches wide. The tenet being the smaller the arm the more seating space you will actually have on the sofa, which makes good sense and is an important point to bear in mind, especially when dealing with smaller spaces.

Roll arms are usually a traditional look and can vary greatly depending on the sofa and size of the arm. A large or wide roll arm will tend to look more rustic or country in feel and more suitable for larger rooms, while a smaller roll will give a more tailored look. Square or track arms are a more contemporary look and great for small spaces since it can be the most narrow arm style of all.

The tuxedo arm is also very tailored and contemporary with the arms usually the same height as the back of the sofa with the overall shape of the arm and frame very square and straight. The arms of a Lawson style sofa are usually broad, square or even rounded but they are lower in height than the sofa back with the overall look being overstuffed and boxy in shape with a square back and seat cushions.

Perhaps most basic of all to a sofa’s longevity is the actual frame construction, which can greatly affect the cost of a sofa as well as the quality. Look for kiln-dried hardwood such as oak or maple. I’ve often used alder wood in my custom sofa designs.

Also very important is the way in which the frame is joined together, which will certainly add to its durability. Better quality sofas are screwed together and use mortise and tenon joints, whereas lesser quality ones are often stapled and not properly braced together at the edges. Ideally, better sofas also are eight-way hand-tied construction to ensure a long and trouble-free life.

As for the sofa fill itself, this is what actually determines just how soft or firm your cushions will be. All down features is the softest but not always the best for those who require more of a firm seat, and down will tend to sag after prolonged use.

Polyurethane foam is a synthetic material that will give you a much more durable and firmer seat than using all down feathers but, of course, may not be as comfortable as all down. A combination fill of synthetic material and down will be the winning ticket for achieving a soft comfort as well as greater longevity.

Finally, while style is no doubt a major consideration and what first catches our eye, it’s absolutely essential to think about comfort too which depends to a large extent not only on the sofa fill but also the seat depth and pitch of the back cushions as well. Don’t ever buy a sofa from a picture on the internet or a catalog, but take the time to give it a “test run” before purchasing this most basic addition to your home’s decor.

Stephen Leon is a licensed interior designer, certified professional in green residential design and president of Soleil Design ( He is past president of the Central California/Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. Questions can be sent to

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