Designer 101: How to Choose a Sofa

Designer 101: How to Choose a Sofa

Design expert Kenneth Wingard shares his secrets on choosing the right sofa.

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By: Kenneth Wingard

Buying a sofa is a huge commitment. They are expensive and usually the most prominent piece in the room that will be with you for many years. No wonder people go into shock when trying to make a decision, or, worse yet, just buy the first thing that they stumble upon. To help you through that process here’s a cheat sheet for getting the sofa that’s perfect for you.

Know Your Size
Know what size you need before you start shopping. An easy trick is to place out sheets of newspaper on the floor of the room and move them around to find out how large or small you can go.

If you’ve got a sofa in mind, use masking tape to mark the size on the floor and arrange your other furniture around it. Live with it a few days and see if the size works.

Don’t forget other dimensions as well: height (you don’t want it above the window frame if it’s going in front of a window) and depth (consider how tall the users will be).

Also take note of your doorway widths and hallway clearance — you’d be amazed at the number of sofas that can’t even get into a room. As a rule, the length of a sofa must be smaller than the doorway height or hallway clearance and the diagonal depth or width must be smaller than the doorway width.

Know Your Budget
Sofas can easily cost anywhere from $400 to $4,000. I’d say, in general, you get what you pay for. That’s not to say buy the most expensive sofa you can afford, but keep in mind what you can afford and how long you intend to use the sofa.

If you have young children or pets, you may want a sofa that’s going to last you five years — then plan on redecorating. If not, you may want to spend more and purchase a sofa that you’ll never have to replace.

Know your Style
Take the time to do some research on different styles of sofas and know what is going to fit with your overall style. Also, know that different styles are going to give you different effects in a room.


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  • A high-backed sofa is going to be good for dividing a large living room, and a low-backed sofa will improve sight lines and tie a room together.
  • Rolled arms are going to give a more traditional feel, while tailored arms can be more modern.
  • A sectional will give you a place to lounge and although larger, may replace the need for an extra armchair and be more space efficient.
  • Big loose cushions will be more casual and great for family movie nights.
  • A shallower seat will be more formal while a deeper seat lets people — especially our taller friends — relax a little.

Know your Construction
Ask a lot of questions when you’re shopping. The best sofas will be made of kiln-dried wood with eight-way, hand-tied coils, giving you a sofa frame that will last a lifetime. If you’re paying top dollar, make sure you’re getting what you’re paying for.

If you need something for the next five years, however, you might be fine with a plywood or MDF frame and a sinuous spring system. Ask the sales person the differences and the life expectancy of each.

Know your Cushions
On the high end of the spectrum you have down-filled cushions. Often considered the best, they also tend to look sloppy if not continually fluffed.

On the other end of the spectrum is a foam cushion, which isn’t as soft, but requires no fluffing, but, if not flipped every so often, can start to sag on their own. Often, manufacturers will offer hybrids where you have a foam cushion, wrapped in feather and down, giving you the firmness of foam with added softness.

Another option is a tight-backed or tufted-back sofa with no cushions at all. Less comfy than their cushioned sisters, they look more formal and will often look better for longer since there are no cushions to lose shape.

Know your Fabrics
Technology has vastly improved the fabrics available for sofas today. There are a wide variety of modern fabrics that repel dirt and don’t stain yet look and feel like suede or wool. If you have young children (or messy friends) you may want to look for these magic fabrics.

Patterned or thickly textured fabrics will hide dirt, leather doesn’t collect dog hair and certain fabrics are fade resistant which is important if the sofa is going to be near a window.

A sofa with a slipcover allows you to simply throw it in the wash. Better yet, buy two slipcovers and be able to completely change the look of your room with the seasons.

Hopefully, now that you’re armed with some knowledge and a direction, you can navigate the sea of sofa options and find something that will fit both your style and your budget — whether it’s the granddaddy of all sofas or a little something to put in your first apartment.

Kenneth Wingard attended Princeton University’s School of Architecture and has studied art, sculpture and architecture in Europe, Asia and Africa. It was during these travels he developed an appreciation for the skill of the local craftsmen and began to combine those talents with his own design sense. He’s worked for Williams-Sonoma and was the Divisional Director of Pottery Barn. His products have been spotted at the New York and San Francisco MOMA, LACMA and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Tune in Saturdays at 9/8ct on OWN to see his projects come to life and get to know Kenneth here.

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This is a great article. Thanks for the sofa education and tips!

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